Last Night's TV - Our War, BBC3; Poor Kids, BBC1; Angry Boys, BBC3
Beyond the call of duty
Wednesday 08 June 2011
You know things are a bit serious when your airline offers you body armour for the descent, rather than a boiled sweet. I don't know whether the young men of 1st Battalion the Royal Anglian registered that sobering flight announcement as they took their seats for the flight to Kandahar in the summer of 2007, but it was recorded inadvertently by one of their platoon sergeants, Simon Panter, who seems to have turned his video on at the beginning of their six-month deployment and simply left it running. Along with hours of footage from his colleagues' helmet cameras, recently released by the Ministry of Defence, his recordings formed the basis for
Our War, the first of three programmes giving a soldier's-eye view of the war in Afghanistan.
Armchair warriors have been on this front before, of course – face down in some Afghan ditch as the bullets whine past overhead. Ross Kemp went, among others, and there have been two recent feature film releases (Restrepo and Armadillo), which take you startlingly close to the action. Even so, Our War managed to deliver something fresh, with its concentration on a single action that played out over several hours. The platoon that went out in the morning was still relatively inexperienced. By the time they'd come back, they'd taken their first fatality, and they finally knew the difference between combat in theory and combat in practice.
It was an education they'd been craving, with the innocence of the unblooded. "Yes! This is what it's all about," shouted one of the soldiers as the Taliban first opened fire, his voice exultant. Another one, writing to his mother a few days before the operation, had told her that "everyone's dying to get some trigger time" – a line she understandably faltered over as she reread the letter, because he'd actually died getting it. Chris Gray, on point with a light machine gun, had been hit by a round that went through a gap in his body armour, and Our War concentrated on the small group of men who had to absorb that shock and try to evacuate him.
What it captured very well was how shocking shock can be – months of training dissolving in confusion and paralysis. "He's dead," said a boy's voice in tones of disbelief as Gray was turned over, much as he might have done if a video game had suddenly started shooting back. And although excellent graphics and retrospective interviews gave you a coherent sense of the battlefield, as soon as the raw footage returned it was dismantled again, by a chaos of undergrowth and yelling and gunfire. Adrenalin seemed to stun some of them and enrage others: "If he dies because of you three I am going to hate you for ever," bellowed the sergeant as Chris's mates struggled to carry him to a medical helicopter. When the adrenalin faded it left behind a pounding headache and a determination to reciprocate. "I actually wanted to kill someone," said the platoon's thoughtful lieutenant, as if it was an odd kind of thought for a soldier to have. He's since left the army to teach history, so I think he must have lost his appetite for war.
Jezza Neumann's film Poor Kids patrolled a less glamorous front line – the daily grind of living below the poverty line, again viewed from the perspective of those at the heart of the fight, in this case some of the 3.5 million children in Britain who live below the poverty line. And just as Our War had offered a piercing contrast between gung-ho machismo and the brutal realities, Poor Kids shimmered between the charming insouciance of childhood and a precocious knowledge of how tough the world can be. Sam – a bright, articulate boy who lives with his sister and half-brother – explained how cold it got when the gas money ran out and how he was teased at school because of his tattered trousers and the hand-me-down girl's shirt he had to wear. For his birthday, a relative had taken him for his first ever haircut, a present that didn't dismay Sam but made him beam at the thought of standing out less.
Courtney, a little girl from Bradford, chatted about her eczema and interrogated a more prosperous friend about the difference between their circumstances: "How come your family is different and they can go on holiday and our family can't?" "It's because my family isn't scared of heights," replied her friend solemnly. Moments like that meant it couldn't be all gloom. But the prevailing tone was of squalor and melancholy. "I don't want to have a wife," said Sam, who'd been abandoned by his mother on his second birthday, "just in case she leaves me, and then I'll have to be like dad, taking care of three children by himself." We are – an onscreen statistic informed us – 18th in a league table of 22 European countries in terms of child poverty, and the gloomy thought occurred that austerity cuts may well lead to a further relegation.
Alongside these two fine documentaries, the calculated heartlessness of Chris Lilley's Angry Boys looked very callow. It's too early for a final verdict, since Summer Heights High brilliantly managed to combine black comedy with a certain compassion for some of its grotesques. But fans of that series may find themselves disappointed by this one – and the character S.mouse – a middle-class rapper who craves street cred – is a serious miscalculation. Don't invite comparisons with Ali G unless you've got something seriously good up your sleeve.
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