NEIL ALSOP recalls the forgotten
heroes of TV's PATHFINDERS

The activities of a wartime RAF Bomber Command airbase would seem to be ideal material for an adult drama series, yet British television has only once got such a venture off the ground.

In fact, given the plentitude of high-calibre World War 2 movies produced by the British cinema industry throughout the 1950s and 1960s, surprisingly neither the BBC or ITV seemed keen to exploit the popularity of this period as a backdrop for episodic video fiction for many years. Offerings such as OSS (1957) and Court Martial (1965-66) were few and far between and had little to do with the RAF, although BBC anthology series Moonstrike (1963) presented 28 stand-alone tales of SOE/RAF forays into enemy-occupied Europe, with a Westland Lysander Mk 3 being the only recurring 'character' and becoming the star of the show.

The breakthrough came in 1970 with the runaway success of Manhunt, London Weekend's 26-episode wartime spin on The Fugitive, concerning a downed RAF pilot and several French Resistance fighters' struggle to reach the coast and escape to England before the Gestapo caught up with them. For the following two decades the number of British television drama series set during World War 2 quadrupled, commencing in some ITV regions on September 27, 1972, with Pathfinders, debuting three weeks before Colditz on the BBC. Although Colditz was a BBC in-house production, it was co-financed by Universal Television in the US and boasted as leading men Robert Wagner and David McCallum, both international cinema and television stars in their early 40s at the time, conversely Pathfinders was devised and produced by Gerry Brown for the independent Toledo Film Organisation and bought in by some ITV regional companies as a prop to autumn peak-time schedules.

Its stars were Scottish character actor Robert Urquhart and domestic cinema leading man Jack Watling, one-time platoon comrades in the 1958 cinema feature Dunkirk and by the early 1970s both obviously around 50 years of age, but despite being familiar faces to television viewers, in supporting roles and as guest stars, neither had global profiles to match Wagner and McCallum. Although Urquhart subsequently starred for six episodes as a not-so-retired spycatcher in The Aweful Mr Goodall (1974), he is now perhaps best remembered for his appearance as the villainous brother of a Scottish laird in an episode of The Avengers and Watling for his portrayal of Professor Travers in the two Yeti serials of Doctor Who.

Pathfinders' own roll-call of guest stars includes Rutger Hauer, Jane Seymour, Bernard Lee, Kate O'Mara, Dennis Waterman, Johnny Briggs, Mark McManus, Anthony Valentine, Geoffrey Bayldon, Mike Pratt, Ray Brooks, Diane Keen, Tony Selby and late-1950s American teen idol Edd Byrnes ('Kookie' in 77 Sunset Strip). Filmed at EMI-MGM Studios in Borehamwood, Bovingdon airfield and other locations in Hertfordshire, and West Malling airfield in Kent, five directors worked on the 13-episode run, including Leslie Norman (father of film critic Barry Norman), Don Chaffey and Jeremy Summers. Based on actual events recounted by former Pathfinder Force (PFF) personnel and others, teleplays were provided by the likes of Hazel Adair, Peter Ling, Bruce Stewart, Bill Strutton, Tony Barwick and Christopher Penfold, who also acted as script supervisor (a role he has subsequently filled for series as diverse as Space: 1999 and Midsomer Murders).

Great efforts were made to ensure authenticity, with former Group Captain Hamish Mahaddie, Air Vice-Marshal DCT Bennett and Luftwaffe nightfighter ace Willi Herget retained as technical advisors. The pilot episode Into The Fire opens with a short pre-credit sequence, in which F/Lt Peter Curtis's Avro Lancaster Mk 3 overshoots the runway during his first attempt to land at RAF Oakwood, in East Anglia, cutting swiftly to the series' late-1960s-style opening credits, mixing primary colours with a montage of black-and-white photographic still images, all set to Malcolm Lockyer's rousing Pathfinder Theme. With his aircraft safely on the ground after a second attempt, Curtis joins waiting base doctor Sqn Ldr Bruce 'Doc' Saxon (Watling), duty officer F/Lt Dave Greenwood and an Ops Room WAAF officer in time to observe the perfect landing of a Lancaster flown by Wing Commander Angus 'Mac' MacPhearson (Urquhart), also known as 'Aberdeen Angus' and 'Old Press On Regardless'.

With MacPhearson's arrival as CO, the newly-formed 697 Squadron has its full complement of hand-picked volunteers and is ready to begin three weeks of training for an as-yet-undisclosed purpose. After relaxed scenes in the mess rooms, in which the diverse Commonwealth origins of aircrew and Ops Room staff are established, the action shifts up a gear to the briefing room. MacPhearson's opening speech signposts to flyers - and viewers - what can be expected from the PFF: "Until now Bomber Command's performance has been pretty dreadful. Only 5 per cent of bombs have fallen within 10 miles of their planned targets. Our job is easy to explain. We go in first, we find the target and we show the rest of the bomber force where it is - exactly where it is, every time. So if you get it wrong, everything goes wrong."

He then tempts fate with a personal attack on certain senior RAF officers who believe pathfinding cannot be successfully accomplished and who are determined for them to fail, and sure enough within moments a message arrives ordering their first mission brought forward to that very night. The target is to be a shipbuilding yard, used for the construction of submarines, in the Baltic port of Flensberg, with the fictional 697 Squadron taking the role of real-life 83 Squadron in the historic first PFF operation on the night of August 18/19, 1942. With both Saxon and Greenwood along for the ride, with MacPhearson's blessing, 697 Squadron takes to the skies in earnest halfway through the episode. Problems with flak fail to slow its progress but increasing density of cloud ultimately forces MacPhearson to abort the mission before reaching the aiming point - and to add injury to indignity it is not long before Luftwaffe nightfighters from the Frisian Islands are attacking the homeward-bound PFF bombers.

Undeterred by onboard fires, damaged controls and wounded aircrew, all of the 697 Squadron Lancasters return safely to base, leaving MacPhearson to close proceedings with a defiant tirade against the antagonistic superiors who will be gloating over the failure of the mission. The scarcity of Lancasters available for filming was overcome by the use of 14 large-scale, radio-controlled flying models, specially made for the series at a cost of £2,000 each, and actors performing relevant dialogue in front of mocked-up sections of a full-scale Lancaster, all skillfully edited together with wartime colour and blue-filtered black-and-white footage of the bombers taking off and in the air, and of aircrew and ground crew close to Lancasters on the ground.

Putting aside some unconvincing colonial accents, a modicum of anachronistic upper crust banter and Lockyer's occasionally excessively-patriotic incidental score, Into The Fire is an effective introductory episode focusing on Curtis and MacPhearson's Lancaster crews, yet strangely the direction of rest of the series quite literally took dramatic turns from this successful scenario by concentrating on a different single aircrew each week. As a consequence no RAF characters appear in more than three episodes apiece, apart from MacPhearson and Saxon(and even they are effectively relegated to supporting roles in most episodes), so in certain respects Pathfinders develops into an anthology show and stands on the strengths or weaknesses of individual storylines rather than of the series as a whole.

This would not have been a problem if most had matched the calibre of Sweets From A Stranger, showcasing the efforts of F/Lt Doug Philips (Christopher Casenove) to prove his belief in the need for a 'Master Bomber' to control an operation above the aiming point, dovetailed into the tale of a Danish scientist's determination to get the British to bomb a German jet engine research and development facility. However, although Fog, Sitting Ducks, Nightmare and For Better For Worse also meet expectations, the remaining episodes, covering subjects ranging from the bizarre consequences of an ace pilot's mid-operational mental breakdown to downed aircrews' experiences adrift in a dinghy in the North Sea or on the run in Germany or interred in a POW camp, are a long way from what Pathfinders' audience had come to expect from Into The Fire.

So, with an inconsistency of visual storytelling and obvious lack of character development for viewers to relate to, and without even having been screened in all regions of the ITV network, 697 quickly became a ghost squadron flying into the television limbo engendered by poor ratings. And for a long time, all that remained of its existence were arrangements of Lockyer's Pathfinder Theme, recorded by the Ron Goodwin Orchestra for a 7-inch single (Columbia DB 8938), by Ike Isaacs for his 14 Great TV Themes LP (Decca Eclipse ECS 2163) and by assorted miltary bands; a short-lived Look-In comic strip; and Sphere Books' paperbacks of William Buchanan's novel Pathfinder Squadron, adapting Into The Fire, Fog and Sweets From A Stranger, and a reprint of Bennett's 1958 autobigraphy Pathfinder, which capitalised on the television series logo.