Taking the Flak - The joy of foreign parts

In between dodging the snipers and the mortar rounds, everyone's having sex in BBC2's racy new sitcom about overseas news reporting. The Independent's defence correspondent, Kim Sengupta, reports, this time from the front row

Friday 03 July 2009 00:00
Taking the Flak is dependent on collegiate war stories too, rather more literally in this case since BBC2's new comedy is about foreign correspondents covering a small African war that has just got big.
Taking the Flak is dependent on collegiate war stories too, rather more literally in this case since BBC2's new comedy is about foreign correspondents covering a small African war that has just got big.

Sitting in a hotel room in a "war torn" African country, the dumpy and dowdy correspondent of the World Service bemoans that she is suffering from unrequited lust while the rest of her BBC colleagues are flying and fornicating around the world.

"What are they doing, collecting Affair Miles, or something?" she wails.

This is a scene from the new BBC comedy drama, Taking the Flak. The alternative title mooted was "The Calais Rules", the supposed understanding among foreign correspondents that "after you cross the English Channel what goes on tour stays on tour". This is explained to the hapless reporter, Margaret Hollis, by the producer, Jane Thomason (Smack the Pony's Doon Mackichan), who is herself bonking the cameraman, Rory Wallace. She has had a recent fling with the roving chief foreign editor, David Bradburn (Martin Jarvis), who has a roving eye and abides by the tried-and-tested BBC "frisk meter" in sampling local totty. The local stringer, Harry Chambers, meanwhile, is having an affair with a hotel receptionist in an attempt to "build up contacts."

A lot of this new series about the media covering conflicts revolves around the joys of overseas sex. In between dodging the snipers and the mortar rounds, everyone's at it, or talking about it. It is a pity, in some ways, that the title was changed. "The Calais Rules" would have introduced a new catchphrase to the wider public which, to a certain extent, Drop the Dead Donkey, managed to do. It is, however, none the worse for that. While covering conflicts does lead to absurd and farcical moments, it would have been very difficult to sustain the humour over seven episodes without a good dollop of the slapstick sex.

There may also be a feeling that the series, starting on BBC2 next week, is a bit of Beeb "love-in" in more ways than one. The main characters all work for the BBC. Tira Shubart – the co-author – is a former producer, and there are cameos in the first episode from George Alagiah, Sophie Raworth, Dermot Murnaghan, Bill Turnbull, and Sian Williams, as well as references to Peter Sissons, and Orla Guerin. Fiona Bruce and Emily Maitlis will follow.

Does that matter? No. The main thing is that it is, mostly, very funny. The main character, Bradburn, the chief foreign editor is preening, conceited, a bit of a buffoon and a prima donna who sees the purpose of the rest of the crew as being there to make him look good. Played with just the right degree of bathos by Martin Jarvis, he is, according to some, based on the great John Simpson. Apparently, Simpson met Jarvis to offer tips on how best to portray him when filming began in Kenya and has been quoted as saying, "I have offered Martin advice, mainly about how this work is done, the way people are and how they respond in these situations. The thing I impressed upon him most was mainly about how competitive it all is... Broadcast news is red in tooth and claw, the most competitive business in the world and you have to be on your guard all the time."

If Simpson is happy about the way he is portrayed then he has, according to a colleague at the BBC, "a level of self-deprecation we didn't know he possessed". Shubart, who was Simpson's partner for 11 years, stresses that Bradburn is not based on Simpson, but is rather a composite character. "John is personally the most generous of men, not someone who would go around grabbing all the receipts as is seen in this. And he is not a womaniser," she said. "I sent him a copy of the script, after it was finished, not before, and he remains a good friend." The script does, however, target the celebrity culture that permeates all news organisations, not just the BBC.

Aside from Jarvis's character, Mackichan plays the producer Thomason, nicknamed "Cash Cow" by Bradburn. Her task is to keep the BBC team on the road in the fictional "Karibu", a country in east Africa that has the continent's largest oil reserves and is being courted by Russia and the US. In the process it's in danger of becoming the frontline in a new cold war. It's up to Thomason to doctor the reception book at the hotel to ensure that the BBC gets four rooms – one with a bath for Bradburn who " unfortunately sweats a lot" – try to keep track of the journalists, cope with the nerdish desk producer and to keep supplying the money.

"Not many senior people in TV know what producers have to do. They know about the journalists and the cameramen, but not the producers. I can hear a bit of myself in Jane," says Shubart.

Taking The Flak is, of course, a comedy. But just how close is it to real life? The characters are certainly recognisable as those you tend to meet in such places – the battle hardened, sardonic cameraman played by Damian O'Hare; Bruce Mackinnon's stringer distraught at being "big-footed" (sidelined by the arrival of a senior correspondent); the local "fixers" observing the antics of the foreign journalists with wry detachment and the wonderfully vapid Sloane Ranger, Samantha Cunningham Fleming, engaged in aid work with child soldiers ("When they qualify they will run market stalls, just like in Camden" ), adorned with local jewellery and speaking pidgin Swahili: "Unless you tell me where my journalists are I'll break every bead in your body," says producer Jane to her at one point. Behind the wisecracks, it does give a glimpse of just how unpredictable and dangerous child soldiers can be, as some of us found to our cost in Sierra Leone and Somalia. One almost feels sorry for Bradburn when he is taken hostage by them.

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The running theme of collecting receipts also rings true. Accounts departments in news organisations are obsessed with receipts and the details they contain. I remember getting an e-mail from The Independent's accounts department demanding to know why my hotel bill did not have a VAT number. A reasonable request, perhaps, but the hotel was in Baghdad and had just been blown up.

What does not ring true is just how few people the BBC supposedly had in Karibu. In most conflict situations the Beebs's contingent, visas permitting, is vast. It's amusing to see the fun and games when the "big beasts" arrive. In the brief Georgian war last summer, hacks discussing details of the day's fighting would inevitably end with "Oh, and four others flew in from the BBC". Recently, to cover an event in Iraq the Beeb had a team of 17, while the other TV stations had three or four. It is common, in situations like that, to hear cash-strapped rival broadcasters mutter under their breath as yet another BBC reporter interviews a BBC reporter. The BBC does, of course, as they tend to point out to you, have a lot of outlets to service.

There are questions in the programme about the nature of journalism in an age of trivialisation. A report about the crisis in Karibu is cut short to take in Nicholas Witchell at Boujis nightclub in Mayfair. The script also touches on the limitations journalists have in changing the narrative in a place of strife. One teenage child soldier wants to go back home to the family lost to him and whom he misses desperately. He asks Bradburn and the cameraman Wallace if they could help him go home. "But that is not what we do, you see," says Bradburn uneasily. "But I know our coverage, the publicity, will help chaps like you." "Yes," says Wallace who has seen through the bullshit a long time ago, "eventually".

'Taking the Flak' starts on BBC2 at 10pm on 8 July

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