Required viewing for all the lads: What did real Paras think about TV's Civvies, asks Sean Rayment

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The Independent Online
NOT SO much Prime Suspect as very suspect, was how one critic cruelly put it; and he was not alone. Lynda La Plante, widely regarded as one of the hottest writers in television, seemed to have shot herself in the foot with her BBC drama, Civvies, first screened last Tuesday, dealing with the anguish facing soldiers when they try to resume their lives on Civvy Street.

For those not among the estimated nine million viewers of the first episode, it went something like this: after 15 years' service, an NCO quits the Parachute Regiment to start a new life, gets lamentably drunk, joins a party of ex-Paras in mercilessly thrashing drinkers in an Irish pub, feebly tries to get a job, but instead ends working as a 'heavy' for a crook and beating up a police officer.

The reaction in Wednesday's newspapers was just about as subtle: 'I wouldn't be surprised if, thanks to her efforts on their behalf, including service with the Parachute Regiment in your CV became the equivalent of putting down necrophilia as a hobby.' (Daily Mail); 'a sour and inaccurate portrait . . . the Paras were played as alcoholic, anti-social, unbalanced and unemployable thugs' (Times).

The Ministry of Defence, claiming the drama portrayed soldiers as social misfits, refused to co-operate. The Parachute Regiment's Colonel Commandant, Lt Gen Sir Michael Gray, wrote to Michael Checkland, the BBC's Director-General, before the first episode was screened, complaining of inaccuracies, adding: 'The story belittles and will demoralise the very soldiers Lynda La Plante claims to be fighting for.'

So were they demoralised? The officers of the regiment were, for the most part, pretty unhappy. One captain in 3 Para declared: 'I thought it was absolute rot. To suggest senior non-commissioned officers from this regiment brawl in the streets is absurd.'

A 2 Para corporal with 10 years' service watched the first episode along with other soldiers in a favourite pub of Paras in Aldershot: 'Halfway through a lot of blokes walked out in disgust. But I didn't think it was too damaging. It wasn't so much about the regiment but about a soldier coming to terms with being a civvy. I thought it was quite good.'

A warrant officer with more than 20 years' experience, who had been decorated in Northern Ireland and fought in the Falklands, said: 'The violence and the number of inaccuracies blew its credibility for me. But I can sympathise with the trauma he (Frank Dillon, the main character) was going through when he left the regiment. That happens to a lot of blokes. There is a lot of talk in the regiment about esprit de corps and for the most part it's true. But if you're not up and running with the rest of the stallions you're allowed to fall by the wayside. And once you've said you want to leave, that's it, you're finished. In that respect I thought it was quite accurate.'

Some Paras went further. A captain who started his career as a private soldier said: 'I don't think this has done us any damage at all. If anything our recruiting figures will probably rise.'

Halfway through the first episode of Civvies, Frank Dillon, the central character, tells of his plans to open a security firm. Ex-para Alan Malcher did exactly that and now runs a successful business in Aldershot. He said: 'I wasn't that impressed with the first episode. I left after six years' service and I managed to settle into Civvy Street without any difficulties. This series isn't going to cause problems for the regiment, but it will cause problems for blokes leaving and trying to find jobs. Employers will think more ex-Paras are a bunch of thugs.'

An ex-Para corporal who served with the regiment for 20 years and now runs a pub spoke bitterly of his time with regiment: 'Twenty years I spent in the Paras, and at the end of it all I got was a handshake and 'Thanks very much'. No-one cares about you once you've left. And that's what the programme said. So I thought it was quite accurate.'

Interestingly, Sir Michael Gray changed his tune after watching the programme for the first time: 'I am impressed and it proved to me how wrong it is to make a judgement about a television programme from the written word . . . it has a very good impact and is very real.'

One thing is certain; the remaining episodes will definitely be required viewing for all Paras.

Television, page 20

(Photograph omitted)