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Bert & Dickie: Writing an Olympic drama

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William Ivory William Ivory | 10:00 UK time, Tuesday, 24 July 2012

I'd never been near any boat smaller than a pleasure cruiser on the Norfolk Broads when I started work on the script for Bert & Dickie. That was part of the attraction for me.

I'm sport mad and was intrigued to investigate sculling - a sport which for me was completely alien.

(For those who'd like to know, scullers use both oars. A rower uses one.)

Thanks to watching Sir Matthew Pinsent and Sir Steve Redgrave as they powered to many Olympic victories I at least knew what was the most elemental aspect of their sport: pain.

And then still more pain!

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Dickie (Sam Hoare) and Bert (Matt Smith) have an unsuccessful first meeting

In the first Olympic Games to follow World War II, Bert Bushnell and Dickie Burnell won gold in the double sculls.

It was five weeks after meeting for the first time and at first the match between Bert and Dickie was far from made in heaven.

I'd become aware of their story having read Hampton's magnificent book about the 1948 Games in London, The Austerity Olympics.

Then I was fortunate enough to talk to Bert Bushnell at his home near Henley shortly before he died.

In fact the 1948 Games was stuffed full of potential film ideas, not least because it happened at such a peculiar time in history.

In the aftermath of carnage and chaos there seemed to be a particular determination to let sport act as a glue to piece nations and people back together again, which led to many stirring narratives I could have explored.

But having met Bert, having had a run out on the river courtesy of the local university eight (let's just say seven of them weren't sick) and having realised the unique potential which Bert and Dickie's story had to draw out all that was wonderful about the British stiff upper lip 'make do and mend' approach to life and to demonstrate the iniquities of a country which was still perfectly happy to countenance terrible class bigotry and social exclusion, I knew that there could only really be one place for me to focus my attention.

Clearly much of the drama came from the fact that Bert and Dickie were so different socially.

One Eton and Oxford-educated, Captain of Boats and a University Blue, the other a grammar school boy from Wargrave of much more modest upbringing.

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Actors Matt Smith and Sam Hoare discuss their characters

Though Bert's mother had been an opera singer (a theme explored sub-textually in the music I chose for many of the later scenes) nevertheless, these differences were very real at the time.

However, the British are (rather magnificently in my opinion) terribly good at seeing the other point of view and as they both started to appreciate the potential which lay on the 'other side of the fence' they made a terrific team.

It was not just their characters, nor the fractured social panoply which they demonstrated that intrigued me about this story, but the wider world beyond rowing.

The ability of the country to stage the Games was staggering.

It was done with no government financial support, with few resources and with a populous still reeling from war.

And yet the Games happened. Magnificently so, because of some remarkable individuals like Lord Burghley and Lord Aberdare who feature in the film and because of the nation's ability to dust itself down and get on with it.

Bert (Matt Smith) and Dickie (Sam Hoare)

Bert and Dickie

Even when presented with Olympic etching and Olympic poetry (which were on the first Olympics list and revived in London because they were cheap!) the country flocked to support the events.

And this was the thing for me: the spirit of the Games.

What I have tried to demonstrate in Bert & Dickie is that the people of 1948 really understood that the Olympics was all about an attitude of mind: a desire to come forward and to be involved, to compete and to watch, to strive and to enjoy.

And as long as that effort was made in a heartfelt way then money did not have to be showered upon the event for it to be a success.

And as we prepare to stage a Games now, amidst dreadful unemployment, social deprivation and fiscal meltdown, it would do us all good to remember that spirit.

William Ivory is the writer of Bert & Dickie.

Bert & Dickie is on Wednesday, 25 July at 8.30pm on BBC One and BBC One HD.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.


  • Comment number 1.

    I have watched the journey of the olympic flame (bbc1 1930 hrs)' which showed British soldiers with limbs missing, loss of sight, but proud to carry the torch in the name of Great Britain.
    Now Bert & Dickie. Watched an hour so far and enjoy it very much. Until I saw my national flag, the flag that those soldiers, would defend with there lives, FLYING UPSIDE DOWN. Somebody's arse needs kicking. You are the BRITISH BROADCASTING CORPORATION. Have a bit of pride in your flag.

  • Comment number 2.

    Absolutey brilliant

  • Comment number 3.

    Can someone explain how Maria Callas was singing the Saint Saens aria in this tv programme when it was set in 1948 and she didn't sing this until 1961?

  • Comment number 4.

    Congratulations on this brilliant Drama! William Ivory gave us the true essence and atmosphere of the time. Sam Hoare and Matt Smith epitomised the characters of Bert & Dickie - fine acting and quality throughout. This drama should be nominated for awards and perhaps made into a feature film! Well done from a very satisfied viewer!

  • Comment number 5.

    When I was rowing at school, in the 1950s, this two were my heroes. So, the flag was upside down, I was so immersed in the programme, I really didn't notice and, as an ex-soldier, it was immaterial. Well done BBC. If one really wants to whinge about the BBC then take a pop at David Bond and his extremely rude and unnecessary interview with the President of the IOC who, by the way, is not in a plush hotel. He is in the Olympic village.

  • Comment number 6.

    Truly wonderful piece of work. Thank you BBC.

  • Comment number 7.

    Yes, an enjoyable programme. Mostly believable, but (another 'whinge'!) would anyone back then have said 'No pressure', or responded to 'How are you?' with 'Good'?!

  • Comment number 8.

    I thoroughly enjoyed the play and I note the special attention given to the music used. This latter surprises me in light of the apparent error in the recoding chosen;
    When mother switched on the car radio we heard the instantly recognisable voice of Maria Callas singing an aria from Samson and Delilah, a wonderful treat and quite miraculous since this was during the 1948 Olympics games. The recording is a very well known one from the 1960's.
    I will trust that a certain artistic flexibility was adopted so that the peak of athletic achievement could be accompanied, albeit briefly, by a voice representing the peak of an artistic endeavour.

  • Comment number 9.

    Car radios only came on the British market in any numbers in 1946. They were a luxury item sold in very small numbers, so it is highly unlikely that a family with the Bushnell's relatively humble background would have had one in 1948

  • Comment number 10.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 11.

    I think the work that goes into these period pieces is amazing. OK the music was illustrative rather than factually correct and it's a poor show that no-one in the production team spotted the Union Flag was upside down (assuming it was - I must admit I didn't notice), but it was still a remarkable story and I had a tear in my eye at the end when Bert's Dad was showing off the medal. Well done BBC!

  • Comment number 12.

    A fantastic drama - it definitely brought a tear to my eye and I almost blabbed at the end.
    The attitude of those of you nit picking needs a little adjustment. The same way the BBC now has a tendency to mistake aggressive unnecessary harassment of the interviewee for fair ,investigative and thorough journalism. What happened to giving credit where credit is due?
    It was a celebration of a great moment, the tiny details (ok the flag was bait of a boo boo) do they real matter?
    Enjoy it. This drama was the BBC at their magnificent best.

  • Comment number 13.

    Hi Gerardegan-

    Thanks so much for watching and for commenting. I hope you enjoyed the rest of the film and the upside down Union flag didn't utterly ruin your evening. Sometimes terrible oversights like this happen. It's not deliberate and certainly not the intention to offend anyone. My father flew with 50 Squadron in WW2 and his brother (my uncle Lawrence) also on Lancs was shot down and killed. As a result I'm sure you appreciate I take great pride in my flag.

  • Comment number 14.


    Sorry...Me again. I should add, I suppose, that I wrote Bert and Dickie and I apologise for the late joining of the board. I'm on a deadline for another BBC film and it's all a bit tight! Anyway, I'm so happy that so many of you liked the film. I'm jolly proud of it and the response has been fantastic. What is particularly gratifying is that on Facebook and Twitter and other social networking media, a very large and very young audience has indicated its approval (of course you may all be extremely sprightly in which case, apologies). This means a great deal to me, though, because I really wanted Bert and Dickie to recall different times (and they were different, with different values, despite a couple of reviewers finding it odd that I should suggest such...even though we are considering an England almost 65 years younger!) and challenge viewers to consider the space between then and now and whether things had changed for the better. Clearly, a younger cross section of society will most notice those differences and are perhaps the ones who most need to answer the question the drama poses.

    Anyway, to get specific again, AlbiesGran, thanks for writing and you have me bang to rights on a character responding to 'How are you?' with 'Good'?! Extremely unlikely and one which slipped through the net. I hate anachronisms of speech such as this and really try hard not to slip up. But slip I did. 'No pressure', was a verbatim quote from the diary of the character on whom I based Albert when he recalled greeting the young Bert in 1948 at the Olympic trial. He was trying to calm Bert and said "No pressure..." His diary was written in 1948.

    Music...Ah, music...I adore music. I adore opera, I REALLY adore Callas and I felt, you're right, Grufflybear, that her voice was the perfect visceral, emotional expression of the passion of the piece. That she was alive and singing in this period was enough for me to grant myself artistic licence in terms of which of her recordings I chose to use. Again, I hoped that viewers would be swept up in the glory of the voice and the music and allow the time jump!

    Right, I'm off to my other script. Thanks again everyone for watching and taking the trouble to comment. It makes a huge difference to writers (to me, certainly) to know what viewers are thinking. The praise makes the pain of creation worth it (and it's not without its moments of discomfort) and the taps of reprimand are a useful check on overbearing arrogance!

  • Comment number 15.

    Dear Wiliam Ivory et Al from the BBC.Many thanks for a very moving production. I worked for Bert Bushnell at his Maidenhead boat yard as a teenager in the sixties and rowed out of Maidenhead rowing club for the Grammar School, so it all meant a great deal to me. I am also a camera operator working on TV dramas and feature films so even more interest there! An upside down flag is one of my bete noirs but I didn't spot it! My only sadness of the production was that the actors were not rowers and I winced a few times at their brave efforts to show the boat moving with speed and agility. But nonetheless a wonderful production.Well done.

  • Comment number 16.

    Dear Jamie

    Thanks for that. Just dropped back in to see if anyone had been saying anything and was delighted to read your comment. It's thrilling to think that those around Bert who actually knew him, are able to dip back into the rich past around him and remember such a great character.

    As to the lack of actual rowers...well believe you me, it was a gargantuan effort from Sam and Matt to achieve what they did in such a short time (you know how little prep is available on these shoots). The biggest problem, I believe, was that in the wide we were using Leander oarsmen as doubles (many of whom I suspect will feature in the next Olympics) and therefore got an extraordinary quality of sculling, so that when we went to the close any technical flaws seemed especially magnified!

  • Comment number 17.

    Dear William - as always the BBC period pieces are amazing... thank you! It's been lovely to see the various takes and angles on the Olympics around the world both in broadcasts and news articles. Just read a classic spoof Olympic post on a South African blog today - not sure about drama but I think the BBC comedy team would have a field day with the idea!


  • Comment number 18.

    would love to see this but doesnt seem to be on iplayer even though there is a small iplayer icon beside it - know any reason why we cant download?
    have been watching rowing since my teens


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