Everything went off OK - except a last minute surprise for me - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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Everything went off OK - except a last minute surprise for me

On Sunday 22 September just before the Team left Cranwell for the transit flight to Blackpool Airport ready for the Southport show, I took the Team's Executive Officer, Mark Zanker, to one side and explained the whole thing to him. I asked him to brief the rest of the pilots, but not until Monday morning. Any leak at that late stage could still have resulted in the programme being cancelled. I told Mark that all the Red Arrows would be needed on stage for the recording and so he had to make sure that none of the pilots had made any other arrangements for the Monday evening. I then briefed JR, in private, for the last time!

"Please be on time and fly over the flight line coming from the direction of Sleaford. You'll see Michael Aspel out on the middle of the airfield with a camera crew recording his introductory piece to camera as the Team arrive overhead. After landing, please taxi quite slowly back to dispersal to give the camera crew and Michael Aspel time to reposition on the flight line to film the hit with Ray Hanna. There'll probably be a couple of helicopters on the end of the line parked next to your own parking slot - they're bringing Ray Hanna and some of the guests. Take your time getting out of your aircraft so that the rest of your pilots have time to gather round your aircraft. I want all your pilots and the ground crews in the picture. As you get down from your aircraft, look towards me. I'll be standing alongside the camera crew with Michael Aspel and Ray Hanna. Needless to say, Ray knows nothing about this." (Well at least that last bit was true!) "We'll come to you at your aircraft," I continued, "and you can answer Michael Aspel's questions about your connections with Ray and what a good job he did in the early days of the Red Arrows, that sort of thing. And that'll be that."

I knew I could rely on JR to do exactly as I had briefed him. I was beginning to feel very guilty about setting him up and there were still any number of things that could go wrong, things that I often referred to as the 'what ifs'. In my private 'Phil' diary, I had a long list of 'what-ifs' and the contingency plans I had set in place to overcome them all. I crossed my fingers - and had a sleepless night!

It all went as planned, to the nearest second. As the Reds dismounted from their aircraft there was a huge crowd of people from all parts of the station crowding round. JR got out of his aircraft and looked in my direction. I gave him a thumbs up. A questioning look appeared on his face as if to ask "Where's Michael Aspel and where's Ray Hanna?" Michael Aspel, who had been deliberately hiding behind one of the helicopters, then, when I gave him the pre-arranged signal, walked the few yards to JR, clasping the famous Red Book. He looked at JR, holding out the red book, and said: "Squadron Leader John Rands, OBE, Leader of the Red Arrows, This Is Your Life!"

JR looked slowly from Michael, to his name in gold letters on the cover of the book, and finally across at me again where I was fiddling with my own camera. Then he said in a loud voice, clearly picked up by the microphones and eventually transmitted in the programme: "It wasn't meant to happen like this!"

Above: My own pic of "the Hit"
I handed over to JR a suitcase, provided earlier by his wife, containing a clean red flying suit and his toilet things, and then he was immediately whisked off in a large limousine to the Belton Woods Country Hotel a few miles away near Grantham. There were three hours before the recording was due to start and it was important that JR was kept incommunicado, and sober, during that time.

After making sure that everything was happening as planned on set in the College Hall Mess, the Producer asked me to go the Belton Woods Hotel to sit with JR and then escort him back to Cranwell to arrive just before 7pm ready to have a quick session with the make-up lady before making his ceremonial entrance. Apparently they always get a trusted friend to sit with the subject between the hit and the start of the recording; they call it baby-sitting! I would have preferred to stick around in the College making sure nothing went wrong at the last minute. In any case, I didn't feel like a trusted friend at that point, but I went anyway - and I was soon to learn why they had not asked me to arrange a baby-sitter in advance.

JR and I barely spoke during the seemingly endless wait before we could return to Cranwell. I couldn't think of anything to say. JR was looking tense and probably wondering how he could get out of the forthcoming programme. We returned to Cranwell, in the limousine hired by Thames TV and, as I had previously arranged, I asked the driver to stop a couple of hundred metres short of the main gates until the RAF Policeman on duty there gave the pre-arranged signal that signified that the Chief of the Air Staff, flown in from London by helicopter, was inside College Hall and safely out of JR's sight. We then continued the drive up to the magnificent front door leading into the College. There we were met by the Production Assistant who whisked JR off to the make-up room - actually the AOC and Commandant's private toilet. I was about to make my way behind the scenes to check up on the arrangements for the post-recording party when Mandy, the researcher, rushed up to me in an agitated state.

"Now what?" I thought.

"Tony, one of our guests hasn't turned up. He was going to be on the stage during the recording. You'll have to take his place."

"Sorry, Mandy," I said. "I made it quite clear that I didn't want to be on the stage."

"Please, Tony," pleaded Mandy. "All the shots are lined up - we can't have a blank place, it would confuse the cameramen."

Reluctantly, I allowed myself to be led onto the platform and I sat down on the vacant chair where Mandy indicated. Barely 30 seconds later the fanfare trumpeters of the Band of the RAF College struck up and the recording began. It was only the following day, after I had had time to read through the Thames TV shooting script that Mandy gave to me later as a memento, that I realised my name had been included in the stage party right from the beginning. It was Thames Television's way of thanking me. For once I had been out-manoeuvred. There was indeed a personal message to JR from the Queen Mother, read out at the very end of the programme by the Chief of the Air Staff.

I don't think John Rands has ever forgiven me but I do know that Karen and their boys thought it was a wonderful tribute to husband and Dad. The programme was transmitted on 01 November 1996.

Postscript. Tragically, Mark Hanna was seriously injured in a flying accident in Spain on 25 September 1999 and he died of his injuries the following day. His father, Ray, died on 1 December 2005 at the age of 77.

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