Angus Macqueen is a film-maker whose CV includes The Death of Yugoslavia, Gulag, Cocaine and a slightly odd period commissioning the likes of The Secret Millionaire as Channel 4’s head of documentaries. These days, happily, he’s back making his own stuff — and BBC2’s Chilean Miners: 17 Days Buried Alive was another gem. Commentary was kept to a minimum and the reconstructions were nicely restrained, leaving the heart of Friday’s programme filled by gripping interviews with six of the miners themselves.
These proved to be a varied lot, from Mario ‘Perry’ Sepúlveda, a family-loving Jehovah’s Witness, to Samuel Ávalos, a cheerfully foul-mouthed former street-kid, who praised mining as the best way to sweat off a hangover. Between them, the six did a superb job of making the unimaginable imaginable.
The day of 5 August 2010 duly began with Samuel feeling ‘crap’ as the men drove the mile underground to their work. But then, ‘this deep rumble began’ — and when it finished they were buried under earth and rocks weighing approximately the same as the Empire State Building. ‘I prayed to God to let me live to bring up my son,’ said Perry. ‘I told myself “I’m fucked”,’ said Samuel.
In some ways, the first five days were the worst of all. The survivors made their way to the emergency bunker where they discovered that the mining company had skimped on such legal obligations as well-maintained escape shafts or enough food for two days. And at this stage, of course, they had no idea whether anybody was trying to rescue them. (Perhaps not helpfully, many of them remembered a similar collapse at a Mexican mine, where the authorities snapped into action by placing a large commemorative cross at the entrance and driving off.) In this ‘silence from hell’, Victor Zamora wrote two letters to his family, wrapping them in a plastic bag, so ‘if I didn’t get out, my rotting body wouldn’t affect the paper’.
On day six, though, came the sound of a distant drill. Now all the men had to cope with was two weeks of alternating hope and despair, together with a starvation diet. (They might have been found quicker if the company had been able to supply proper maps of the mine.) Perry proudly explained his duties as the cook: to mix precisely equal teaspoons of tuna with water and serve — every two days. The bunker, Samuel added, ‘was fucking boiling and the air was shit’.
From there, the programme cut between the rescuers and relatives above ground, who still didn’t know if any of the miners were alive, and the various survival techniques 2,000 feet below — including an impressive stab at democracy. The result brilliantly pulled off that Day of the Jackal trick of making the outcome almost unbearably tense, even though we already knew what it was.
Fortunately, one survival technique that didn’t prove necessary was cannibalism. The possibility clearly crossed a few minds — but, as ever, it was left to Samuel to dispense with nuance. If anybody had died, he told us affably, ‘We would have fallen on him like animals.’
When The Hour started on BBC2, the main question was whether it was the British equivalent of Mad Men. The answer, it soon turned out, was a firm ‘not really’. Four episodes in, the main question has become more puzzling: is it any good or not?
The series certainly can’t be accused of not trying hard enough. As well as the birth of modern TV news, it also serves up the Suez crisis, a love triangle, the invasion of Hungary and an establishment conspiracy so overarching as to suggest that the MI6 of the 1950s could give the Stasi a run for its money. There’s a pretty distinguished cast, too, with Anna Chancellor, Anton Lesser and Tim Pigott-Smith among those puffing away on the unfiltered cigarettes.
Yet, to properly enjoy the show — which, on the whole, I am doing — you have to overlook an awful lot of clunkiness. The plot relies on more than its fair share of improbabilities. The toothsome producer Bel (Romola Garai), has a distinct Blackadder feel — embodying our own attitudes rather than those of the weird old-timers in whose world she’s somehow ended up. The much-hymned journalistic brilliance of young Freddie Lyons (Ben Whishaw) might be easier to believe in if he ever showed any signs of it.
And on Tuesday a new level of clunk was added to the mix — one that might have tried the patience of even the most unequivocal fans. Despite the fact that the same technique was satirised by Tom Stoppard in The Real Inspector Hound as long ago as 1968, every time one of the characters idly flicked on the radio, they were just in time for an important news flash.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 13, 2011