Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Theatre of war

I haven’t yet seen last night’s episode of Jimmy McGovern’s The Accused, which dealt with bullying in the British army in Afghanistan. As such, I’m in no position to judge whether it was good or bad as a piece of drama, which is surely the primary consideration. On the other hand, a number people who have seen it didn’t seem particularly bothered about whether it was any good or not, preferring to focus instead on whether it was factually accurate and/or offensive.

Chief among these are General Sir Peter Wall, current head of the British Army, and Colonel Tim Collins and General Lord Dannatt, both retired senior officers; the latter called the drama “a nasty programme inappropriately aired while the Army is conducting difficult operations in Afghanistan.” He was also very exercised by the fact that the programme depicted the drinking of alcohol on the front line, which he claims never happens. The interview with Dannatt on this morning’s Today programme is currently here.

It’s easy to counter complaints such as these with the argument that McGovern is making a fiction, about characters and events that he’s invented, but it’s not quite that straightforward. Any fiction writer, except those working in genres such as SF or fantasy, has a duty to ensure that the events depicted might possibly happen in the real world; even genre writers need to make their texts internally plausible. However, the correlation with fact that writers claim for their fictions vary greatly, and viewers or readers need to keep this in mind. The Tudors purported to be an account of historical figures whose real lives are well documented, and because the writers mucked around with  this reality, anybody with a passing knowledge of 16th-century England might feel entitled to criticise. Similarly, the movie U-571 took a very specific episode of World War II (the capture of the Enigma machine by the British in August, 1941) and rewrote as a triumph of derring-do by the Americans, who hadn’t even entered the war when the real events took place.

McGovern’s drama takes place during a real conflict – the Afghanistan campaign – but doesn’t claim to be depicting real people or real events. To complain that X or Y didn’t happen would be as daft as saying that Spooks is inaccurate because the real Home Secretary doesn’t look anything like Simon Russell Beale. Dannatt may be right that The Accused contains innacuracies, and that no alcohol has ever been consumed on the front line, but I’m not sure how he can claim to be certain. It sounds more as if he doesn’t want it to be true.

Which leads to the second point, about whether such a drama is in some way offensive; presumably to those serving in Afghanistan, and their families. Governments would usually prefer that any dramatic depictions of conflict should be uncompromisingly patriotic, at least while the conflict is still going on. The only major film about the Vietnam War before it ended in 1975 was John Wayne’s jingoistic The Green Berets, although works such as M*A*S*H and Catch-22, which depicted earlier wars, were clearly ‘about’ the contemporary conflict to some extent. (The question remains as to which of the ‘real’ Vietnam films were really about Vietnam: I still maintain that The Deer Hunter is about masculinity and the decline of working-class communities, while Apocalypse Now is about madness and megalomania and film-making and Francis Coppola. But anyway.)

Presumably Dannatt et al would prefer that film-makers and novelists and other artists maintained this unspoken embargo, and waited until the war is over. They rely on the respect that “decent people” – a phrase that Dannatt used several times, sounding increasingly like a Daily Express editorial – have for the services at a time of war. But I think he’s got it wrong. Certainly there’s a huge level of support and respect for the soldiers themselves; the days of Kipling’s ‘Tommy’ are long gone. But if Dannatt and Collins and Wall think this translates into uncritical respect for the Army as an institution, or for the conduct of the war in Afghanistan – to the extent that artists, and consumers of art, are prepared to suspend their critical faculties for the duration – then they’re the ones who seem to have a problem with reality.


Richard said...

He's entitled to his comment, of course, but my immediate thought on reading about this earlier was when I want advice on how to conduct a military campaign, I'll ask a three star general and not Andrew Lloyd Webber. Although it could be argued that the generals are never up to much anyway.

Annie said...

I haven't seen it, but I have seen this, which got the same sort of reaction when it came out:

Nothing changes...

(Also, my preferred Vietnam movie is Full Metal Jacket. And have you ever seen Mrs Coppola's Making of movie, "Hearts of Darkness"? Francis was insane, but Eleanor remained so calm watching and filming her husband cracking up in the middle of all the insanity that she seems like the real nutcase...)

Tim Footman said...

Of course he’s entitled to his opinion, Richard. But he seemed to be drifting from “I didn’t like it” to “it shouldn’t have been made”, and that disturbs me. In fact, these days, any such attack on BBC programming from those associated with the Conservative Party (as both Dannatt and Collins are) is pretty disturbing. Rather reminds me of Tebbit’s attacks during the Falklands and the bombing of Libya, but the end game of the present Govt is even more worrying.

I thought of Blimp, Annie; it actually seems quite gentle to us, and Candy’s a lovely old buffer. Amazing that it got made at all, though.

And agree about Hearts of Darkness. That’s what changed my mind about Apoc Now; before then I thought it was about Nam, with a bit of Conrad thrown in.

Anonymous said...

Saw the Accused episode. Thought Crook was v good. But the setting - the quarry near Bolton - wasn't really up to scratch.
So - yes - happy for it to have been made and shown - but would have preferred a bigger quarry.