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A clutch of pretty coloured press passes.
A band of veterans and two plucky programme makers cross the line on D Day.
This incident took place in France in 2004 and was my final programme as a Producer Director. I had, by that time, learnt basic camera operation and sound recording but, on this occasion, took along my friend and colleague David Atkinson (Ackie) as my Cameraman.
It was the sixtieth anniversary of D Day and the world gathered in France to mark the occasion. This included the American president, British premier Tony Blair and the great and the good. Also in attendance was me, my good friend and cameraman David Atkinson (Ackie) and an assortment of Cumbrian veterans who I’d brought on a bus across the channel.
If I thought that this group of elderly veterans would be quiet and doddery, I had another thing coming. I should have guessed as much, as various large glass jars containing liquid of an assortment of colours was loaded onto the coach.
They’d brought so much home made wine on the bus that our half hour documentary was definitely going to be built on shaky ground.
However, we had a riotous time getting to France. We went to many of the places that the veterans fought and my cameraman and myself felt genuinely privileged to be part of their group. The French people were amazing to the veterans who had helped to liberate their country. At one point, one old comrade, the late Joe Corrie, said he wanted to visit the house where he had holed up. Joe’s war was almost unbelievable. While every other old soldier landed on D Day Joe, as part of a special forces group, had landed weeks before D Day, and after many hairy adventures relaying information to the allies, had actually watched the invasion from the attic of this house. On arriving and knocking, the welcome from the occupants was heart-warming. It also lasted into the night and Joe had to be helped by us to our accommodation. Overall, it was going so well, however, it couldn’t last, and it didn’t…
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The French, quite rightly, had boasted of a “ring of steel “around the main event as more than half the world’s leaders were present. I had passes for all the major events including this one. Well, to be truthful, when I arrived at the press tent at the beginning of my stay as I was on my own. I sort of tagged along with a group of foreign crew who seemed to be getting a clutch of very pretty coloured passes.
As I was handed the same, I did know that they had mistaken me for one of them and I could have said something, but I didn’t, who could blame me, this had worked so far. However, unbeknown to us, those passes now appeared on a blacklist and were promptly withdrawn. No access for our group, or so they thought.
On informing the veterans (most of whom had been in the first wave on the beaches) a look of derision passed across their faces. Without much thought, and keen not to disappoint the lads, we hid the camera on the lap of one of the veterans under some blankets. Ackie and I put on some berets and took on the roll of carers as we shepherded everyone through the ring of steel and set up close to the action.
I felt the lads slightly overplayed the old comrade’s bit with the odd groan of pain (probably the home made wine), but we were through and Ackie started filming. The veterans looked happy and we were ahead of the “official” press. It was going really well…
As I was recording sound, Ackie, through the side of his mouth said, “Tony Blair is coming this way, what do I do?” “Keep filming!” I said.
Tony stood right in front of the camera. He was so close that Ackie, still filming, excitedly struck out with his hand hoping for Tony to shake it. I, thinking of the fantastic final cut this was going to make, asked Tony for his thoughts. Always the performer, and a fantastic thirty seconds later, Tony moved on…and we were arrested.
At the time, we didn’t know that 80 million people around the world (including a flabbergasted family at home) were also watching us. It was a bit hard to hide what we had done. We had broken protocol and was informed by the organisers that I was a disgrace to my craft, had ruined a co-ordinated sequence, which was probably a year in the planning, and that we should be ashamed of ourselves.
Being the good soldier, Ackie felt he was only following orders and the shame quickly passed him by. Me, well I was brought up in the school of anything goes. Times were changing, and this was the last programme I ever made. Sadly, all those veterans, who had helped us grab the shot, have gone forever. Ackie and I felt pride to be, for a short time, part of their gang.
Hopeful Traveller is a weekly newsletter and archive of stories about broadcasting in the 1970s and 80s. It is written by former-newsreader and programme maker Paul Baird. For new stories each week, subscribe.
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