I was the morning DJ: the original Good Morning Vietnam shows a Hollywood History

It came as no surprise to hear him confess, with a hint of suppressed but immense weariness, the extent to which Hollywood has used history as nothing but an enourmous prop room.

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Good Morning Vietnam Revisited
BBC Radio 2

A documentary about Vietnam, presented by Adrian Cronauer – the DJ who inspired the 1987 movie Good Morning, Vietnam, starring Robin Williams – was a peculiar melange (13 April, 10pm). Made to mark the 40th anniversary of the end of that war, it opened with Cronauer musing on America’s catastrophist domino theory, which held that “if Vietnam did fall to the Communists then the next one would be Laos, and the next one would be Cambodia, and the next one would be Thailand, and eventually the Communists would attack Pearl Harbor . . .”

Cronauer sounded nothing like Robin Williams – much more indistinct (not hard); markedly inconclusive, even, like someone from a foreign policy think tank. There was a recording of a private phone call between Lyndon B Johnson and Senator Dick Russell in 1964. (Not sure how the producers got this. Possibly Johnson phone-tapped his own office during the voice-activated wiring of the White House and all associated campaign offices in advance of employing a quintet of lunatic-fringe Cubans. Oh sorry, that was the next guy.) “The trouble is,” keened the president, undeniably rattled, “a man has to try to see daylight down the road somewhere, but there ain’t no daylight in Vietnam. Not a bit! The more bombs you drop, the more nations you scare, the more people you make mad. It’s the worst mess I ever saw in my whole life...”

For a moment I even imagined Johnson giving a Haight-Ashbury finger-split. And yet his next move was to escalate the conflict. I kept hoping for little examples of Cronauer’s original radio show, but it turns out no such recordings exist, so we made do with Williams’s ravings instead (“What’s the difference between the army and the Cub Scouts? Cub Scouts don’t have heavy artillery! Viva Danang!”), which sounded even more pushy than they did on screen some thirty years ago.

It came as no surprise to hear Cronauer confess dryly, with a hint of suppressed but immense weariness, the extent to which Hollywood has always used history as nothing but a ginormous prop room, to be dipped into and out of and rearranged. “I didn’t do anything near what Robin Williams did. If I’d done that stuff I’d still be in federal prison even now.”

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Election Special