If you tuned into The Warship: Tour of Duty (BBC Two) expecting a serious study of Britain’s naval capabilities, well, there was a bit of that. But also this: “I’ve never seen so many penises in my life. Do you know what I mean?”
The series is the latest from veteran documentary-maker Chris Terrill, who has a knack for combing through a cast of thousands and finding the biggest characters. He did it in The Cruise – without Terrill, we would not have Jane McDonald – and now he has done it aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth, Britain’s biggest warship.
The man discussing this proliferation of penises was Able Rating Ronnie Lambert. Ronnie has a big personality. Like the irrepressible lovechild of Lee Evans and Joe Swash, he bound around the ship while keeping up a constant stream of chatter. Ronnie told us about his bunkmate (“He sleeps for days. He’s half-man, half-mattress”) and the fake tans in his native Essex (“Full of orange people, it’s like Wotsits everywhere”).
He joined the Navy to get away from his cocaine habit and, in this first episode, had a disciplinary hearing for going “a bit Awol. When I say a bit – quite a lot” on the day that his ship sailed. Ronnie is quite chaotic. But his commanding officer, who seemed tremendously kind, has a lot of time for Ronnie and his “piratical cheekiness”. “You could find an Able Rating Lambert in every century the Royal Navy has been operating,” he said.
Terrill focused on other characters too: the delightfully posh Sub Lieutenant John Hawke, who could have stepped out of a Jane Austen novel (“You need to get 600 hours of time on the bridge before you can qualify, so I see that as a bit like a curacy”); and endearingly naive Able Rating Helayna Birkett, aged 21, who joined up for the travel opportunities and chance to deliver humanitarian aid, but didn’t want to think too much about combat situations: “I really don’t know why I’m here . I don’t agree with war.”
This focus on a handful of people made the tremendously documentaryly engaging. Terrill conjured a real sense of life on board what Ronnie described as this floating “tin can”.