Last Night's TV: A timely salute to the casualties of war

Forgotten Heroes: The Not Dead, Channel 4; Napoleon: Heroes and Villains, BBC1; Capturing Mary, BBC2
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The Independent Culture

The sequence seems logical: on Remembrance Sunday, you pay homage to the dead, the day after you do the same for the not dead. Perhaps we could do this every year. This year, to get us started, we had The Not Dead, a collaboration between the film-maker Brian Hill and the poet Simon Armitage, who made Feltham Sings and Songbirds. Three soldiers - Guardsman Tromans, Private Holland and Fusilier Beddoes - told their

stories. The use of ranks, rather than first names, may have been meant to make their experiences seem more representative, less personal, though you could hardly get more personal than parts of this. It was also a reminder of the peculiar multiplicity of titles the British Army has for the poor sods at the bottom of the pile.

Fusilier Beddoes was a "peacekeeper" in Bosnia in 1994, though the title was a joke: death squads would pass through checkpoints unchecked, and later he would see their handiwork - women tied to trees, slit throat to navel, that sort of thing. His was ended when a bullet took off part of his face - Hill saved that view up for later on - and passing down through his neck to played pinball around his body, smashing bones and ripping vital organs. Private Holland, who served in the Malayan "emergency" in 1951-2, recalled the ambush that killed 10 of his 13-man patrol. He remembered the racket, of guns, bugles, football rattles, whistles, and men screaming for their mothers. Years later, he met the mother of one of those men, still persecuted by the thought that he might have died slowly. Private Holland reassured her that he had died instantly, without pain. But it wasn't true. Guardsman Tromans, the youngest, remembered the fear, all day, every day, of serving in Iraq, and the man he had shot, screaming as his insides spilled out on the ground.

These things - what Tromans called "the stuff that you see, the action that you take" - were only the start of the story: then came the homecoming. For Guardsman Tromans, this involved drinking and fighting, days when he was too frightened to leave the house. For Private Holland, nightmares that ended his career in the police and have kept him sleeping apart from his wife for decades. For Fusilier Beddoes, depression and outbursts of rage that persuaded his wife to get herself and their children out of the house. But she was here to talk about him cheerfully and tenderly - as she said, a lot of men had seen the same things as him and felt nothing: "They're the scary ones." He had at least got medical help while he was still in the army, though it dried up after. Tromans, seeking counselling, was laughed out of the office with cracks about basket-weaving, while Holland had been left to himself.

As in earlier films, Armitage wove their stories into poetry, some of which was deft and moving, and spoken with unfussy force by the soldiers. But it was their own words, above all, that made The Not Dead

so moving, shaming and inspiring.

Next to this the drama documentary Napoleon: Heroes and Villains, was, though undoubtedly stylish, a tad silly. This was the story of how the upstart Corsican artillery officer made his name fighting for the Revolution at the siege of Toulon in 1793. With the Terror in full swing, the alternative to success is the guillotine for him, starvation for his family. But in his way are incompetent military superiors, and a doctrinaire, self-serving political commissar with an eye for a pretty girl, which is caught by Napoleon's 13-year-old sister. Tom Burke was a plausibly hard-edged Napoleon, but only briefly, at the end, caught the charisma; Rob Brydon, as the chilly commissar, was pretty much flawless. Dialogue and photography both swaggered, getting across the period's rhetorical extravagance and paranoia, but, short on context and consequences, the action felt meaningless. And you would have gathered from this that the French Revolution was purely a clash of egos: liberty, equality and fraternity weren't even distant echoes.

The recent spate of Stephen Poliakoff plays ended with Capturing Mary, and I'll admit to a puff of relief that it's over. In this one, an elderly woman, Mary Gilbert (Maggie Smith, being adorable), reminisced about her blazing youth, and how it all went wrong after she ran across a sinister individual called Greville White. An odd ghost-story coda seemed to imply Greville was some sort of personification of evil, but Poliakoff didn't come up with any action to justify this, and David Walliams could only make him a creep, not genuinely creepy. I liked Saturday night's scene-setter, A Real Summer, much more. Both plays, though set in the Fifties, were about the liberation of the Sixties, and what it was like for the ruling classes to feel the upheaval coming. A Real Summer did it with economy and wit, and gave Ruth Wilson, the young Mary in both films, a chance to show off. Capturing Mary took a long time and in the end felt insubstantial: high-class smoke and mirrors, nothing more.

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