Camera technology lets us clamber on board with our heroes in Saving Lives at Sea

New cameras make the audience pitch and roll with the brave RNLI, says Alison Graham

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At the risk of sinking once and forever my reputation as a black-hearted cynic, I confessed last week to getting tearful whenever I see a steam locomotive. This week I’ll go a step further and hold my hand up to feeling weepy whenever I see a lifeboat launch.

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It’s a mixture of my marshmallow heart, my innate sense of melodrama and thoroughgoing admiration for lifeboat crews, who are surely among the bravest of the brave.

And they are volunteers. Yes, we are an island nation and our protectors don’t get paid for putting themselves in danger to rescue strangers. That’s marvellous.

I even have a tiny toy lifeboat on my desk, an acknowledgement of an admiration that stretches way back to being a child growing up near the North East coast. These were the days before pagers, when lifeboat crews, all local men (there are women now, of course), were summoned by the almighty bang of maroon flares.

These were terrifying explosions that didn’t just alert crews but also everyone nearby that there was about to be a launch, resulting in a rush to the shore to watch the lifeboat slither down the slipway into the water (I think it was pulled by a tractor, but my memory could be playing tricks).

I remember hearing a maroon flare for the first time – we were on our usual Saturday-morning shopping trip into town – and being so stricken with fear that my mum had to reassure me that, no, it wasn’t an IRA bomb. (This was the early 1970s and I was far too imaginative. That innate sense of melodrama again.)

My childhood self would have been awed and thrilled by Saving Lives at Sea (Wed BBC2) where, thanks to cameras mounted in the rescue vessels, we pitch and roll with each stomach-churning wave as RNLI craft hit the waters.

Actually, my adult self is pretty awed and thrilled, too. I love how TV technology throws us headfirst into the action. Documentary series about the emergency services used to be stiff and formal with lots of sitting in offices or, with police docs, those awkward moments as directors interviewed cops from the back seat of a squad car.

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Now we get right in there, tooling up to go on raids via police headcams, accompanying paramedics at the roadside as they deal with desperate emergencies (An Hour to Save Your Life), to being thrown around the North Sea as a lifeboat crew searches the seemingly infinite chilly greyness for a father and daughter, Ben and Grace, swept out into deadly waters by a riptide in Saving Lives at Sea.

There are lighter moments, too. I loved the husband whose wife dislocated her shoulder while surfing and was rescued by lifeguards. He was so overwhelmed with relief he didn’t mind that she was flat out in the boat “spooning with the hunkiest lifeguard I have ever seen”. In fairness to the woman, she was in screaming agony.

I go soppy, too, when people thank their rescuers – there’s something irresistible about big brave blokes looking blushingly modest like particularly beefy Jane Austen heroines. Young Grace, who was plucked to safety with her dad, immediately thanked the Whitby crew. “I was smiling for weeks afterwards,” says one crew member. Aww.   

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Saving Lives at Sea is on 8pm tonight, BBC2