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Issue 59 August 2009

Occupation BBC One
Review by Rehan Malik

In storytelling there are only three original stories – everything else is garnish. With war it seems, there is only one.

Since Churchill, the BBC has stood tall and proud as the organ of the war effort. It was “the good war,” back then, and the Beeb hoisted her flag proudly for freedom and democracy throughout the empire. Sixty years on, mired in a “bad war” without cause, with no end in sight, and a more sophisticated audience, Auntie finds herself balancing atop a more cynical tightrope.

Along comes Occupation, produced by Kudos Film (Spooks); one of those major BBC TV events, already seared onto your retinas with weeks of explosive advertorials. This three part series, scaling three days of prime time glory, assails our collective mass consciousness as the definitive snapshot of this “complex” war.

In development over four years, with serious license-payer’s money, your stellar cast and your even more explosive script by Peter Bowker (Flesh and Blood), we are promised a visceral three hour ride into the heart of Basra’s darkness.

Caught in an inexorable maelstrom of prime evil, good soldiers battle to keep a nation’s fractured soul on drip feed, while confronting the destruction of their own. According to Bowker, “It isn’t a message piece in the sense that it can be boiled down to a simple take on the invasion of Iraq and its consequences. It’s a story about three men who are united in battle, but are torn apart by the aftermath.” Is this true?

Good soldier, humanitarian and family man, Cpl Mike Swift, played by the brilliant James Nesbitt of Cold Feet, Murphy’s Law and the Yellow Pages hapless father commercials, is ably matched by the sublime Stephen Graham (This is England) as Commander Danny Peterson, his damaged counterpart sinking within the demons of a grunt’s life.






Iraq’s soul is Aliyah Nabil (Lubna Azabal), haunting the hallways of Basra Hospital with the sombre cynicism of a spectator of war. Rescue Aliyah, rescue the nation.

The empty silence of ‘back home’ pushes the band of brothers back into the comforting fog of war. Nesbitt threatening his perfect English familial cohesion for the dusky loins of troubled (and unbeknownst to him, married) Aliyah, while drugs and call-girls push Graham to the brink: suicide or soldier of fortune. And so they find themselves back on the bloody streets of Basra, in this new pop war. But instead of Buffalo Springfield’s impassioned cry for justice, we have incessant British techno-pop, ironically fitting as an empty anthem for this propagandist’s tale.

And haven’t we already seen this all before, retold in a thousand accounts of war from The Deer Hunter to the nine o’clock news and back? And as sure as the oil pipeline flowing from Iraq to Washington, all the boxes are ticked in this cynical war drama. Good soldier sacrificing his life for the cause, check. The eventual descent of good Muslim boy to zombie terror-trooper, check; suicide bombings, check; a beheading on video?...

But, as some misguided Luton-ese protestors discovered, this particular “Occupation” is bulletproofed; by removing the politics and shining the light on “Our Boys”. We can’t criticise the apolitical defenders of the realm. Nesbitt sees that distinction, as he marched against the war. But by virtue of this focus on the soldiers, their paymasters remain untouchable.

Occupation doesn’t even defend the war. We have moved on from that (refer to new editorial stance Prop-2A, ‘the BBC Management’) but now that we’re in this mess, let’s just try to make the best of this bad situation, after all “the Iraqis are truly grateful for the British Soldiers,” says Aliyah before lighting up a secular ciggie, further inflaming the passions of infidelity in her rescuer Nesbitt, while the voice of true Iraq rings in the ears of all us doubters.

As divorce looms, their tryst is not unnoticed by the cadres of the new fanaticism at the hospital, with ultimate tragic consequences for the woman and by extension, the nation. Meanwhile Graham has become a symbol of hope… as a soldier of fortune, making a fortune in the bosom of security firm “Pacific Solutions,” brainchild of American mercenary and businessman, Sgt Erik Lester (Nonso Anozie). And even Pacific Solutions are a good old sort, providing logistics for the rebuilding of Iraq; which the fatherless citizens of this undeveloped child-nation cannot comprehend. Ultimately our boys are there to heal and rescue, they are caught up in someone else’s war, standing between warring sides. And this mess has nothing to do with years, if not decades, of nation tinkering by Global-Corp inc.

Occupation faithfully follows the BBC war drama template; more nuanced than John Wayne’s flag thrust into Iwo Jima sands and way beyond the mental grasp of hack propagandist, Jag Mundhra (Shoot on Sight), this none-the-less has less than one degree of separation with the news and government white papers. After all, everything is editorial (including this review). And the Beeb is the master of the repackaged editorial, with enough authoritative cynicism to make us think this is not yesterday’s newspaper wrapped around week old fish and chips.

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