Sailor: The Complete Series Review
To my mind this three-disc set is one of the DVD treats of the year. Rooting through the archives DD Video have chanced upon Sailor, a 1976 ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary in ten half-hour parts, and treated it to a digital spruce up. A look at the HMS Ark Royal and her crew of 2500 men over the period of five and a half months – during which time she traverses the Mediterranean, stops off at Puerto Rico and Florida, and plays host to dozens of tiny dramas – it’s important to note that this isn’t an overtly militaristic piece or destined for a niche audience, but far more wide-ranging than that. It’s a series which is as much about the people on board as it is the ship itself; as we’re informed in episode nine, “the Ark Royal is like a floating town”.
Stylistically, Sailor’s approach is akin to the Peter Watson or Roger Graef school of documentary filmmaking having been produced after The Family but before Police. Importantly it isn’t a “docusoap” or occupying similar territory. Despite having literally thousands of participants to choose from, the series doesn’t stick with the same characters week-in week-out. Of course, as we progress we no doubt get to learn a few names and remember a few faces – from Captain Wilfred Jackson Graham to “ladies’ man” Twinkle Powell – but this is much more of a free flowing construct, wandering as it does between the various and seeming countless areas of life and work on board the ship.
Indeed, sitting through these ten episodes is something of a revelation. Each 29-minute instalment focuses on a specific activity or two and offers up reams of information. We get insights into sick bay and dentistry, in-house TV productions and O-level courses, religion and officers-in-training. Yet it also does so whilst maintaining a strict chronology: we begin with the sailors enjoying their last night on dry land at a tawdry strip bar and conclude as they head home to their families for six weeks’ leave or, as the case may be, a 42-day prison term.
The reason why this great depth and range works so well is the fact that its makers never make any impositions on the material. Certainly, it’s professionally and often expertly constructed (at times the editing can be startlingly imaginative for such a programme), but the key to its success is its honesty. And this applies to both sides of the camera. We are informed at the start of episode one that this is a series which will be “recorded frankly” and the claim proves itself to be absolutely true. Sailor may employ the occasional voice-over or direct-to-camera address, but for the most part settles for simple observation; there’s no bombast or rush, no urgency to create or show drama, just a simple case of showing it as it is.
This manifests itself in a number of different ways and it’s often surprising as to how much we’re able to pick up. The series now works very much as a social document being almost 30 years old, and it’s intriguing to see the class divisions and generation gaps coming through, albeit with a highly structured system. Indeed, there’s also a trust on both sides which means that we are never pandered to – both the jargon (“Jackstay RAF”, for example) and the foul language (worth noting given that DD Video are issuing this as exempt from classification) arrive unfiltered as it were – as well as allowing the human side to come through. Moreover, there’s an air of melancholy which is often immense. In what would nowadays perhaps be considered Sailor’s only concession to the mainstream, its theme tune is an instrumental version of Rod Stewart’s ‘Sailing’ and it brings with it a certain romantic sweep. For in a way this series captures the end of an era: the Ark Royal, seen celebrating its 21st birthday in episode two, was due for the breaker’s yard before the decade was out.
Sailor comes to DVD in altogether fine condition. The ten episodes are spread over three discs, the third of which also houses a couple of extras. In terms of presentation there really is little to complain about. Shot on 16mm, the series looks as good as could genuinely be expected. Of course, the film stock brings with it a certain grain and lack of detail in the darker moments, but each episode is often remarkably clean and without technical problems. Indeed, DD Video have done a superb job here. Likewise the soundtracks are similarly fine. We get the original mono sound rendered as two-channel Dolby Digital and without problem. It is worth bearing in mind that the fly-on-the-wall nature of the series means that not all of the dialogue is picked up all the time, but to combat this DD have done the admirable thing and included optional English subtitles.
As for the extras, there are only two additions here, but both have been intelligently selected. The first is a one-off episode of Sailor made in 1984 and titled, as you would no doubt expect, ‘Eight Years On’. As such it takes us to the Ark Royal herself – scrapped in 1980 she’s nothing more than a rusted old wreck – and catches up with the various characters who populated the series. Surprisingly, very few were still in the navy at this point, including the captain. Also present we find another Ark Royal documentary, this one made in 1971 by the Central Office of Information and titled Med Patrol. At only 15-minutes it’s, of course, nowhere near as detailed or nuanced as five hours worth of Sailor, but then it provides an interesting comparison point. As with each of the episodes, both Med Patrol and ‘Eight Years On’ come with optional English subtitles.