Last Night's TV - Accused, BBC1; Don't Hit My Mum, BBC1; Kennedy Assassination: 24 Hours After, History
When the battle still rages
Tuesday 23 November 2010
The television dramatist, not unlike the newspaper columnist, can heave a sigh of satisfaction on causing something of a brouhaha. Provocation is not the objective of all dramas, or indeed all columns, but the mission is always to elicit some kind of response, and what better response than the purple wrath of retired colonels, except perhaps the purple wrath of serving colonels?
That, at any rate, is what has been visited upon last night's episode of Accused, "Frankie's Story", in which Jimmy McGovern aimed a howitzer at the British army with a tale of institutionalised bullying so brutal that it caused one young soldier to shoot himself and landed another with a life sentence for murder.
It wasn't hard to see why the head of the army, General Sir Peter Wall, asked the BBC to ban transmission. First, there was the suggestion that a couple of Northern scallies only joined the army to get out of convictions for assault. Then, there was the battle scene in Afghanistan, so terrifying that one of the lads, Peter MacShane (Ben Batt), though brave and hard enough in civvy street to have been an amateur boxing champion, suffered a panic attack and was unable to return fire. Next came the bullying sequences, with MacShane turned into the company's "bitch" by the psychopathically nasty Lance Corporal Buckley (Mackenzie Crook), an indignity that included being showered with buckets of excrement.
No wonder the same stuff has hit the fan at the Ministry of Defence, for not only did MacShane put a bullet through his own head, but the horrible Buckley made a pretty good fist of justifying the ritual of making life unutterably miserable for one hapless soldier. "The army," he said, attracts "young men with very little imagination. That's why they're so fucking brave, because half the time they can't imagine the consequences of their actions, and that's how we like it." The victimisation of one of their fellows, he added, was to spell out the consequences of stepping out of line, helping to create obedience, loyalty, camaraderie and ultimately, effective soldiering.
It was an eloquent defence of the indefensible, but it cut no ice with Peter's mate Frankie (Benjamin Smith), who avenged his friend's suicide, and his own selection as replacement bitch, by stabbing Buckley to death. This was all precisely as grim as it sounds, but the issue up for consideration in this column is not whether "Frankie's Story" was unfair on the army, because McGovern and the BBC have been at pains to explain that the thing was wholly fictional, and fiction should surely be allowed to tread whatever ground it likes. No, the issue here is: was it good enough?
Certainly, the acting couldn't be faulted, and Crook's performance all but obliterated memories of Gareth in The Office (although my wife did point out that Gareth was very proud of being in the Territorial Army). McGovern's manifold skills shone through, too. It is very clever, the way he keeps us speculating on what has landed the defendant in the dock, and in a way we were double-bluffed last night, for it seemed almost too obvious that Frankie would end up murdering his tormentor.
However, I thought "Willy's Story" last week a finer piece of drama, character-led where this was issue-led, leaving too many questions unresolved. For instance, where were the officers in this benighted company? Why was there no official enquiry into a soldier's suicide? Could a tyrant like Buckley, in the modern British army, really only be stopped by a knife? Yes, you can take liberties in fiction, but to take them at the expense of plausibility is asking too much of the viewer. That said, McGovern is sufficiently long in the tooth to know that understatement never forced an issue into the headlines.
Another emotive issue was raised by Alesha Dixon, the Strictly Come Dancing judge, in Don't Hit My Mum, a documentary about domestic violence. Dixon witnessed it in her own childhood, as, annually, do upwards of 750,000 children in Britain. She talked to some of them, and also to a wife-beater who has checked himself into a "perpetrators' programme". Unsurprisingly, he grew up in an abusive household himself, and was clear enough about the equation that had turned him into a version of his own father: "I love my dad, he's doing these things, so they must be right."
Dixon did an admirable job of drawing attention to this blight on a civilised society, and it would have been an even better job had the BBC scheduled it at a more accessible time than 10.35pm. Still, at least the History channel got the timing right with Kennedy Assassination: 24 Hours After, screening it on the 47th anniversary of JFK's death, and compelling stuff it was too, even for those of us who thought that we had been made aware, over the years, of every conceivable angle on the subject.
This documentary focused on the transfer of presidential power from Kennedy to his vice-president, Lyndon Johnson, during hours of chaos and bewilderment. It was a tale of bitter enmity, principally involving Johnson, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and FBI chief J Edgar Hoover. Apparently, it was with manifest satisfaction that Hoover conveyed the dreadful news from Dallas to the younger Kennedy. Sometimes the truth is even more disturbing than fiction, but don't tell General Sir Peter Wall.
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