sat 25/05/2024

Castles in the Sky, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

Castles in the Sky, BBC Two

Castles in the Sky, BBC Two

Eddie Izzard quietly convincing as scientist who invented radar

Eddie Izzard and Laura Fraser as Robert and Margaret Watson Watt

On the face of it, it's one of the more counter-intuitive pieces of casting this year; surreal stand-up and possible future Labour Mayor of London Eddie Izzard as Robert Watson Watt, the Scottish scientist who helped develop radar. But on second thoughts, perhaps not, as Watson Watt had to overcome prejudice and entrenched opinion to see his vision through.

Radar was at first dismissed by Winston Churchill (not Tim McInnerny's finest hour) as a fantastical project - “castles in the sky” - but he later acknowledged its huge importance in winning the war. Watson Watt and his team developed radar during the 1930s and it was ready for use during the Battle of Britain in 1940 - when the Luftwaffe outnumbered the RAF by three to one. So it's up there with breaking the Enigma code in the Allied defeat of Nazi Germany.

Radar (a term coined by American scientists from the words radio detection and ranging) uses radio waves to detect objects and determine their range, altitude, direction or speed. Or, as Watson Watt explained to the Whitehall suits who were poo-pooing his idea - “think of it as a fishing net”. Nearly all the science was presented thus, as if aimed at particularly dim six-year-olds; the tough science was, meanwhile, was seen only as montages of squiggled equations on blackboards, with inspirational music indicating breakthrough moments.

Essentially this story (written by Ian Kershaw, late of Shameless) was told as mavericks versus stuffed-shirts, redbrick university versus Oxbridge. "We need free thinkers, rule breakers, men without ties," said an impassioned Watt to the high-ups, before he persuaded them to allow him to forge a team of fellow meteorologists from regional universities that included Taffy (Celyn Jones) and Skip Wilkins (Karl Davies) pictured with Izzard below, rather than the Oxbridge physicists they wanted him to work with.

While Kershaw's script paid due regard to Watson Watt's team's efforts in developing radar, the focus was on the Scot, because he had conflict – always necessary for a good drama – not just with civil servants at the Air Ministry (one of whom even put a mole in his team), the chronic lack of funds and the constant threat of the project being shut down, but also with his missus, played with her usual luminosity by Laura Fraser (Lip Service and Breaking Bad).

Fraser was required to do an awful lot of acting by herself, as she was left at home in Scotland making costume jewellery while hubby went off to southern England to do important things, and this storyline felt undeveloped.

Even though the action was played out over 90 minutes it felt rushed; too much was shoehorned in and there was little tension, and some of the storytelling by director Gillies MacKinnon was terrifically old hat. The drama was interspersed with news footage of 1930s Germany and the opening credits showed the spread of the Nazi threat as a bloodied map of Europe. And really interesting elements of the story were unclear, too; was David Hayman's Professor Lindemann (who placed the spy in the Watson Watt camp) trying to sabotage his work, in which case he was a traitor, or was he simply an unsuccessful scientist jealous of another man's invention?

But it was an interesting story to tell and Izzard and Co quietly convinced as earnest boffins, who invented something that even they could not have foreseen working as well as it did. And as a nice postscript we learnt that two modern staples – air traffic control and microwave ovens – were developed from the same technology.


Too much was shoehorned in and there was little tension


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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I thought this was very well done. Acting was excellent. It made me want to find out more about Watson-Watt. Oh what an acomplished and able man he was....where are his kind now? Thank you for this quality drama.

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