Did we like it?
The tale of how eccentric genius Colin Chapman essentially altered the landscape of Formula 1 motor racing through innovating a new chassis design in his low-rent workshop was enlightening enough, but the problem was, the esteemed Peter Snow aside, the production team seem to have been working on a budget less than Chapman was when banging away in his garden shed.
What was good about it?
• With a flush of unashamed jingoism the story of Colin Chapman devising a chassis that enabled his British cars to ultimately sweep all aside, including those disrespectful Italians at Ferrari, was pretty uplifting and filled with all the oscillating peaks and troughs you would expect.
• Peter Snow’s authority and enthusiasm made the often dreary world of motorsports vivid and vital with his usual impassioned monologues about the travails of Chapman and his Lotus team.
• Chapman aspired to strip the extraneous weight from the car, leaving it much leaner and quicker than its rivals. The main obstacle to this was that he and his team were virtually amateurs competing against the established giants such as Ferrari.
• Chapman’s desire to succeed was illustrated with his team Lotus’ flop in the 1958 season that saw them finish in last place with no points. Lotus spent three years improving the car, and by 1961 had developed the revolutionary monococque chassis that built the guts of the car inside a sleek chassis rather than building the chassis around the guts.
• Peter Snow then lamented in his best Election Night tones about how, despite being the fastest car, the Lotus was notoriously unreliable, with driver Jim Clark losing the 1962 championship in the final race after his oil spilled onto the track.
• But as this programme was entitled ‘Brits Who Made The Modern World’, we could easily anticipate the next chapter in which the former colleagues of the late Chapman recalled how they toiled for 14 hours a day in six or seven day weeks, and also how they were willing to do so because of a love for their job and Chapman’s endearing charm. The results were born out in Jim Clark’s comprehensive triumph in the 1963 championship.
What was bad about it?
• That annoying habit that people in Britain have of everyone in Europe being “continentals” as if beyond the sea boundaries of this sceptred isle there lies an amorphous fog of anti-Britishness, as Icelander and Turk, and Lett and Portuguese conspire to bring us to our knees. And they would do to if it wasn’t for our vigilance, keeping a watch across the Channel wary for those “continentals” casting their covetous eyes Britain-ward.
• “Britain’s failure on the race track was a national embarrassment” – while attitudes may have changed in the subsequent 50 years, we find it difficult to conceive that failure in a sport, of any kind, would be the cause of “national embarrassment”. Even today, failure to qualify for Euro 2008 wasn’t a “national embarrassment”; sure it wasn’t nice, but as long as there’s a fixture list on Saturday it’s soon forgotten. The only sporting event we can recall that was a true humiliation was the rugby league Anglo-Australian club challenge in 1995 that went on for about six months and yielded about one English victory.
• And with a little research (i.e. Wikipedia) we discovered that far from being the vanguard for the resurgence of British motorsport, when Clark failed in the final race in 1962, he lost out to Graham Hill in a British BRM so hardly a “national embarrassment”. But this would have ruined the Rule Britannia (In A Lotus) narrative.
• And the blinkered approach to the story (perhaps caused as much by the half-hour duration than neglect) meant that as soon as Clark, Lotus and Chapman reached the zenith of world champions, the story was untidily guillotined. The monocoque chassis, we were told, was used to this day in Formula 1. This we don’t dispute, but it would have been informative to see it in action, or at least hear from contemporary drivers and designers of its place in history and role today. And a footnote of Lotus’ fate post-1963 would also have been appreciated.
• Chapman and his acolytes cut corners in their first few seasons because of lack of experience and money, and there’s some evidence such impediments were apparent in the production of this show. A couple of times in interviews Peter Snow’s voice was distorted by a technical fault; surely this could have been cleaned up or re-dubbed?
• And was also often a complete dislocation between Snow striding about an anonymous race track – it could have been Brand’s Hatch, it could have been Silverstone, it could have been his local Tesco car park – when recounting the story that spread all over the globe.
• But worse was the archive footage of 1950s and 60s Formula 1 races. They might well have been the proper footage of Jim Clark breaking down and storming to victory, but they were so grainy, so nebulous that they could just have easily been any 1960s F1 driver and some were so indecipherable they might have been our Granddad in the bright Derbyshire morning going up to town to collect milk and papers.
• However, this is a not uncommon technique used by producers in historical documentaries to project an impression of antiquity through the blanket use of black and white film. It does get much worse than this though, with some directors believing they can enhance the authenticity of cavemen bringing down a mammoth with old movie footage from the early 20th century.