Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Tale Of Two Submarines

When I grow up and become disgustingly rich, I'm going to build a huge, awesome, totally tricked-out nuclear submarine* and roam the oceans looking for giant squid. Will probably do a bit of fighting for truth and justice as well. Until then, I have to content myself with vicarious submarine experiences. One such was unexpectedly provided recently as I was being kindly educated on Naff UK TV Shows Of The 1980s. After watching boiler-suited middle managers test their mettle in The Krypton Factor, we moved onto the rather boringly titled Treasure Hunt.

In this fantastically British game show, contestants in the studio decipher cryptic clues that allow them to direct a helicopter containing the posh and excitable "skyrunner" Anneka Rice. Racing against a time limit, the rather fetching Rice flies to each location and rushes about until she finds the clue that when deciphered will reveal the location of the next clue, and so on. I love how the frenetic action of the location shooting is juxtaposed with drab studio shots of doddering boffins pottering about with books, as if pondering over their Sunday crossword. You half expect them to break for tea.

I didn't expect the helicopter bits to come to much either, but was pleasantly astonished by this clip where Anneka is searching for a clue off the coast of Devon. After further titillating her male fans by describing "three long knobs" poking out of the water, she gets further surprises. Great telly.

My second undersea adventure was provided by the ever fabulous Radio 4. Their R4Choice podcast this week is a remarkable documentary about Britain's nuclear deterrent. Apart from a slight and forgivable lapse into melodrama at the end, it's brilliantly produced and a classic example of the excellent factual programming Radio 4 puts out year round.

The Human Button details the process of authorising and deploying a nuclear strike, from the Prime Minister down to the chap who presses - well, it's actually not a button - what it actually is extraordinary. It's worth listening just to find that out. Revealing details of procedures never before made public, the program reminds us of the tremendous responsibility borne by a very few individuals. Listening to the interviews I was enormously impressed by the professionalism, common sense, dignity and above all simple humanity of the servicemen involved (and yes, they are all men). Even the politicians come off well; they are clearly moved by the consquences of their decisions and respond with refreshing pragmatism to the Stranglovian scenarios put to them.

Amazingly, members of government and the armed forces both admit they would not press the button in response to a real nuclear threat, believing the necessity to use it means it has already failed: it is meant, after all, to deter. But if we say we won't use it, is it any deterrent? Moral paradoxes like this abound in any serious discussion of nuclear conflict. The servicemen are clearly thinking, feeling people who admit they may not carry out the actions for which they are trained, yet declare their ultimate respect for the chain of command. In a peculiarly British paradox, the Prime Minister is the one who would authorise a strike, but the forces who would carry it out are technically not his to command: their ultimate authority is the Queen.

I cannot recommend this documentary highly enough. We are told the Cold War is over, but the power to destroy ourselves remains. The UK is in the midst of a debate about whether to replace, upgrade or discontinue their Trident programme. Whatever your views on this, these men are out there right now, where even Anneka cannot find them. We would do well to remember them and the terrible power they wield.

*Detailed plans available on request

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