If I were a soldier, out of my depth in a country whose terrain seemed riddled with danger, isolated from the rest of the squad and hopelessly ill-equipped to fight a desert war, the last person I'd want around would be a BBC reporter like Ursula. She's a feisty Irish girl with so much personal baggage that it would need a jeep - sorry lads, "rover" - to cart it around if it weren't tucked unsafely away in her head.
And if I were "Ma'am", as Ursula is addressed, I wouldn't loiter around any war zone with these four British soldiers. Trust them at a checkpoint? I wouldn't trust them at a supermarket check-out. Yet that's where we are, in Southern Iraq, April 2003, in Colin Teevan's khaki thriller (originally a radio drama) How Many Miles to Basra?. Having killed three innocent and unarmed Bedouins, the soldiers are in a mess. One victim survives long enough to tell them - as they ineptly try to stuff back his bleeding guts - that he's on his way to hand over blood money (ah, so that's why their boot was stashed with loot) to save his wife and child from the clutches of the evil Sheikh Kuffa.
The soldiers glean this only because useful Ursula has a smattering of Arabic. "Boss" Stewart McDonald decides to divert his little squad across the sands to Kabro a Generals to hand over the dosh and perform a madcap mission of mercy. He's actually doing it not so much to salve his conscience for the dead Bedouin as because he can't let go of his responsibility for the death of a girl in Northern Ireland.
Ursula, determined to get her big story, hires a driver (Kevork Malikyan as a sad and wily old Iraqi) and also sets off for the temple of the generals' grave. The paths of the two driving parties cross in an unlikely coincidence and, under a sun that beats relentlessly down, events inevitably begin to spiral out of control.
Led by Matthew Flynn as Sergeant McDonald, the soldiers are convincing, if a bit stereotypical, in characterisation, each shown to have his own reasons for being there in the first place. They reveal touching fragments of their lives and views, sometimes addressing the audience as if in a radio interview.
The acting is good and, as the soldiers' boyish banter degenerates into fearful aggression and crumbling morale, each new situation provokes an increasingly personal and often highly charged response. Flora Montgomery, as Ursula, is a splendidly driven reporter, eventually arousing sympathy for her doggedness, whatever her actual motives.
Ian Brown's excellent production owes much to Jeremy Daker's effective set. Sliding walls of shattered glass, a shimmering backcloth on which are variously projected broken pylons, the skeletal outline of a city, a rosy desert mirage and a heap of rubble, are both realistic and curiously dream-like.
Ursula's story is framed by her encounters at Broadcasting House where, in the aftermath of the Gilligan affair over the "sexing up" of a dossier, her BBC colleagues have been marched into a strait-jacket by scaredy-cat governors. Her slippery producer contact (Emilio Doorgasingh) - a smooth-tongued, self-centred executive - is more absorbed with covering his back than in whether or not she has a good story, or even reveals "the greater truth".
The dilemma at the heart of Teevan's drama is the definition of truth and morality in war. The issues of responsibility and morality in the army, in politics and in the media are turned over, kicked around, but ultimately and rightly left unresolved in this gripping battle for hearts and minds a few miles from Basra.
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