Daytime TV: The hand of fate

Gary Day finds that some people survive disaster and war through sheer luck and improvisation

September 16, 2010

Two anniversaries this week, 9/11 and the Battle of Britain. 9/11: State of Emergency (Channel 4, Saturday 11 September, 9pm) told little stories to try to make sense of that local apocalypse with global ramifications. Once again, we saw those planes slice through the Twin Towers, turning them into lakes of flame and boiling smoke. Hell had come to breakfast.

It's a cortex-crashing spectacle, a surreal encounter of aircraft and skyscraper in the morning blue made still more brain-melting by the absence of sound. We don't hear the explosion. It's a silent movie whose terrible beauty holds us in thrall.

The first indication that this was to be a day like no other was a phone call from Betty Ong, a stewardess on American Airlines Flight 11. Fifteen minutes after take-off, she rang ground control to say the plane had been hijacked. Someone had been stabbed in business class and the cockpit was not answering.

Betty had broken protocol in making the call. Standard procedure was to comply with hijackers. But these were suicide bombers. Betty was able to identify the terrorists by their seat numbers. It was her last action. "What's going on Betty? Betty, talk to me. Betty, are you there? Betty ... I think we might have lost her."

Kelly Reyher was at his desk in the South Tower when the first plane disappeared into the North Tower. He saw right into the entrails of the building. Body parts were scattered around like the workroom of a wax museum. People were walking to the edge and jumping out. Once again, we saw the shot of the falling man. He could hardly have known that in his final, terrifying moments he would become a symbol. In the next hour or so death would make several unsuccessful grabs at Kelly. How many others could have done with a little of his luck that day?

Condoleezza Rice, US Secretary of State, told how the US Air Force followed protocol. Four F16s were scrambled and they flew out to sea. That was the drill for the Cold War, which had ended in about 1990. When they eventually did manage to get fighters in the air, they weren't armed. But it didn't matter because they couldn't find the hijacked planes. The Air Force and the Federal Aviation Administration use different radar systems and so could not exchange vital information. Rice also spoke of the need to get George Bush, who was on Air Force One, to "a place where he could run the country". Did such a place exist?

What came across most strongly was that the government could not cope with the emergency. The communication system collapsed quicker than the towers and the military response was inept. It was a group of passengers who brought down United Airlines Flight 93, not the Air Force. Life is no respecter of systems. Improvisation is all.

America and the West have yet to process the trauma of 9/11. There is a constant need to talk about that day, to domesticate the horror, to bring it within the bounds of comprehension. But nine years on, such self-glorifying evil still exceeds all our efforts to understand it.

The Battle of Britain presents no such problems (ITV 1, David Jason: Battle of Britain, Sunday 12 September, 7pm). It is safely tucked away in the past, the epic sky battles above Southern England in the summer of 1940 have passed from history into myth. Naturally we had to have a celebrity front the programme, otherwise it wouldn't have been worth watching. David Jason said he was on a journey to the past. So do you know what they gave him? A bloody motorbike! A time machine would have been more useful.

David was very patient with the ITV audience. This is a Spitfire and, look, here is a radar mast. And did you know that ground crew made sure the planes were ready to fly? Tom Neil, who was a fighter pilot at the time, told David that he trained himself to sleep between sorties. "I can still go to sleep any time," he declared. "I could probably go to sleep talking to you."

It would be hard to drop off listening to Tom. He had a fund of stories. Apparently ground control would tell you where the enemy planes were, but when you got there there was nothing to be seen. "We had to rely on those with good eyesight to spot the blighters," said William Walker. "Then it was 'tally ho' and off we go." A pilot called "Pussy" Palmer astounded members of his squadron by bailing out at a thousand feet and smoking a cigarette on his way down. A floating man. An almost innocent image. Ah well, we must all come down to earth in the end.

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