The independent voice of rowing in Britain

Bert & Dickie — a double whammy

Posted by rowingvoice on April 30, 2012

Bert (Matt Smith) and Dickie (Sam Hoare) prepare for the 1948 Olympic final


The difference between the last Olympic games in London and the present extravaganza is the length of a 4.5 mile Doggett’s Coat & Badge race, let alone an Olympic 2000-metre rowing course. 1948 was an austere world in a black and white age of rationed food and make do, a time of recovery and recharge by a reforming government swept into power after a devastating war with devastating consequences.  Three years into the peace, Britain volunteered to host the Olympics, and organised them on a whim and a prayer without a budget.

Bert & Dickie plunges you straight into this world of high hopes and low snobbery. It’s a watery-eyed drama about how Bert Bushnell and Dickie Burnell came to win the double sculls in 1948. By that I don’t mean that it’s soppy; it’s a story of ambition and class that I reckon will touch your tear ducts when the BBC releases it on the box before the Olympics, as it did mine.

Bert & Dickie plumps you straight into a shadowy world where Lords Burghley and Aberdare try to convince an uptight prime minister,  Clem Attlee, and his chancellor, Harold Wilson, that the games will attract tourists and pay their way. Meanwhile, along the Thames valley, the wiry Bert Bushnell, late of Henley Grammar, apprentice marine engineer and tester of MTBs is determined to secure the single sculling place in the British team, while Dickie Burnell, late of Eton, Oxford and the Northumberland Fusiliers, British Council employee and rowing scribbler for the Times, is determined to scull in the double.

At Henley Royal Regatta, the Olympic selection regatta, it went belly up for both of them. The Aussie Merv Wood beat Bert and Tony Rowe was picked for the Olympic boat. Dickie and his partner Winstone were beaten in the double, and John Pinches then refused to partner Dickie on the principle that he hadn’t undergone a trial. Jack Beresford, with five consecutive Olympic medals round his neck before the war, was selector and coach and persuaded, or you could say ordered, Bert and Dickie to jump in the same boat and get acquainted only five weeks before the Olympic regatta at Henley.

The new double’s experience and pathway to the peak of British rowing couldn’t have been more different. Bert (played by Matt Smith – Dr. Who, not the FISA boss) rowed for Maidenhead and his father (Douglas Hodge) was classed as a professional because he owned a boatyard. Bert was shown the way to the back door in Leander when the two of them began training there. Dickie (played by Sam Hoare) was a Blue whose father, Colonel Don Burnell (Geoffrey Palmer), won an Olympic gold in the Leander eight in 1908. No pressure, then.

The story of how the outspoken Bert and the reticent Dickie came to respect each other’s opinions and each other is cleverly told in William Ivory’s script and David Blair’s direction — how Bert persuaded Dickie that their rigging needed to be changed and how Dickie persuaded Bert that they must move through the competition via a repêchage in order to avoid the favourites until the final. And how minimal a part Beresford, victor of the 1936 doubles with Dick Southwood over Germany in front of Chancellor Hitler, seems to have played. He was mentor rather than coach.

Of course, the actors’ sculling in the film is abysmal, but don’t let that put you off. It’s hidden well. The interaction of the characters, the pace of events, the social reality and hints of change around the river, the boathouses, the sport and the country weave deft threads around two men who began by eye-balling one another and finished by striking gold from an unlikely beginning.

In the rest of their lives they got on well, Bert used to say, because neither bore grudges. That is a fitting epitaph for himself, always sharp, always the straight talker, and Dickie, always the good-natured argumentative iconoclast and scribe.  If Bert & Dickie was a book, you wouldn’t want to put it down.

Let’s hope that this drama – how inspired of the BBC to commission it — leads to a sequel. The story of Ran Laurie and Jack Wilson and how they won the coxless pairs in 1948 is just as teasing and just as dramatic as Bert’s and Dickie’s.

Cbristopher Dodd 


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