Magazine article The Spectator

On the Brink of Disaster

Magazine article The Spectator

On the Brink of Disaster

Article excerpt

Hostile Waters (BBC 1, Saturday) was made not only by the BBC, but also by Home Box Office in the United States, a company, called UFA Film Produktion GmbH, and to top it off was resoundingly described as 'A World Productions Production'. The BBC, however, called it simply 'a BBC production', adding `thanks to the coproduction deal, it has the sheen of a feature film'.

The sheen in question turned out to be Martin Sheen, who appeared alongside other not-quite-A-list stars such as Max von Sydow and Rutger Hauer. Clearly, we were not talking about the Teletubbies here. Serious money was spent, and the programme did have the air of a feature film. In fact, it had the air of several feature films. Though it was based on a true incident, it had been Hollywoodised to make it look like fiction, which to most people is more convincing than mere reality could be.

That's the problem with co-productions: they become a hunt for the lowest transcultural common denominator. The story concerned a Soviet and an American submarine pursuing each other just off the east coast of the United States in 1986, just before the first summit between Reagan and Gorbachov. The two subs crashed - a minor prang really, a wing-mirror job in a car - but the Soviet ship caught fire, threatening the compartment where the missiles were kept. These had been targeted on various American cities in the normal way. So, in Radio Times speak, it was `the programme where anything might happen - but let's hope it doesn't!'

The incident had been unearthed by the BBC's Tom Mangold, an experienced investigative reporter with an excellent record. It is still denied by the Pentagon, but most sane people would take Mr Mangold's word over theirs. We were told that the story had been pieced together from interviews with those who were involved; if the BBC were doing it on its own, it would probably have made a documentary out of what they said - and very gripping that would have been.

On their own, the Americans would have added scenes showing the anguish of the women they left behind, and possibly had a few shots of the president (or the back of an actor playing the president) stomping uneasily around the Oval Office.

As it is, we got a blend of all the submarine cliches since Above Us The Waves first surfaced in 1955. The grim-faced captain snapping the periscope down. The warning sirens going 'Wurrp! …

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