Last Night's TV: Harry's Arctic Heroes/BBC1
You don't get to meet people like this very often," said Harry Wales, describing the four disabled Afghanistan veterans whose trek to the North Pole he was briefly going to join. Well, I don't, Harry, I thought... but surely it can't be that much of a rarity for you? It goes with the job really, doesn't it? All those hospital visits and hearts-and-minds tours, all those occasions when a royal handshake is assumed to be a sovereign remedy for the riot-struck and the dispossessed. It's partly what a prince is for these days. The old role, of being inaccessibly distant and more special than anyone around them, lingers on. But to it has been added the new duty of being ostentatiously less special than certain commoners. Prince Harry – regal rugger bugger and honorary squaddie – is actually quite good at this. As he said in Harry's Arctic Heroes: "I like to think I'm just one of the lads, whether I am or not."
One of the "lads" here thought that Harry had added "credibility" to their charitable project, though surely what he really added was celebrity, of an exclusively hallmarked kind. The credibility they had supplied all by themselves, by virtue of the grimness of their qualifications to take part in an enterprise called Walking with the Wounded. Captain Martin Hewitt, for example, had found himself in Afghanistan ferreting with his left hand in the wreckage of his right shoulder, trying to pinch shut an artery that was pulsing his life blood into the sand. And Guy Disney had lost his left leg to an RPG: "It was almost like when you swing a boot by its laces," he recalled vividly, "there were a couple of bits of tendon left holding it on."
Along with Jaco van Gass, a young South African who'd lost his arm, and Steve Young, whose back was broken after an IED strike, they planned to walk 160 miles to the North Pole, an enterprise that would be challenging even for the fittest person. Harry was on hand to whip up a bit of heat – in the media sense – and to perform that useful function of being humbled by his colleague's resilience: "You know what," he said at one point. "If I do go back [to Afghanistan] and I do end up getting hit, I hope I end up like these guys." It might have been phrased better, that, but you knew what he was trying to say. A lot of the rhetoric of courage and challenge in the thing is focused on the polar walk itself (they'd only just set out by the end of this first episode). But all four of these men had probably already done the hardest slog, trudging through the Arctic of the mind that divides the unmarked from the permanently disabled. The fact that they could even set out cheerfully was the real triumph.
Jaco mused at one point about the number of people that a serious injury affects, trauma rippling out to affect family and friends. Debbie Tucker Green's play Random was about collateral damage too, detailing the banalities of a day that begins as tediously ordinary and ends in extraordinary grief. Like the stage play from which she'd adapted it for television, it was built around a single remarkable performance – Nadine Marshall reprising her multiple role as every member of a black family on the day the youngest child is killed in a street stabbing. But where the stage version presented you with nothing but a single performer – jinking from voice to voice as it built up the narrative of the day – the television version had been opened out a little. Now and then the image cut away from Marshall, alone in an empty studio, for location vignettes of other actors playing the characters (though not speaking their words) and for stop-motion montages of the settings and background, and on-screen titles indicating unspoken thoughts.
I don't think this will have been entirely helpful for viewers, some of whom may already have been struggling with the rapid patois in which Random is written and the repeated deflations of the commercial breaks. The chop and shift of images delayed the moment at which you finally grasped what the play was doing, and could shift your concentration from mere comprehension to an appreciation of Green's language and observation. Once that moment came, though, it was as potent as it was in the theatre. "Shoes on in the front room? They better be police," said the daughter, arriving home to find her mother's formal front room invaded by strangers who don't understand the house rules. For a moment the old benchmark of the unforgivable is still in place, not yet dislodged by something infinitely worse.
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