Martin Crieff, unlikely role model

Sometimes I get annoyed at fictional characters who always seem to win.

It makes sense. We’re set up to root for the protagonist, and their success is cathartically satisfying. In sports movies it’s a cliche: the plucky underdogs win the big game against all odds. And it’s fun to watch people do things they’re good at. But cumulatively, it means that lots of stories get written about winners… and that can get wearing when you’re a real person who doesn’t succeed at everything. Where are the stories for the also-rans, the second fiddles, the losers?

Well, a story about someone who fails at what they try to do is either going to be a tragedy or a comedy. Possibly both; look at Peanuts. It’s all about failure: all the crushes are unrequited, Lucy pulls away the football, the Great Pumpkin never comes. Even Schulz’s punchlines have a melancholy bent.

Then there’s the more comedic end of the scale. When I first thought “Isn’t there a character who’s just not very good at the thing they really want to do?” I realized immediately that I knew that character, and it was Captain Martin Crieff.

If you don’t know who Martin Crieff is, he’s from a delightful radio sitcom called Cabin Pressure. He wants very badly to be an airplane pilot… and he is, but not a very good one. It took him seven tries to get his license, and even then he can only get a job working for free for a company in dire financial straits. And he has a certain general Charlie-Brownishness about him as well, especially when compared to his suave, competent first officer, Douglas. Martin losing games and bets to Douglas is a running joke, as is Douglas being mistaken for the captain whenever they meet someone new.

The thing is, though, Martin doesn’t let failure stop him. Even at the point when most people would have quite sensibly given up. He has a speech about it in a late-series episode when he applies for a new job, and the interviewer has asked what his greatest weakness is. Martin’s first answers go badly (including the old chestnut “I’m too much of a perfectionist”), and finally he says:

D’you wanna hear one you’ve never heard before? I’ll tell you one that I guarantee you have never heard before… My biggest weakness as a pilot is that I’m not very good at flying aeroplanes.
I mean… I’m good enough. Like the sim said, I’m adequate – adequate to the task. But I… I don’t do it easily. It’s not second nature to me. On your scale of one to ten, if one is the bare minimum of competence, I’m… about a four. And I used to be a one – no… I used to be a zero, and then I took my C.P.L. again… and then again… and then I was a one, and then a two, and then a three, and now I’m a four. And I’m not finished yet. And that’s why you should employ me. That’s why you’d be lucky to employ me, because if you’re not naturally good – if you can’t rely on just knowing how to do it like Doug… l-like some people can, then you have to… well, you have to be a perfectionist, actually – and I am one. And that’s why even when you’ve turned me down, I’m gonna keep on applying – because flying is the perfect job, and I won’t settle for a life where I don’t get to do it.

– Martin Crieff, “Yverdon-les-Bains”

And that’s why this post is called “Martin Crieff, unlikely role model.” Because if Martin’s weakness is that he’s not very good at his job, his strength is his growth mindset. He believes he can get better at being a pilot, and he works at it, no matter how hard it is or how slowly he improves. Douglas might be the “winner” to Martin’s “loser”, but he doesn’t voluntarily work hard at anything, and his confident exterior hides his own insecurities. Douglas is good at a lot of things, but he puts too much stock in appearing hyper-competent, even if he has to resort to deception to maintain that appearance.

And then there’s Arthur, the cheerful idiot steward, who’s good at almost nothing but doesn’t really mind. So I suppose you could call him an even unlikelier role model: someone who doesn’t need to be good at anything to be happy exactly as he is.

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