BBC News Special: Concorde – The Final Flight

Friday, October 24, 2003 by

Growing up, virtually the only time our street would come out from behind its front doors and mingle together was when Concorde flew past. Living reasonably close to that gateway to the continent, East Midlands Airport, this tended to happen several times a year. Nonetheless the experience was always an intriguing one, chiefly because it prompted such unusually open expressions of appreciation. Why on earth was this emblem of majesty and exclusivity passing over our back gardens? And why was everyone staring at it with mouths agog?

Even from a distance of 20,000 feet, delight in encountering something so bizarre and otherworldly as Concorde was the prerogative of kids in the ’70s and ’80s. Thanks to teatime news bulletins, the seasonal expeditions of Holiday and Alan Whicker, plus any number of ice-cube clinking jet-setting dramas, the aircraft had become television shorthand for glamour, mystery and international intrigue. Like most things on TV you knew you’d never really get to see it up close in the flesh, but a glimpse from afar evoked instant associations with a dozen telly habits. A stream of predictable allusions and stereotypes always followed: who was on board? Was it really going faster than sound? How could it leave somewhere before it arrived?

Such obsessions didn’t just seem restricted to these shores, either. Our school’s French textbooks were forever filled with examples of endless testimonies purportedly from the mouths of genuine Gallic schoolchildren detailing how all they wanted in life was the chance to visit America on Concorde. This was quite clearly as ludicrous as anyone from our class entertaining the notion of spending half term indulging in a spot of supersonic travel, but all the same made an impact for being such an apparently universal and uncomplicated dream.

Having passed through childhood surrounded by an undiluted regular stream of images and words proclaiming Concorde the ultimate embodiment of some future world of instant travel, the business of watching its final commercial flights seemed to make a mockery of a hundred and one TV institutions, not least Tomorrow’s World. It was appropriate, therefore, that the BBC’s coverage of Concorde’s last arrival into Heathrow Airport was blessed with the presence of that programme’s founding presenter Raymond Baxter, who also famously commentated on the aircraft’s debut test run in 1969 (“She flies!”)

Settled into the Beeb’s snug temporary studio, itself suspended inside a rather bare-looking hangar overlooking one of the runways, Baxter declared the occasion akin to “a national wake”. “It feels like we’re going back to yesterday’s world,” cracked host Jon Sopel ambitiously, to which Baxter snorted, “There’s more fuss today than on the first flight.” Set against the unanimous chorus of grief ventured by the entire BBC contingent, and the endless rather undignified rounds of recriminations as to why Concorde had been taken out of service, Baxter’s measured responses and calm demeanour were all the more welcome. He pronounced himself similarly perplexed at the decision to withdraw the aircraft, but in enough of a stately fashion to imbue his contributions with far more significance than other, more hysterical, outbursts.

Indeed, with reporters dotted all round the airport, including some who were clearly just standing about, at times it seemed everyone wanted to have the last word on Concorde and outdo their colleagues in terms of emotional hyperbole. It all added up to an irksome din of moaning. Sopel tried to cut through the babble, but his pithy eulogies (“The most famous nose in the world!”) and pragmatic footnotes (“It wasn’t the cheapest way to get from A to B!”) unfortunately conspired to clutter proceedings still further. It turned out eloquence and concision were in short supply on both sides of the Atlantic; Stephen Evans was still hanging around at JFK Airport, hours after the last Concorde had taken off, suffused with memories of, “a lot of sadness … the utmost grace … faces up against the windows … absolutely pristine blue sky.”

In fact the only elements that really worked were pre-recorded: a nice tribute to Concorde’s history; a calculated snub from Richard Branson; and a witty travelogue showing Dermot Murnaghan enjoying a trip on the plane itself, joking to the hostesses “Is this the Easyjet flight to Barcelona?” and disclosing how the in-flight souvenir catalogue was already up for sale on, “an internet auction site – how weird is that?”

Back at Heathrow competition winners were shown settling into a specially constructed stand that ostensibly would allow them a perfect view of the landings. In truth this edifice was barely the height of a garage and, worse, had been built behind a huge barbed-wire fence. Dissatisfaction was evident on the lucky people’s faces. The best view by far was, as ever, from the comfort of your own armchair. The Beeb had sent a helicopter up over London to catch the moment the final trio of Concordes began their synchronised descent. With clear skies and crisp sunshine the shots were breathtaking. When the talking stopped and the pictures spoke for themselves, the importance – and scale – of the occasion really hit home.

Raymond Baxter had his one last anecdote, which began promisingly “I know of a very distinguished old lady,” interrupted yet again by Jon Sopel cueing in shots of the actual landings. But it was now that Baxter produced his trump card. The camera pulled out to show two Concordes, one behind the other, slowly returning to earth. “Oh my goodness,” the man sighed evocatively, “look at that.” He paused. “Oh gracious. That’s the kind of thing we never ever saw at Farnborough!” His sincerity and sentiment were infectious, and also prompted memories of a dozen BBC1 Sunday afternoons spent in the presence of Baxter and a throng of ancient aircraft aimlessly, frustratingly, drifting forever around the schedules.

It meant that, rather appropriately, to the very end Concorde maintained its reputation for triggering associations with not just recent history but TV itself. The BBC’s coverage of the aircraft’s farewell bow, thanks to the help of one of its oldest surviving ex-employees, gave us one last iconic television moment to always remember it by.


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