Posted by: Paul | November 23, 2010

‘Accused’ finds itself in the dock

I wouldn’t normally write about the same show two weeks running, but the second episode of Jimmy McGovern’s ‘Accused’ has caused a bit of a stir.

Part two of the series revolving around court appearances for its protagonists was the story of Frankie, a young tearaway faced with the prospect of a two year jail sentence for assault. When his best friend Pete, also involved in the fight, reveals that the judge is going easy on him because he’s signed up to enter the army, Frankie joins him in order to avoid prison and the pair are soon sent to fight on the front line in Afghanistan. Under enemy fire Pete breaks down and is unable to fight back, earning him the scorn of his fellow soldiers and the very close attention of Lance Corporal Buckley (a convincingly nasty Mackenzie Crook), who bullies and abuses him, making him ‘the camp bitch’ and turning his friends against him – with tragic consequences.

The depiction of bullying in the armed forces has caused a great deal of upset among the military’s top brass. General Sir Peter Wall wrote to Mark Thompson asking for the series to be postponed. Colonel Tim Collins wrote of the series in the Radio Times before broadcast, saying it ‘abjectly failed the responsibility test’, and on the Today Programme this morning General Sir Richard Dannatt claimed it was a ‘gross error of editorial judgement’. Take a listen to this last clip in particular, even if you didn’t see the programme – Dannatt is clearly absolutely furious and it’s quite an indictment.

The thrust of the argument appears to be twofold. Firstly, that it is in some way damaging to soldiers on the front line, and secondly that this behaviour does not happen in the British Army.

I think it unlikely for the first to be true. The programme claims to have had soldiers on board as consultants and cast members, who did not appear troubled by the subject matter. McGovern himself defended the show as ‘a work of fiction’, saying he was examining the mindset of soldiers in a fictional context. And as to the second, with ‘Accused’ being focussed on a particular unit and group of individuals, I don’t personally believe the drama set out to say that this kind of bullying is endemic in the Army – it arose from one particular situation. Frankie also never publicly owned to the bullying so the incident was never taken into account in his trial and he was punished for his eventual crime, and the army’s reputation remained publicly intact within the story.

‘Accused”s scenario was also nothing new. It followed templates laid down by such films as Full Metal Jacket, Courage Under Fire, A Few Good Men, and also the compelling but horrifying 2007 Channel 4 drama The Mark Of Cain, which all dealt with similar issues. All detail what happened to individuals in the military when injustices are taking place and someone has the decency to stand against them. There was little controversy about any of these works, so it’s a little baffling to me why ‘Accused’ has garnered such vitriol. Perhaps because of its profile on BBC1, with the BBC’s remit as a public service broadcaster, the military figures incensed by this clearly feel that the BBC has contravened its responsibilities in some way.

For my part, I can see both sides of the argument, but there is no denying that workplace bullying occurs in society – and why should we have any reason to believe the Army to be any different? Are we supposed to just accept that it is completely free of nasty individuals? For this was a story about individuals and the effect of circumstances on them, not the Armed Forces as a whole. There are versions of Corporal Buckley in all walks of life, and the world would undeniably be a better place without them, but since they exist, perhaps exposure is one of the few weapons decent people have against them.

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Responses

  1. Thank you for an excellent and balanced article. Not only is it baffling why this drama has caused such outrage from General Wall and General Sir Richard Dannatt, it seems to me these gentlemen are skating on remarkably thin ice from a constitutional perspective. Dannatt might just get away with this on the grounds that he is shortly to become an appointed politician, but beyond this, senior figures in the British Army have absolutely no right to try to dictate to the rest of us what does or does not constitute ‘acceptable’ drama. It is also worth noting Dannatt’s careful choice of words; in his complaint he stated that bullying ‘has no place in the modern British Army’ – a ‘non-denial denial’ if ever I saw one.

    • Thanks for reading, and your supportive comment. I agree – of course bullying ‘has no place’ – isn’t that what Accused was trying to say? It of course does not mean it doesn’t occur… I have no military connections so am perhaps not best placed to comment, but from the point of view of reviewing a piece of drama, I thought it was sympathetic to our soldiers on the ground in the extreme. I hope the furore encourages people to watch it and think about the issues involved – only the most worthwhile television sparks such debate. I’d rather pay my license fee to see ‘Accused’ than ‘I’m A Celebrity’ any day of the week. This, to me, is what public service broadcasting is all about.


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