Boyd Tonkin is Senior Writer and a columnist at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Literary Editor at The Independent, and before that Social Policy Editor and then Books Editor at the New Statesman magazine. He has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes and has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize. In 2001, he re-founded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for literature in translation, and serves on its judging panel every year.
Thursday 29 May 1997
Meanwhile, real-life Red Watch swapped Scouse banter and hurtled round their sodden city to stop Liverpool from burning in the first of Ben Gale's series Firefighters (BBC1). Back on the dramatic side of the hazy line that separates fact from fiction when hard men go to work on TV, the lads - and token lass - in the van of the Operational Support Unit returned in Backup (BBC1). They uncovered a post-watershed plot that spliced bare-knuckle boxing (to the death) with hints, to be pursued next week, of a paedophile conspiracy. My advice is: never trust the Beardie.
One common feature in this blizzard of testosterone was the quasi-fascist cult of crack troops - SAS, Paras, the Legion itself - that sprouted like a pimple on the face of British culture with the Falklands War. The likeable Liverpudlian fire crews went in for plenty of merry chat as they clanged from blaze to hoax to smoulder. ("You're the best Australian I've ever worked with," said one firefighter to a colleague from Adelaide. "How many have you worked with?" "Only one, like"). Yet the plodding voiceover reverently told us that one of Red Watch belonged to the favoured few whose number swell miraculously in dodgy pubs near closing time: veterans of the Parachute Regiment.
In Backup, the sole woman in the van - played by Katrina Levon - unwisely fell back into bed with an old flame who had turned his failing farm into a venue for illegal fights. Clearly, only some distilled Essence of Bloke could save her - and the unit - from this pickle. Enter "Grim Jim" Reaper, a surly Geordie cop who went undercover to take on a hulking gypsy thug in the illicit ring. (Hitler slaughtered half a million of them, but gypsies still come readily to hand whenever some idle writer - Roy Mitchell in this case - needs a byword for snarling savagery.) At the end, the van collectively cottoned on to Grim Jim's proud secret. "You was SAS. You was in the Regiment." Rejoice, rejoice.
Too much of this cap-badge fetishism and an impressionable lad might fetch up in Calais ("spelt C-A-L-A-I-S," intoned the Peter Sellers voice on the telephone helpline), knocking on the door of the Legion Etrangere. Foreign Legion included enough shots of punitive press-ups to last a lifetime, but the outfit's grinding French bureaucracy also shone through. That extended to one world-class euphemism. "Avez-vous des problemes avec la justice?" the interviewing officer asked new recruit Dean Heggie, from Ecosse. Murder, drugs and armed robbery make the Legion a little hot under the kepi; otherwise, pas de probleme. Runaways can still change their name if the initiation ordeals don't bury them first. On this score, the 50km route march with an outsize backpack looked a doddle compared with the rigours of singing dirge-like regimental songs, off-key and in bad French, late into the night. "They are not so good," winced another member of the Legion's oddly understated officer corps.
Gripping stuff; but, as always with offspring of the fly-on-the-wall, you craved just a smidgen of context and history. We learned that the Legion has lost 35,000 men in 150 years, but not that most went down in sacrificial, last-ditch bids to rescue the French forces from messes that they should never have got into in the first place. As for the clipped South African officer on hand to act as our seasoned English-speaking barracks guide - why, in 1996, was he serving in the Legion rather than his newly-liberated homeland's army? I can think of several answers. None of them involves a passion for immaculately-ironed creases.
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