A botched invasion of the TV schedule

A BBC drama about bullying in the army was wimpy, but thankfully it wasn’t stopped by protesting military men.

David Bowden

Topics Culture

‘A science-fiction, homoerotic snuff movie.’ Reader, hearing those words I marked the date for the screening in my diary. ‘It must be the oddest hour of awful TV I have ever sat through.’ I installed a lock on my bedroom door, then unlocked it, to add that extra frisson of danger. ‘Decent people in this country are properly appalled.’ I turned the lights down low, put some soft jazz on and waited: pen in hand, snug as a gun.

Both Colonel Tim Collins – famous for his rousing speech to his regiment on the eve of invading Iraq in 2003 when he said that men who have taken life needlessly in conflicts ‘live with the mark of Cain upon them’ – and General Sir Richard Dannatt were up in arms this week about the BBC One drama The Accused. It depicted bullying amongst front-line British troops serving in Afghanistan. Collins, having been asked to review the programme for the Radio Times, did what every retired British Army colonel is required to do by custom: he wrote a letter of outrage to the Daily Mail, demanding that they ban this filth.

Well, you can stick your mark of Cain up your arse, Colonel Tim Collins.

That the six-part court-room drama The Accused was penned by Jimmy McGovern, the Gritty Left-Wing Dramatist™ behind Cracker and Sunday (about Bloody Sunday), particularly incensed Collins. This was ‘a desperate plea to be seen as shocking and cutting edge’ which ‘fails the soldiers on the front-line’ by depicting a military barracks ‘that has more in common with Second World War Japan than modern-day Afghanistan’, he wrote.

The Accused focuses on new characters every episode and explains the circumstances that lead to them appearing in the dock. The episode about the British soldiers centred on two young Northern working-class lads who, after a scrap in a pub involving soiled underwear, joined the Army to get out of jail. They were duly packed off to Afghanistan. There, one of them fell foul of bullying Corporal Buckley, who declared him the camp ‘bitch’.

The corporal subjected the soldier to a series of humiliations, which led to him committing suicide. His mate, Frankie, tormented by guilt about having joined in the bullying and by the shame of his friend’s dad (who was a military hero in the same regiment) wrought his own revenge on the Corporal. This was after he was turned into an outcast for having tried to alert his superiors to the bullying. In order to preserve his mate’s honour by allowing him to remain a war hero rather than a cowardly suicide case, Frankie took the full rap and got sent down for 25 years, with a young wife and baby left sobbing in the courtroom.

It must be said that, by the high standards of McGovern, this instalment of The Accused was weak (last week’s episode, starring Christopher Ecclestone, however, was excellent). The expletive-heavy dialogue had that odd over-emphasis on B-list swears which smacked of a compliance officer trying to balance realism with trying not to upset anyone. As a response, Liverpool FC fan McGovern proudly boasted that he has been deemed offensive in the past, too. He was told off for demonstrating ‘an anti-Manchester United bias’ in his previous series The Street.

True, the kinky humiliations in the latest The Accused episode sounded like badly-dubbed gay porn. Still, it was ultimately a pretty decent hour of prime-time drama: even second-rate McGovern shines amid the dross of British drama.

But if McGovern could be accused of being wimpy in face of the fact that front-line soldiering is a tough and dirty business, the reactions of the top brass were terrifying. Dannatt was audibly trembling with rage on Radio 4’s Today programme at the suggestion that members of the British army, whose purpose is to kill and maintain order on behalf of the British state, ever used bad language or tough training methods. And Collins reassured Radio Times readers: ‘Don’t have nightmares. Bullying, like drugs, is never tolerated… at this very moment, we have men laying down their lives in Afghanistan so that Jimmy McGovern retains his freedom to attack them.’

So we can add ‘free speech’ to the ever-growing list of reasons why we’re at war in Afghanistan, alongside toppling the bullying and opium-cultivating Taliban.

The sensitivity and defensiveness of these senior military figures reveal more about the purposeless and pointless misery of the war in Afghanistan than McGovern ever could. Shorn of any tangible military objective or goal to achieve, the US and UK governments have now been reduced to setting a fixed date for withdrawal, to counting down the clock while dodging the bullets like contestants in some fantastically grim international relations version of Gladiators. In this sense, one could have some sympathy for the bullying Buckley (well played by Mackenzie Crook, best known as The Office’s wannabe soldier Gareth). At least he recognised that killing is what soldiers should be prepared to do in a war zone, and that it would be better for one unhappy soul to suffer than to risk the lives of the unit.

In an illuminating interview with Mark Lawson, screened last week on BBC4, McGovern himself sneered at being labelled a Catholic, socialist firebrand writer, claiming ‘I’m not that Catholic, or that socialist’. Actually, from Brookside onwards, his primary interest has been the decline of the working-class male, shorn of the transformative potential offered by socialism. His characters are generally tough individuals lost in a system they can’t hope to exert agency over. They can either lash out violently and unhappily (Robert Carlyle’s traumatised Liverpool fan killing those he blamed for Hillsborough in the classic Cracker) or reconcile themselves to their lot and try to achieve some form of cathartic, therapeutic justice (Hillsborough, Sunday).

But unlike Collins and Dannatt, McGovern at least proved himself to be militant about what he does for a living: writing good, intelligent TV drama rather than viewing it as a form of dumbed-down prole theatre or as a stepping stone to the movies. And as Lawson observed this week, Collins and Dannatt had cause for outrage given the propensity for any serious televisual drama these days (including Channel 4’s own Mark of Cain, featuring a fictionalised Tim Collins) to emphasise its fact-based credentials.

What the hell British troops are fighting for in Afghanistan remains unclear, but we should all be thankful that we don’t live in a world where the army can dictate what gets shown on TV.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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