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Guy Gibson’s dog

27 May 2014

Some of you will know that, many years ago, I worked for a British merchant bank which was taken over by a very large German bank. At the staff Christmas party after that was announced, we were entertained by someone called Michael Barrymore who was apparently big in cabaret at the time. He was however imperfectly briefed, and his goose-stepping routine did not find favour with the special guest of whose presence Barrymore’s agent had omitted to advise him.

Shortly before the takeover, the leading light in the German bank (and one whose vision for the future of banking would have been very different from his successors’) was killed by terrorists with a sophisticated bomb which demolished his armour-plated Mercedes. Soon afterwards one of my colleagues visited his counterpart in Frankfurt, and the incident inevitably came up in conversation. “Tragic”, our new master said, “but…technically brilliant.”

Those words came into my head as, when switching television channels yesterday, I came across a bank holiday repeat of The Dam Busters which I hadn’t seen since I was a child. I don’t need to tell you the plot as everyone knows it. I was reminded of another banking occasion, when in a presentation to a large group of us, a management consultant tried to refer to the names of our chief executive (Mike Dobson) and head of corporate finance (Guy Dawson) and managed to scramble them into the name of the hero in the film: every single person in the room struggled to suppress the inevitable giggle.

Of course I was brought up to regard Barnes Wallis as at least an equal hero, and the episode a rare example of the triumph of the boffin. These days – with the benefit of sixty years’ distance – we are more squeamish. But, setting aside the technical brilliance, which I wonder of these aspects of the film causes you most concern?

  • The fate of the 56 airmen who did not return from the mission?
  • The deaths of an estimated 1600 German civilians in the Ruhr valley?
  • Or the name of Guy Gibson’s dog?

It is the last of these which I can’t type in this blog to avoid setting off spam filters, if not prosecution. It’s the word that recently got Jeremy Clarkson into trouble, and appears in the lyrics of a 1932 song called The Sun Has Got His Hat On.

Apparently film buffs are well aware of this problem with the film. Various attempts to deal with it have been made, ranging from extensive cuts (which lead to serious continuity problems) to a complete remake of the film. An American production resorted to dubbing it to “Trigger”, but forgot that Gibson had chosen his dog’s name to be the codeword for mission accomplished, and so it remained in the film in Morse code.

So when Gibson says at the end of the film “I’ve got some letters to write”, we know what he’s apologising about.

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