Golden boys of the 1948 Olympics

Through the rowing exploits of unlikely champions, the BBC's Going for Gold – The '48 Games captures the spirit of the first post-war London Olympics.

Matt Smith, left, and Sam Hoare in Going for Gold - The '48 Games.
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Row, row, row your boat was not a happy tune back in 1948 for the British athletes Bert Bushnell and Richard "Dickie" Burnell as they strenuously pulled the oars to keep their Olympic dreams alive.

Thrown together only six weeks before the Games, the duo embodied the spirit of a nation determined to get back on its feet after the horrors of the Second World War.

But medals seemed a distant hope; the first challenge for Bushnell, the son of a boatbuilder, and the Eton and Oxford-educated Burnell, would be to simply overcome their polar-opposite backgrounds, if they were ever to become a true team.

Their real-life story is the inspiration for the new BBC drama Going for Gold - The '48 Games, which traces their astounding victory in the double sculling event.

The Doctor Who star Matt Smith trades his cosmos-bending phone booth for oars as Bushnell, while Sam Hoare (Captain America: The First Avenger) portrays Burnell, who faced the added anxiety of living in the shadow of his father Charles "Don" Burnell, the gold medal-winning champion rower of 1908 (played by Geoffrey Palmer). In a BBC interview, Hoare said he and Smith were also thrown on to the Thames near Henley - the site of the 1948 rowing contest - with barely a week to learn some semblance of sculling, rowing with two oars rather than one.

"I had rowed a very small bit at school. Matt, I don't think, had ever been in a boat ever before," says Hoare. "We had this amazing coach who works for [the elite] Leander Club and also coaches the GB team."

When they rowed together, the real Burnell and Bushnell did so in a pressure-cooker.

Bushnell, denied an Olympic berth in his usual event of single sculls, carried a huge chip on his shoulder over the difference in social status between himself and "rowing royalty" Burnell who, of course, knew this would be his last chance to equal his father's gold in the Edwardian-era London games.

That the 1948 games - the first since 1936 - happened at all was a marvel in itself, with rationing still the norm as Britain struggled in the aftermath of a war that had destroyed its resources and reduced much of London to rubble. But thanks to the British people's refusal to let the event die, the so-called "Austerity Olympics" scored major success.

The Going for Gold screenwriter Billy Ivory says he believes London 2012 is poised to repeat the success of London 1948.

"There are so many parallels really, the austerity of then and the austerity of now and - personally speaking - I'm hoping that there will be a similar coming together of people and a uniting of spirit. I think the Olympics for Britain is brilliant."

After playing a sculler, Smith says he's desperate to see the sport for real, and would "love to go to the rowing" at this year's Games - if only he could get a ticket.

"But the four guys we were training with, who were going to the Olympics … even they could only get a ticket each for their families," adds Smith.

Even Doctor Who, it would appear, can't pull such a prized ducat out of the time-space continuum.

- Going for Gold - The '48 Games, premieres on Thursday at 9pm on BBC Entertainment

Twenty Twelve ribs the Olympics

While their real-life counterparts may fail to grasp the humour, the star-studded comedy series Twenty Twelve sees Hugh Bonneville, pictured, Jessica Hynes and Olivia Colman cavort before the documentary cameras as civil servants who toil to keep London's Olympic Games on track and on budget.

To say they're paddling upstream is putting it mildly; by the time the torch goes out, this frazzled-but-plucky crew should be able to dog-paddle up Niagara Falls. Their challenges include:

- Finding a way to present the future of the Olympic Stadium post-Games as something other than a complete shambles.

- How to get the Olympic Torch Relay Route to go through Shropshire.

- How best to market "the Jubilympics" as a joint branding venture between the Queen's Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics.

"Deliciously topical, wickedly funny and sometimes uncannily close to real life, Twenty Twelve is a cautionary tale on how not to stage a major global sporting event," says the BBC.

Twenty Twelve is broadcast on Sundays and Fridays at 8.30pm on BBC Entertainment