First Night: The Taking of Prince Harry, Channel 4

Drama ill at ease with the real and present dangers
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The Independent Culture

There was a fundraising event held in London yesterday evening for a foundation set up in the memory of Karen Woo, abducted and murdered along with a group of fellow doctors. An investigation is about to start into the death of Linda Norgrove, killed while American special forces tried to rescue her from her kidnappers. The seizing of hostages with terrible consequences is very much a fact of life and death in Afghanistan.

Channel 4 is very concerned about this, around 15 people are kidnapped every week in Afghanistan, most of them local, and this remains largely unreported, we heard at the start of last night's programme. So the Channel decided to highlight the problem, not by examining a real abduction, but the story of how Prince Harry may fall into the hands of the Taliban if he goes back to serve in the war.

The Chief of Defence Staff, Sir Jock Stirrup, had written to Channel 4 asking them to scrap the programme because it would apparently distress families of the troops serving in Afghanistan and undermine morale. One would have thought that the head of the military would have better things to do at a time when the forces were facing massive cuts from the government than get involved in altercation about a piece of entertainment very thinly disguised as a 'drama-documentary' about world affairs. In the event Channel 4 predictably refused, and the programme got some useful free publicity.

'The Taking of Prince Harry' should have been a winner for the programme makers. When the news of Prince Harry's actual tour of Afghanistan broke a few years back the publicity was enormous. Purely by chance I had been in Musa Qala in Helmand where the Prince was serving when he was 'outed' by a lifestyle magazine in Australia. The soldiers he left behind were amazed and somewhat bemused by the amount of coverage the matter received back in the UK. But the public seemed to have a voracious appetite for Harry's War and no doubt the thinking was that a thrilling fictional sequel would have had enomous appeal.

The problem with the programme was not the somewhat far-fetched proposition that it undermined the war effort, but that it was pretty turgid. The problem was the format. Channel 4 had gathered a group of real life 'experts' and the story of Harry being captured by the insurgents after his Apache helicopter-gunship was shot down was continuously intercut with talking heads not saying anything particularly interesting, new or informative. Often we were told things twice, presumably just in case we missed it the first time. This, in the dramatic reconstruction, the Director of Special Forces, tells the crisis team gathered at COBRA that kidnappers often move their captors about to foil rescue attempts. In the next scene one of the experts, Colonel Richard Kemp, says exactly same thing. A little later, another expert says it is sometimes difficult to know who the kidnappers exactly are, this is then repeated by the fictional foreign secretary in the drama bit of the show.

There are some pretty obvious inaccuracies. Linda Norgrove we are told, at least in the preview version of the programme I saw, was "brutally murdered" by her captors, when in fact, we now know, she most probably died from an US grenade. Harry carries his own personal mobile telephone into a combat mission - something which simply would not be allowed in real life. This enables the kidnappers to call the British embassy from the number stored there. Such dramatic licence is perhaps acceptable if it helps the storyline to flow smoothly, but here it flows like treacle. The action, amid all this, seemed to be hurriedly bolted on. A special forces raid to free Harry came with absolutely no build up, 'hush-hush' talks between spies had all the tension of a weather report. The rather garbled ending is rushed through, but, that, at least, was a relief when it did come. By then, like Harry, I wanted nothing more than to escape.