Until now Colchester has enjoyed a discreet and civilised reputation as home to Essex University, some distinguished Roman remains and Damon Albarn. A less than respectable aspect of this small Essex town, however, will emerge over the coming weeks in the form of Soldier Town on Channel 4.
The series charts the antics of two young women in particular, Kirsten Davies and Vikki Taylor, depicted as good time girls who adore squaddies so much that they try and join the army. As Neil the landlord says, "There's a group of girls out there that are just interested in squaddies. They want to drink with them. They want to go to bed with them. Romance doesn't come into it - one night stands do." He also says the documentary is an anodyne reflection of what really goes on among the girls and the 4,000 or so soldiers based here. "It doesn't scratch the surface," he says. "It's like Ibiza at the height of the season. It's much wilder and more promiscuous. I was quite shocked when I first started working here."
Early on we see 19-year-old Vikki, scantily clad in white, stalking a group of young soldiers near the Hippodrome nightclub. "Oi you. What's your name?" "Jamie," one answers, looking a little intimidated. "And you in front. Tell me what your name is."
She says chirpily, "Tonight I'm going to pull" and in the next scene Vikki is in bed looking hung-over and bleary-eyed. "I liked him for ages and it just happened," she explains. Later, when it transpires that this catch, along with many others, has bolted as quick as you can say, "squaddie love rat", Vikki seems deflated. "When I sleep with a soldier I don't think this is going to be a one night stand. I would like a relationship out of it."
Which may explain her dedication to the weekly hunt, a strategic operation that seems to occupy all of her time. Vikki and her mate Kirsten, 21, preening themselves in front the mirror before a night on the town, reflect on the magnetism of the military. Kirsten says, "You just think of the rough and ready. They've got nice bodies and a nice uniform."
The flip side of their Saturday night antics is the rather depressing picture of hundreds of army wives left alone to give birth and raise a family while their husbands are posted all over the world. "The men come back and nine months later we've got babies coming out of every hole available," says a jolly midwife driving through a dreary barracks estate to yet another pregnant woman about to give birth. "They're a great army of self- motivated women... and they labour like troopers."
You also have to credit Vikki and Kirsten for their enormous levels of self-motivation. To a soundtrack of "Horny, horny, horny" (what else?) in the Hippodrome, Kirsten and Vikki slink and shimmy, glancing around at the clusters of young cropped heads in crisp shirts and white jeans. But it's a competitive market and the girls have to act swiftly. When Vikki does "pull", she discovers her find is about to go off on duty for three weeks in Cyprus. "We've discussed fidelity and staying faithful," she says, staggering through the town centre, after an hour of meeting him. A few weeks later she spots him back in the 'Hippo', snogging another girl.
This is just the sort of episode that can spark the sort of incident we see early on in the documentary outside Neil's pub. In the past Colchester has had a reputation for violence although it does seem to have improved in recent years. Two weeks ago, three army officers were suspended after a drunken fight broke out at a dinner in the officer's mess in Colchester's military jail although, according to a reporter at Colchester's Evening Gazette these sorts of stories are getting rarer. "There used to be some trouble but now relations have improved. Also, the soldiers tend to stick to their own pubs these days."
The soldiers are extremely aware of their kudos among the local female population. A smug bunch of them out for a drink in the Waggon and Horses laugh about the girls' attitudes. "You don't need to chat up Colchester girls. All you do is say 'Hello. Let's have sex' and they're like, 'No, well, OK then', and that's it." His friend agrees. "It's a dream posting. As soon as we came to Colchester we knew we were going to get it every night. Go out at night and they're there. They flock on to you. You get to know all the slappers and so you try and go for the good ones."
Which, unfortunately, no longer includes Vikki. As well as failing her army exams, she is, according to Neil, rather less than popular among the local army boys. "Sticky Vikki was the one to go for," says Neil, "but then they got worried. It got to the stage where if you couldn't pull her when half the British army had, there had to be something wrong."
Having failed to get into the army Vikki now works in the local chippy. As a final evidence of her ignominy, Neil has barred her from the Waggon and Horses, although he won't say why. Meanwhile Kirsten is keen to distance herself from Vikki and present herself as squeaky clean. Settled in barracks in Wiltshire and very much the corporate employee, she says airily, "I don't really see Vikki that much now," before adding robotically, more Stepford wife than squaddie hunter, "I wanted to join the army for myself, not because I wanted to meet a soldier. I'm just so glad to be away from Colchester. People do the same things day in day out. The opportunities here are great; I get to drive tanks."
Although her mother seems sceptical in the documentary ("Why do you want to join the army to learn to type? You can do that at college") she is proud - and probably relieved - that Kirsten has escaped the horizons afforded by the Waggon and Horses. "She's grown up a lot more," says Christine, whose husband also worked in the army. "Before she only wanted to have a good time. Now she's got a career and something to talk about."
But why was the army such a big draw in the first place? "Maybe the girls like the fact they've got permanent jobs," says Christine unconvincingly. So have postmen and policemen, and a uniform as well. But you don't find young women scratching each other's eyes out over the local copper. Perhaps, then, the appeal of so many single, young men who are physically fit shouldn't be under-estimated. As Kirsten admits in the programme, "By the end of the evening you're picturing what they'd look like underneath (their clothes)."
Even Neil, though, who's subjected to the consequences week after week in his pub, finds the inevitability a little dismal. "Their expectations are quite sad," he says. "For a lot of the girls who come to my pub their only goal is to get a ring on their finger or get a man. It's so important for some reason."
Within the exceptionally narrow confines of the Waggon and Horses and the Hippodrome, who can blame them for wanting to enjoy themselves? The fact that it's often their only avenue of leisure and fulfilment is a little more depressing. In the documentary, little else seems to interest them outside the closeted culture of mixing with soldiers. In one telling moment during an army interview, when Kirsten is trying to get out of Colchester and into the army, she says, by way of introduction, "I'm 21. I work in a bar and I've got no hobbies." 'No hobbies?', says the sergeant major, slightly concerned. 'No. Well, drinking, I suppose', she replies. No wonder she can't stop smiling when he offers her the job.
'Soldier Town' screens at 9.00pm on 3 June on Channel 4.Reuse content