Television Review

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The Independent Culture
EXPLOITATION NEEDS a rest. Exploitation is an overworked word these days and it never gets the nice jobs: it's what bosses do to workers, pimps do to prostitutes, cowboys do to Indians, rich countries do to poor countries, and never what orange trees do to sunshine. So let's go easy on exploitation for a while. Let some other word deal with the nasty stuff.

But before exploitation packs its bags and heads for the sun, we could do with making use of its services for a while, just long enough to sort out Bravo Two Zero (BBC1) and The Vice (ITV). Now, both of these were grown-up dramas which tried to treat serious themes (war, prostitution) in an adult manner, and both of them set out to convince the viewer that they weren't simply exploiting sex and violence for ratings. But, of course, that's exactly what they were doing. How could they help it?

Andy McNab's Bravo Two Zero at least had the excuse that it was based on true-life events, though as the story has become further and further removed from the actual events - first by being turned into a bestselling book, then by being transposed onto the small screen - that fact has started to seem less important. McNab has said that he agreed to let the BBC have the film rights because the corporation was concerned with being faithful to his account of an SAS patrol's experience of being stuck behind Iraqi lines during the Gulf War. But drama is drama; and watching this expensively made two-parter, authenticity felt more like a stylistic choice than anything to do with representing reality. The viewer was allowed the odd swift glimpse of raw flesh following a firefight with Iraqi troops, just enough to remind you, briefly, that war is horrific, but not enough to horrify you.

Not that I didn't enjoy Bravo Two Zero. I had an Action Man as a boy - three of them, in fact - and will probably always be a sucker for tales of military heroism, even when, as here, the heroic tone is camouflaged by downbeat talk about "professionalism" and "the training taking over". Sunday night's first half thrilled the Action Man owner in me - especially the part when the eight-man platoon, "compromised" by an Arab shepherd boy (whoops), were forced to fight off Iraqi tanks and armoured personnel carriers. But it was hard not to notice the imperial echoes: this was a replay, with machine guns and rocket launchers, of Zulu, or Beau Geste, or The Four Feathers.

After McNab was captured and we got closer to the Iraqis, the feeling that we were being shown late-Victorian stereotypes got stronger. The Iraqi officers were heavily moustachioed types who respected the professionalism of their prisoners. The secret policemen were callow, giggling sadists - farting deliberately to discomfort the dignified Englishmen, forcing them to clean latrines with their bare hands while offering barely concealed sexual innuendo. However sincerely McNab's book or Troy Kennedy Martin's screenplay intended to portray the "truth", this was drama which exploited xenophobia and a boyish delight in things that go bang. It may have avoided showing too much blood, but it was still not a pretty spectacle.

The Vice had a different set of delusions: this one was all about complicated morality, how the police and the people they lock up are two sides of the same coin. At any rate, that seemed to be the message of the title sequence, which had the credits flashed up against a kaleidoscopically shifting picture of a police station and a brothel, the bleak blue corridors of one morphing seamlessly into the opulent scarlet spaces of the other.

It helped that the senior vice squad copper, Pat Chappel, was played by Ken Stott, whose face can't help signalling dogged, stoical vulnerability. He played the type of policeman - not that there is such a type - who sits on the sofa to comfort working girls while they talk about their abortions and then seals the conversation with a gentle kiss on the forehead. Meanwhile, Chappel's brash young assistant, Dougie, could barely hold in the drool while a beautiful high-class tart told him about keeping her clients on a tight leash. The viewer was supposed to identify with the puritanical but sympathetic Chappel; but really, we're just Dougies, and it's our need to be titillated that was being exploited here. Or why else would this be on commercial primetime?