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Funny, but no joking matter

01 March 2013

James Cary found that writing a BBC TV comedy series about soldiers in Afghanistan presented unique challenges


Active service:Bluestone 42 on patrol

Active service:Bluestone 42 on patrol

IT IS not the most obvious setting for a comedy: a bomb-disposal detachment in Afghanistan. But that is what a new eight-part BBC3 comedy, Bluestone 42, is all about. I have spent the past two-and-half years writing it, in partnership with Richard Hurst. In a way, the unlikeliness of the setting is part of the appeal. Could we really be contemplating a comedy version of the 2008 film The Hurt Locker?

For me, The Hurt Locker (which focuses on bomb disposal during the Iraq War) was an impressive piece of film-making, full of atmosphere and tension. But it lacked one important thing: jokes.

Maybe American soldiers do not find anything funny, but British soldiers find almost everything funny. That is not to say that they treat everything as a joke; but anyone who has met British soldiers will tell you that they thrive on gags, banter, understatement, dark humour, and wry TLAs (three-letter acronyms).

We have a long tradition of comedy shows set among serving soldiers of various kinds, the most obvious being It Ain't Half Hot Mum, and Dad's Army; and 'Allo 'Allo!, too, if you like. But these shows were safely set in the past, and the soldiers in question were not professionals. They were conscripts, old men, and incompetent, feckless Germans (which was always a lovely twist). There is no doubt that Captain Mainwairing and his men were brave and loyal. But they were a joke. That was the joke.

Richard and I had been raised on these shows, along with a side order of Bilko, and a large dollop of M*A*S*H. The latter was undoubtedly an inspiration, taking a serious subject and fashioning a superb comedy out of it. M*A*S*H ran for 11 years, overlapping with the Vietnam War. It was, therefore, very poignant and political - except that M*A*S*H was not set in the Vietnam War, but the Korean War, which lasted for only three years. Which made everything OK. Clever.

BUT Richard and I were drawn to a show about soldiers not just because of the TV shows we had watched in the past. It was the realisation that the everyday life of a soldier was rarely portrayed on television.

There have been numerous award-winning documentaries that focus on dramatic incidents, loss of life, or post-traumatic stress. Much has also been made of the nervous wives, girlfriends, mums, dads, and relatives who are left back in the UK, worrying. These shows are brilliant. Really. I have now seen most of them. And full credit to the actor Ross Kemp, whose documentaries on life in the army have earned him the respect of the soldiers I've spoken to.

But these documentaries and dramas never quite portray what it is actually like being a soldier: the day-to-day, hurry-up-and-wait, practical-joking tour of duty. That is what we wanted to write about. The sitcom Gary: Tank Commander, on BBC Scotland, was already doing some of this, but we wanted a show set exclusively in operations in Afghanistan rather than in the barracks during training.

It is hard for civilians to imagine, but soldiers want to go out on a tour of duty. Most of us try to avoid life-threatening situations, and war zones, but we are not the types who sign up. These soldiers know what they are getting into, especially if they have joined in the past ten years.

They expect to be deployed, and they train for it. And they want to use the training where it counts, alongside their brothers-in-arms. Imagine rehearsing a play for three years, and never actually performing it. Admittedly, members of the audience do not have sniper rifles, and have not booby-trapped the stage; so the analogy does not quite work; but soldiers want to use their training where it matters.

THE only question for Richard and me was which part of the army to write about. Groups of squaddies can be interesting, but they tend to be of a similar age and stage in life. Ideally, a comedy needs variety and clashing points of view. We also needed a group of soldiers with a clear quest each week.

A Counter-IED [improvised explosive device] unit is an inter-disciplinary unit with the unambiguous purpose of defusing IEDs without anyone's getting hurt. It is straightforward for the uninitiated to understand.

Crucially, this unit brings different types of soldier together. You have the Ammunition Technical Officer (ATO) - "the bomb guy" - who does "the long walk". He has a Number Two, who kits him out. Then there is the "Bleep", who looks after communications and jamming the airwaves. Add a military escort, containing your classic squaddies, and you have a team of six people with a range of approaches and world-views.

But what happens each week? One of the first books on sitcom I read, when I was starting out, stated that when you were thinking about what happens in your show, you had to ask the question: "What goes wrong?" One of characters is trying to do something - does it go wrong?

The easiest way to make things go wrong is to make people bad at their job, or unsuited to it. For instance, it is clear to everyone, except the man himself, that David Brent, in The Office, is the worst boss in the world, just as Basil Fawlty is the worse hotelier. So could we make our ATO the worst bomb-disposal expert in the world? No, we could not.

First, it would have drastically shortened the life of the show. Second, it would have been extremely disrespectful to the armed forces who are serving in Afghanistan at the moment. And, like most Brits, Richard and I hold our soldiers in the highest respect. But, above all, implying that any of Bluestone 42 are incompetent is simply not truthful.

TO BE an ATO serving in Afghanistan, you need to have trained for years among some of the best ATOs in the world, on courses designed over decades of conflict in Northern Ireland. The truth is that the ATO, and all the members of Bluestone 42, are really good at what they do. And we need to show that. After all, comedy is about truth.

This is why we spent months researching, reading, lunching, and listening to the experiences of soldiers, especially those who had served in Afghanistan. We wanted the show to be as accurate and authentic as possible. But this was not without its challenges.

The problem is not lack of source material. There are dozens of books, documentaries, and YouTube videos. It is keeping track of the details: the structures of regiments, companies, and platoons; and who reports to whom, and how.

You thought the Church of England was complex, with canons, curates, prelates, prebendaries, and provincial episcopal visitors? It's got nothing on Her Majesty's Armed Forces, which comprise a baffling array of units, services, and combined corps that have grown up, been cut back, and been re-formed over the past 400 years.

And just when you think you have found a general rule of thumb, you discover half-a-dozen exceptions. Ask three different soldiers the same question, and they will give you three different answers that flatly contradict each other - because they were in a different service, or a different theatre of war, or were serving at a different time.

But each exception, or anomaly, came with an accompanying anecdote, or funny story that you just couldn't make up, some of which we put it in the show. And that is where the comedy came from - not fictitious incompetence, but real life. As a result, every soldier we have shown it to has said that we have captured what it is like to be serving in Afghanistan.

ONE of the more straightforward, but surprising, bits of research came in working out the role of the army chaplain, the Revd Mary Greenstock (played by Kelly Adams). We discovered that chaplains were always referred to as "padres", not chaplains. This applied even to the women (who are not called "madres", which is a shame).

Mary is technically a Major, but ranks are not such a big deal for padres. They essentially operate outside of rank. They are not viewed with suspicion, or amusement, as priests can be in civilian life. The troops rate their padres highly, even though they are not significantly more interested in spirituality than the UK population as a whole. We wondered why that was.

We discovered that the padre's main function is not really a religious one. Naturally, they conduct church services on Sundays, which some soldiers attend ("because there's f***-all else to do," one squaddie in our research said).

They also run memorial services, and such like. But the padre is really a mixture of entertainments officer, personnel manager, and counsellor. If you feel shaken up, you can talk to a padre without the stigma of seeing a psychiatrist. If you have got a problem with your commanding officer, you can see the padre, who might be able to have a "quiet word" with someone senior, without its escalating to formal proceedings.

They put on movie nights, and run activities to keep the troops busy during down time - after all, one of the most dangerous things in the world is a bored squaddie. The padres also win trust and respect by going out with the troops on patrols, unarmed, and often volunteering to carry heavy equipment. This is not exactly "beating the bounds" around the edges of a parish.

Writing the part of Mary was great fun - not least because I am a Christian, and have considered ordination a few times (and have not yet ruled it out). My writing partner, however, is a sceptic.

But - as with most of the lines in the show - it's hard for us to remember who wrote which bit. On balance, I probably wrote as many anti-Christian jokes as Richard. This is something that many Christians find hard to understand: putting words you strongly disagree with into the mouths of characters.

Writing against your own point of view is a vital part of being a writer - otherwise, the characters are just thinly veiled ciphers for your own opinions. Ultimately, as a Christian and a writer, I had to remember that comedy is about truth, and I should write about the world as I find it rather than the world I would like it to be.

In the show, you will see Mary checking up on Bluestone 42, our Counter-IED team, doing her best to keep up with the banter and lending an ear for when things on ops, or back home, get a bit too much.

She is also, to quote Genesis out of context, "pleasing to the eye", and so attracts the attention of our ATO, Captain Nick Medhurst (Oliver Chris), who is used to success with the ladies.

He will find her much harder to get, which makes the pursuit more fun, especially when Mary reveals what she got up to before she was a Christian. But you will have to wait for episode five to find out about that.

Bluestone 42, by James Cary and Richard Hurst, starts on BBC3 next Tuesday, at 10 p.m., and runs for eight weeks.

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