As a child, Aidan Smith was armed to the teeth with toy guns and, while the army recruiters arrived too late, he’s still a fan of war film Where Eagles Dare.
Carole Middleton has been giving us the benefit of her wisdom regarding Christmas and how to have simply the bestest and scrummiest one ever. The grandmother of the future king says you can’t have enough trees – 12 is a good number – and suggests a different wrapping paper theme every year. Mince pies, mulled wine and mistletoe are her “Christmas essentials” and, look, all three begin with the same letter! How clever is that?
Vital info, I’m sure you’ll agree, but what Carole doesn’t tell us is what the flipping hell you’re supposed to do if Where Eagles Dare can’t be found anywhere in the festive TV schedules. Now I should say I don’t know that the hoary Second World War movie classic isn’t being shown this year. All the advance publicity has been about the big shows, the plums in the pudding of the gormandiseful goggle-box feast. We don’t discover whether its Where Eagles Dare or The Heroes of Telemark or The Guns of Navarone this time round until we have the Radio Times double issue in our hands.
Or maybe 2018 will be when we get all three. Or possibly none of them. Recently a museum in Dumfries was obliged to remove a WW2 machine-gun from display following a single complaint from the public. The BBC and the other networks may decide this is too critically sensitive a moment in pan-continental relations for us to be seen to be glorying in an old victory, no matter that we had little option but to go to war with Germany.
Or indeed no matter that Where Eagles Dare is sometimes camp and often preposterous. That this was a time in Richard Burton’s career when he was putting away four bottles of vodka a day. That, having beat himself up for doing another lowbrow bullet-fest for the money, he would declare a war of his own, or an Olympics of Teutonic pronunciation officially open, and to Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson would snap: “‘Wehrmacht’ – beat that.”
You can tell, perhaps, that I’m a fan of Where Eagles Dare. That I’d cheerfully have it primetime pride of place on Christmas night. That I’d love to see Burton and Clint Eastwood storm the set of Michael McIntyre’s Yuletide special – almost certainly the programme in possession of this slot – like it was the Nazi castle in the Bavarian Alps from where they rescue the US general. I reckon I’m as big a fan of the movie as Geoff Dyer, author of the funny and profound tribute Broadsword Calling Danny Boy, a book I wish I’d written myself.
Obviously I’m a fully paid-up pacifist nowadays, but like Dyer I was born right after the Suez Crisis when it was still all guns blazing in the martial pop-culture and every boy was a short-trousered warmonger, at least in his own head.
Guns? I had loads of ’em. I was armed to the teeth with the toy versions for any eventuality: Cowboys and Indians, Cops and Robbers, and Commandos versus the cunning forces of the Empire of Japan when it was an Axis Power, although that’s a more PC description of the latter struggle than the one used in my playground. I had cap guns, potato guns, ray-guns, guns concealed in Secret Sam attache cases, water-pistols, Wild West six-shooters, Winchester rifles, Lugers, James Bond Walther PPKs, Mauser C96s, Tommy guns, Sten guns, Bren guns and the type of shooter that Illya Kuryakin in The Man from U.N.C.L.E would rest on sidekick Napoleon Solo’s square shoulders to take out a red under the bed. U.N.C.L.E. stood for United Network Command for Law and Enforcement and the deadly rival organisation was The Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity – T.H.R.U.S.H. Semi-tragically, this thrilling nonsense from a gun-heavy childhood is imprinted on my brain. I reckon they’d have to torture it out of me and even then there would be no way I’d be giving up my mother’s store number, the key to Co-op rewards. Some things are sacred.
I read Commando comic (“Banzai!”, “Gott in himmel!”). I dressed my Action Man in the snowsuit worn by Burton and Eastwood in Where Eagles Dare although the first time I used my pocket-money to expand the doll’s arsenal and discovered that the flamethrower didn’t in fact throw any flames, the disappointment couldn’t be camouflaged.
Real camouflage became a thing. With like-minded friends I’d hang round the local Army & Navy Store on Leith Walk and gawp at the surplus kit, check the water-bottles for bullet holes and finger the rough, tough canvas on the gas-mask bags. We all bought one and they became our school satchels, which must have impressed the smooth-talking and shiny-buttoned recruiting officers who visited our classroom to ram home the message of their big ad campaign: “Join the Forces and become a man.”
The sub-text was: “It’s us or boring old bank jobs.” But if the press-gang had inspected our bags more closely they’d have spotted the names of football team and progressive-rock groups, confirmation that our heads had already been turned by other obsessions. The enlisters had come for us too late. If they’d tried to get us to sign up aged seven or eight, we would have done it like a shot.
Confirmation I wasn’t cut out for soldiering came when a newspaper sent me on a Territorial Army-run weekend of muddy leadership tests and my pass-out papers read: “Does not respond well to discipline.” But I do respond well to Where Eagles Dare and am frankly devastated by Geoff Dyer’s assertion that Richard Burton’s rucksack is “Tardis-like” on account of it holding an implausible amount of gubbins. That’s like saying there’s no Santa Claus.