Last Night's TV: McNab's Tour of Duty, ITV4
The Supersizers Go... Seventies, BBC2
He should let the soldiers call the shots
Wednesday 11 June 2008
"Soldiers call it 'the sandpit'," said a fuzzy man in combat gear, over footage of Iraq and Afghanistan, "but it ain't no game." Helpful to have that clarified, I thought, what with us having just reached the baleful waypost of the 100th combat death in Afghanistan. It did seem like a very high casualty rate for a hobby. The thick-eared redundancy of the opening remark of McNab's Tour of Duty – and its implicit preoccupation with the difference between men and boys – did make me wonder whether ITV4's new series would be a seemly tribute to the risks taken by the armed forces. But if not, the soldiers may not mind, since they seem to share Andy McNab's appetite for the gung-ho. "If I was a football player and I trained every week, I'd want to play in the FA Cup final," one soldier had explained to his family, when they expressed disquiet about his deployment. The fixture itself hadn't obviously dimmed his enthusiasm. "It was the best adrenalin buzz I'd ever had in my life," he said later, about coming under fire.
This isn't intended for real soldiers, though. It's intended for the armchair kind, people such as Gareth from The Office, who like to make water-cooler small talk about the tactical advantage an L96 sniper rifle will give you when you're pinned down by the Mahdi army. McNab, a well-established brand when it comes to war-comic machismo, presides as a kind of master of ceremonies, delivering platitudes about military tactics in a Ronseal voice and tying together the real-life war stories that are at the core of the thing. Last night, they reconstructed the siege of Y Company from the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment in a building in downtown al-Amarah, a temptingly prominent target for the supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr.
It looked like a horrible place to do your day job, particularly since the day job had a way of running right through the night and into the following day. Video footage shot by soldiers showed you insurgent mortar rounds falling nearby as well as the craters left by those that had fallen even nearer. And, when McNab got out of the way, there were some real insights into the psychology of combat. "Because it was a peace-keeping tour, I thought, 'I can't fire my weapon, I'm going to get into trouble,'" said one soldier recalling a fire-fight in the street, the fear of disciplinary action somehow defeating the rather more urgent matter of the man firing an AK-47 at him. When McNab says something, it generally sounds slightly ridiculous. "The British Army has a solution to low morale," he said urgently at one point. "Banter." The line conjured an image of fresh boxes of quips being airlifted in when jocularity ran low. But when the soldiers are left to speak for themselves, you get a better sense of what he's on about. "Like a Yorkie bar," said one soldier, showing off his standard-issue grenade to a friend's camcorder. "Once it's open, everyone gets a bit."
Yorkies arrived too late to feature in The Supersizers Go... Seventies, BBC2's history of British gluttony. Instead, Giles Coren and Sue Perkins stuffed their faces with sherbet dabs, chocolate cigarettes and Golden Nuggets, staggering from a retro sweet shop with their cheeks bulging after exploring the confectionery of their youth. Oddly, talking with your mouth full seems to be a crucial element of this series, as if the audience might not grasp that it's about food unless masticated pap is visibly dribbling from the corners of the presenters' mouths. Giles Coren is a particular offender on this front, eating everything he encounters with the same wildly champing jaws, like a dog trying to finish off a particularly resilient frog. After that, he goes back to his study, where he belches and emits intestinal gurgles, all of which would be avoidable if he just slowed down and took slightly smaller portions.
Small portions weren't really a Seventies thing, of course, the headline fact here being that Seventies consumers averaged around 750 more calories a day but still didn't end up obese. X-ray shots of Giles's lower intestine revealed that this might be because a diet heavy in fat, alcohol and whatever blend of chemicals goes into butterscotch Angel Delight results in a much swifter "transit time", as if the bowel couldn't wait to get rid of what the mouth so unwisely took in. And it can't be because they drank less. Len Deighton's Action Cookbook recommended planning for half a bottle of spirits per drinker for every two hours of a good party, rising to three-quarters of a bottle when things get going. You wouldn't have known from this sequence that Len Deighton was actually a rather accomplished cook who did his bit to introduce basic French technique to British readers, but for that you'd have to have been watching a history of food culture, rather than this grease-spattered comedy double act.
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