Bert and Dickie: Matt Smith stars in the story of 1948 British Olympians

by Matt D

Apologies if you’re already fed up with all the sports-related TV this week, and if you are, I think it’s best you steer clear of Friday’s Opening Ceremony, but the BBC have put out another programme themed around our Olympians which this time is a drama focusing on two champion rowers who won gold medals last time Great Britain hosted the games. Bert Bushnell and Dickie Burnell achieved two of the three gold medals that we won at the 1948 games, both in the double sculls event, but as the drama tells us, it was’m’t all smooth sailing for this partnership.

Matt Smith plays Bert, a working class sort whose father pushes him to achieve his rowing dreams while his mother spends most of the time gazing off into the distance listening to classical music. Bert lives in a small family home, works in a job that he doesn’t much care for, and seems to survive on rations of liver and tripe sandwiches made for him by his comely Scottish girlfriend, whom is father sees as a distraction.

Richard Barnell, christened Dickie by Bert, is an Eton-educated upper class scholar who was a member of the Bullingdon Club at Oxford who now works for the home office, as well as writing a weekly rowing column for The Times. The two are paired together by former gold medallist Jack Beresford, as he believes they are the best combination to win the day for Great Britain, however former single scull rower Bert is less than pleased with having to share his boat with someone who he feels has had everything handed to him.

As we see the class divide between Bert and Dickie from almost the very start of their training together, when the former is asked to change round the back as he isn’t a member of the rowing club, there isn’t nearly as much resentment between the pair as I would’ve thought. Though each has a bit of a go at the other, as Bert feels Dickie was born with a silver spoon in his mouth while Dickie thinks Bert lacks skill, they do respect one another eventually bonding over rebuilding the boat. The main connection between the pair though is that they both wish to make their fathers proud because both of their dads have some sort of rowing background.

Bert’s father Jack was an amateur rower who could’ve possibly competed at an Olympics, but didn’t have the bottle so now lives vicariously through his son, pushing him in a way that he never pushes himself. At times, Bert is seen as a villain, such as when he asks Bert’s girlfriend Margaret to move back to Scotland so his son can concentrate, but in a heart-to-heart with Dickie, we see his true colours. Dickie’s father Don, played by Geoffrey Palmer, is himself a former gold medallist, which means if his son wins, they’ll be the first father and son gold medallists in the history of the games, however he finds it hard to give praise to his son even giving criticism after a win. Don is very much from the old school of rowing and sees at as a gentleman’s sport, so occasionally he chastises his son for show-boating after an important win.

Bert and Dickie also looks at the 1948 Olympics from a broader scale, namely the hardships the planning committee faced in organising the first post-war games. In the first half of Bert and Dickie, we see plenty of meetings in Prime Minister Clement Atlee’s office between him and Olympics planners Lords Abderdare and Burghley, alongside future PM Harold Wilson, who is looking fairly young here though is still smoking his trademark pipe. For me these scenes were by far the most interesting in the programme as the group worried about the fact that there was no floor for the basketball court, or that the weightlifters were collapsing as they were rationed to one egg a week.

Obviously the Olympics was a way to bring hard cash to the country, and we are told at the end that it made a profit of £29,00, plus it seemed we didn’t want the Americans to have the games after they came to our aid back in World War 2. The fact that Abderdare is played by John Bird means these scenes were also reminiscent of those sketches he and John Fortune used to perform in the middle of Rory Bremner’s old Channel 4 shows. The lack of funds meant that foreign athletes had to stay with normal folk, and we see this through the eyes of American rower Jack Kelly who stays with one of the chaps from the boat yard. These scenes see he and his wife use up all their rations to feed their guest before he repays them by bringing tons of steak and cheesecake into their home which has been freshly shipped from Los Angeles.

Personally I think a story of the overall planning of the ‘austerity games’ would’ve been a better focus for a drama, perhaps seen through the eyes of the perpetually harassed Burghley. I personally don’t think enough has been made of the 1948 Games, and in the brief scenes here, I learnt a lot more about them which in turn made me read around the subject in more detail. As it was, we got a very slight tale of two charming lads, one rich and one poor, who both were good at rowing but at the same time had father’s they wanted to impress.

Though the performances from both Matt Smith and Sam Hoare were decent, I felt that William Ivory’s script didn’t have a lot to it in terms of content, and a lot of the subplots, namely Bert’s engagement to Margaret, were mainly there for filler. I’m actually fairly surprised as Ivory’s screenplay for Made in Dagenham was one of the elements of why that film was so great, and there are flashes of its feel good nature towards the end of Bert and Dickie, however I feel that he didn’t have a lot to work with in the first place. What I did enjoy about the programme though was how much importance was placed on each of the individual races while the camera work really took you on the journey with Bert and Dickie, which added to the excitement of the piece while briefly distracting you from the fact that there was very little plot to speak of.

Overall, Bert and Dickie was a good warm-up event before we cheer on all of our athletes at the games over the next couple of weeks as it focused on a couple of Olympic Gold Medallists who did it for their country the last time we hosted the ceremony. The performances across the board were good, while the rowing scenes were well shot and the whole piece did give you a sense of national pride, which I suppose was the point. But I still would like to see a film about the planning and execution of the games as I feel there would be much more material there for a fully-rounded drama rather than in the case of Bert and Dickie which unfortunately runs out of energy before the final stretch.

What did you think to Bert and Dickie? Did it get you in the mood for the Olympics? Leave Your Comments Below.

2 Comments

  1. Sandy on July 25, 2012 at 11:19 pm

    I enjoyed this even though i am not into sports but i am into period drama especially when its based on true events. What with the class thing going on, food shortages, parental problems and austerity i am amazed at such triumphs. I though both actors gave fine performances in what was clearly tough roles to play and, both came across as honest and believable.

    It did remind me of Chariots of Fire but, i enjoyed that too..

  2. mo.osborne on July 26, 2012 at 11:39 am

    I absolutely loved the programme, and the references

    to the food shortages ie (rationing).

    the dedication from the the people who coached the

    two men.

    i wish that we could see the actual 1948 games. it was all filmed.

    i my self was twelve at the time, so i knew all about the rationing situation.
    people coped as it was all carefully arranged by the ministry of foods.

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