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On Tuesday night, I stumbled across the BBC’s three-part drama Occupation. I’m not the biggest James Nesbitt fan so my hopes weren’t too high and having watched the final episode last night, I’m now even less of a James Nesbitt fan, even more of a Stephen Graham fan and am filled with pleasant surprised at something substantial on the BBC’s main channel. 

Occupation focuses on three friends, Mike (James Nesbitt), Danny (Stephen Graham) and Hibbsy (Warren Brown), who serve together for the British Army in Basra. Having finished their final tour in 2003 each returns home. Mike struggles to re-adjust to family life after falling for an Iraqi doctor, Danny turns to drugs and prostitutes as he refuses to face up to his Alzheimer’s’ ridden mother, and Hibbsy faces an unfulfilling career as a bouncer. Each returns to Iraq: Mike to pursue his lover, Danny to make money as private security contractor, and Hibbsy to work for Danny on an all-together more idealistic quest to re-build the war-torn country. Across the three episodes things get worse for the lads in different ways, culminating in the death of Mike’s young solider son, a tragedy for which all three men are, to varying extents, culpable.

For me, a drama at 9pm on BBC1 signals cheese-ridden, infantile pap. Here was something that was engaging and relatively uncompromising which was based around a divisive and topical range of issues, underscored by a couple of superb performances. Personally, I found the love story over-wrought and unnecessary but I can understand why screenwriter Peter Bowker saw fit to sweeten the otherwise harsh pill of emotional and psychological corrosion that pervades the drama. Indeed, there are very few concessions to the conventions of mainstream TV drama; the film’s conclusion (a stunning scene at Mike’s son’s wake as the three men argue) derives no clear moral message from the three characters’ vastly differing take on the war. Moreover, Occcupation adopts a stark aesthetic which, with its distanced and static compositions, has much more in common with European art cinema than Casuality or Holby City. Occupation offers hope that good, inclusive, and serious drama has a future on Britain’s most popular channel. 

I was also moved to think of Occupation as a wartime narrative to be compared to the British war films of the 40s (propaganda/realism) and 50s (reflections on conflict). While such a parallel may seem pretentious, I think it interesting to identify the consistencie in screen culture across the decades of the solider, such a dominant icon of British nationhood. For example, the manner in which Occupation moves between the soldiers’ domestic spheres and their wartime environments recalls the use of flashback in Coward’s and Lean’s In Which we Serve. While the tripartite symbolisation of the inclusive (for propaganda purposes) British class system through In Which we Serve’s three protagonists is absent in Occupation, what we do see is a similar attempt to render the conflicting entities of home and service as a means of intensifying and humanising the portrayal of men at war. Likewise, the way in which Occupation approaches issues of post-war readjustment got me thinking about the wave of British war films in the late 40s and early 50s that dealt with the problems faced by soldiers searching for meaning in peacetime. Basil Dearden’s The Ship that Died of Shame immediately springs to mind, mostly for the similarities between the unscrupulous George (Richard Attenborough [who buys the boat he served in during the war in order to import contraband produce to Britain]) and Danny in Occupation, both of whom face impotent moral derision from their conflicted friends and former superiors, Bill (George Randall) and Mike, respectively.

By David Forrest


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