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A BBC film crew worked among the 2,500 men aboard the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal for ten weeks and introduced us to a navy which returned to ship with black eyes and cracked heads and even, in one sorry case, without trousers.
Once at sea, the lads drank, cursed, dressed up in drag and mocked their superiors. And viewers loved it.
They cheered pilot Alan Gibson, who took seven attempts to land his fighter plane and survived the ribbing of his mates.
They didn’t mind when Chaplain Bernard Marshall used four-letter words – “swearing is not as bad as blasphemy,” he said, adding that most of these once-shocking words were common parlance and “a term of endearment on Ark Royal“.
And they loved the adventure when a sailor with acute appendicitis had to be airlifted off an American submarine by helicopter and transferred to Ark Royal. When he was halfway between the two vessels, hanging on the end of a rope, a huge wave swept him and the winchman who clung to him into the sea.
Eventually, they were rescued to the lilting theme tune of Rod Stewart‘s ballad Sailing.
The first episode of Sailor aired on 5 August 1976. The final episode saw Ark Royal return to port and the crew reunited with their families.
When the series was re-run in 1984 with a postscript (Sailor Eight Years On) that showed all that was then left of Ark Royal was a rusting hull in a breakers’ dock, the tough master-at-arms, Tom Wilkinson, was seen to be moved to tears.