Always in action!

World in Action returns after a summer break that didn’t happen for the crew

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From the TVTimes for week commencing 13 September 1963

LIKE a snow-covered volcano that has fumed impatiently for weeks below the surface, World in Action could shake everyone when it erupts for the third time on Tuesday.

The six-week break between the last series and the new was meant to be a holiday for its globe-trotting team of reporters and cameramen.

Instead, World in Action‘s sensitive fingers have been on the pulse of every major international story that has broken since the end of July.

Some holiday! When the Vietnam crisis broke in the evening papers, a World in Action team flew out to Indo-China at midnight the same night.

In the hair-raising fortnight that followed, producer Mike Hodges and cameraman Mike Boultbee were ambushed in the jungle while on a river patrol and almost blown to pieces in their hotel.

I met the two Mikes the day they arrived back in London, sunburned and travel weary from their trip half-way round the world.

A boat on the Mekong
Waterborne patrol of Vietnam Government troops search for Viet Cong guerillas.

Hodges told me of their march through Vietnam to the 17th Parallel with an American jungle patrol.

“We were trudging down a jungle track,” he told me. “when suddenly we were met by a hail of bullets — right from nowhere. All we could see was trees and greenery.”

“Our American friends fired back speedily while Mike Boultbee, risking life and limb — leapt in front of the soldiers to snatch the film we wanted.

“We didn’t give chase. There was no point when you consider it takes three days to cover a quarter-of-a-mile in jungle territory.

“On another trip into the interior with a river patrol boat, we were nearly blown out of the water by a mine.

“Lucky escape number three came when the cinema next door to our hotel was blown up by a home-made bomb. On all the occasions, both soldiers and civilians were lucky to escape death.

“The only time I felt safe was on a helicopter raid on Mekon Delta. At least we were in the air with the guerillas on the ground!

“Apart from that other occasion, I was expecting to be shot or blown to pieces at any moment. It was the most nerve-racking experience I have ever encountered.

“The Americans afforded us every protection, but if you stopped a bullet it was purely at your own risk.”

Two men look at a map
Cameraman Mike Boultbee (left) and producer Mike Hodges consult the map

Next, I spoke to the programme’s executive producer, 40-year-old Alex Valentine, a rugged, good-humoured Scot of Italian extraction.

Alex graduated to the top of this go-anywhere, do-anything outfit after years in top-flight journalism.

“The programme thrives on a get-up-and-go technique,” he told me, “so this has been no holiday for any of us. The team was always on tap — never more than a telephone call away.

“Our lightweight camera gear — carefully weighed and packed — means that we can fly off to any spot on the globe at a moment’s notice.”

What will be in the new series? “It wouldn’t be fair to tell you precisely what our programmes will cover,” said Alex, “in case we disappoint you by throwing them out at the last minute.

“But I can tell you that World in Action cameras have whirled in Indo-China, Malaysia, New York, Chicago and Washington — all during the past four weeks.

“In Vietnam, we played a waiting game in case the situation flared up. We played it the same way in Cyprus and Zanzibar earlier this year and it paid off.

“Our team, which had been in Cyprus for four weeks, snatched some valuable material before they were kicked off the island by the authorities.

“This sort of situation calls for nerve and shrewd handling. Try bull-dozing your way in Cyprus and Vietnam and you’re likely to end up with a bullet in your back.”

I asked Alex for the ingredients of a typical World in Action programme.

He told me: “It should be topical — we did the Beaverbrook story in six hours flat. And it should tell, in an interesting way, a great number of things that are not known to the public.

“In particular, we set out to expose falsehoods and commonly-accepted assumptions that are not true.

“The golden rule on World in Action is to take nothing on trust and always try to find out for yourself.”

A man looks at film
Alex Valentine, World in Action executive producer, examines dramatic film from a world trouble-spot

The same thing might be said of Alex himself. A favourite yarn spun in the team’s “local” in London’s Soho recalls his dynamic coverage of the Lakonia shipping disaster.

When the story broke, Alex was in Cyprus. He was immediately told to cover the Athens end of the Lakonia story.

Then came a cable urging him to interview the Captain of the rescue ship, the Montcalm, in the Adriatic just off Venice.

There is no recognised flight from Athens to Venice so, like a true newspaperman, he “jumped” a plane from Athens to Zurich; boarded another from Zurich to Rome; sped from Rome to Venice by car; then hired a tug to find the Montcalm.

He boarded the Montcalm, interviewed the Captain and got his report safely away, all within the space of 48 hours.

Spectacular progress, even by World in Action standards!

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