Last year John Caughie published an essay (in Screen vol 51 no 4 [Winter 2010]). Entitled ‘Mourning Television: the other screen’ his article characterised contemporary television in terms of decline, decadence and loss. I have responded to this elsewhere (Screen vol 52 no 4 [Winter 2011]) but here I want to address its key moment of praise for television which comes at the end of the essay and concerns Peter Bowker’s three part war drama, Occupation, shown on BBC television over consecutive nights in June 2009, and which was about the intertwined fate of three British soldiers in Iraq. Caughie describes it in the following terms:
…my initial viewing of it was somewhat distracted, happening to watch the first episode in that characteristic way because it occupied time rather than choosing to watch it by setting time aside…. for most of the final episode I was taken somewhere beyond speech, beyond judgement and, I guess, beyond aesthetics: taken by surprise by television in a way which is quite distinctive, and quite different to the package of the box-set (2010: 420).
Surprise tends to be a quality of the present and Caughie praises the show for its ‘untidiness’, a quality that takes us out of routine systems of affective entanglement and which makes it ‘not at all the same as the well-shaped multistrand narratives or the “puzzle narratives” which have engaged recent film studies, and which actually shut contingency out’ (ibid).
Really? Thanks to the DVD box-set, we can place Occupation under the critical pressure that is not hostage to its time of transmission. The narrative is in fact a very balanced, tidy, and quite traditional alternation between coverage of each of the three leading characters, dwelling on their moments of intersection, then building up individual dramatic sequences with each character before regularly bringing them together again, where their separate changes are played out in a group. Certainly the drama does have some engaging sequences which exemplify what I take to be a typical approach of the best of British television – its anthropological interest in what Stanley Cavell calls ‘the moods of faces and motions and settings’ (2005: (xxiii)). We can see this in an early scene of a homecoming party at one of the soldier’s houses, when the shifting currents of mood, puzzlement, feelings masked or half-transmitted between and within subjects structure the implicit underlying tension of an outwardly happily rowdy social gathering.
Shifting currents of mood
However, this achievement is overshadowed by the drama’s most prominent failure: its figuring of an American marine, a character who has to be the one of the most unpleasant constructions of a national stereotype since the real Sergeant John Sweet played the wide-eyed GI Bob Johnson, gawping in wonder at the rootedness of British tradition in Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale (1944). This is Erik Lester, a large black US Marine (in fact the only member of the US military given a face) played by British actor Nonso Anozie, who convinces one of the main characters, Danny (Stephen Graham who is Liverpudlian and small in stature) to join with him in setting up a private security service in the ‘post’-war emerging nation. When on leave back in the UK Danny is depicted as suffering chronic anomie; we see him alone in his tiny bedroom, bored, drugged and violent: in Occupation’s terms this entrepreneurial work with Lester gives shape and meaning to this excess of depressive energy. While Danny and the other leading British characters Mike (James Nesbitt) and Lee Hibbs (Warren Brown) are drawn with attention to a developing sense of their interiority, Lester figures as an simple emblem of the exploitation of the war for corrupt financial reward. We first see him in the opening moments of episode one during a British raid on a sniper position. In the attack a grenade wounds a young Iraqi girl and Mike, who is an army medic, attends to her; Lester arrives by chance and offers to evacuate the soldiers who have priority over the care of civilians – even injured children. The terms of distinction between the systemic rigidity of the American Marines versus the plucky heroic flexibility of the Brits is clearly established when Mike, in great danger, single-handedly carries the child through enemy fire to a hospital. Later, we see Danny and Lester’s security firm, who are engaged in protecting foreign investors, employ an Iraqi translator, Yunis. He becomes a lively member of the team revealing that he is saving his pay from the lucrative job in order to open a Pizzeria. However, he is assassinated by Iraqi police causing great distress to the rest of the team: at this apex of collective trauma Lester’s response is mechanical and sinister: ‘Expand and diversify. All this that just happened. It’s a message from God: expand and diversify.’ This is a particularly childish depiction of an evangelical monstrosity whose pursuit of money offered as an insane Divine Right.
Lester: ‘It’s a message from God: expand and diversify.’
’In contrast to Danny’s starry-eyed partnership with Lester, the other Brits adopt a narcissistic therapeutic relationship to their experiences. In the final sequence of episode three, during the funeral of Mike’s son, Hibbs offers reading from Gilgamesh: “let your everyday be full of joy, love the child that holds your hand, let your wife delight in your embrace, for these alone are the concerns of humanity”. After the depiction of terrible scenes of bloodshed this reading offers an understandably comforting view that is confined to the homely, the domestic and the particular: a feminised account that is, unfortunately, depicted as a kind of traumatised passivity. Against this Danny, during the culminating argument between the three of them, proclaims a pathetic defence of the pursuit of money because ‘that’s what makes the world go ‘round’. Brutal mercenary acquisitiveness or psychologically wounded withdrawal are the only responses imagined in a West that no longer has the authority to stamp coherent meaning on its actions, and where the warrior ethic has vanished. While this scene is immediately engaging it does not seduce us sufficiently so that we feel our involvement the stakes in play. I take it that it is scenes such as this that involve what Caughie describes as the drama’s unsettling distance that ‘breaks the contract, takes us by surprise and changes the perspective’ (2010: 421). However, the crude opposition of Danny’s barely articulate, half-believed allegiance to the mercantile and mercenary ethic, and Mike’s bewildered outrage (James Nesbitt delivers this with a wonderfully stunned face, gripped by hurt and grief) allows for no entanglement within the action by the viewer because what is at stake is laid out before us, not something we can participate in and discover for ourselves; we are involved merely as spectators who must take what has to be the easy side of empathy with a Mike’s grief-stricken father.
Distance and estrangement in the final shot.
Early in the second episode of Occupation Danny grills Mike about his reasons for volunteering for a second tour in Iraq: Mike, who is married, reveals that his had returned in order to locate the Iraqi doctor, Alyia, who he met after rescuing the injured child from the battlefield (the child was flown back to the UK and Mike became a front page tabloid hero). Subsequently, his relationship with Alyia who accompanied him back to the UK develops into mutual love; but she suddenly leaves returning to Iraq without telling Mike where or why she has gone. ‘I just want to know why she went. I can’t get her out of my head.’ Mike tells Danny. For the latter the idea is madness: ‘You seriously think it’s gonna work out? You get measured up for a dish-dash and live happily ever after? No chance: the Jedi’ll cut your bollocks off live on Al Jazeera. Just leave it alone.’ The conversation takes place in a noisy mess hall of a barracks somewhere in Basra; Mike wears British infantry fatigues whereas Danny is wearing black body armour, the anonymous uniform of his and Lester’s private security firm which by this point we know is set up in order to exploit the vast number of dollars poured into devastated nation for “reconstruction”. The next day Danny and Lester meet with Mike in a small office, revealing that they’ve found Alyia: they note that Mike’s celebrity status will help them secure a contract for a hospital building project. In the sequence Mike stands in front of Lester and Danny who are seated at a desk:
Danny: Mike, you rescued Misa [the injured girl]. She was airlifted from that hospital. So surely you must have some leverage with this bunch.
Mike: Leverage? What are you talking about?
Danny: We need you to put a word in for us at the hospital. A recommendation.
Danny knows where Alyia is and will tell Mike as long as he agrees to put a word in for their bid. Mike is incredulous: ‘I thought you told me to leave Alyia alone’:
Danny: That was me talking as a friend this is me talking as a businessman… You need us and we need you. It’s what makes the world go ‘round. I know where she is. And I’ll tell you. If that’s what you want. It is what you want? Innit?
The scene marks a decisive shift in their relationship; a personal confidence as well as a friendship is taken up and exploited; we share some of Mike’s surprise at the way he has become a means, an instrument in the furtherance of a business agenda, a shill. We see his gradual astonished realisation that something that one imagined external to one’s desires and wants becomes necessary for their pursuit. Watching this scene, particularly the way the actors are arranged, I was immediately struck by its similarity to those regular moments in reality television, particularly the competitive genres, where contestants are judged in front of a panel, or compelled to betray one another, or work in ways that offer uneasy tension between personal desire for solidarity with the group and external demands of the show, the nature of which can be unclear and potentially contrary to one’s self interests. Both share the spectacle of the shattering and remaking of interpersonal bonds in instrumental ways.
A moment of judgement and betrayal.
I agree with Caughie, then, that the value of Occupation then is more than a matter of aesthetics, but for me this lies in its resonance with less exalted genres. It reminds us, as Helen Piper has claimed, of the debt reality genres owe to both documentary and fictional forms of television (2004). James English has persuasively argued that what he calls the ‘self-anthropologising tendency of a collapsing Empire’ was the source of much of the energy of British documentary and its manifold insinuation in fictional films and British television (his key example is, unsurprisingly, Ken Loach); the theatricalisation of documentary, call it the showbizzing of the real is one arc of this momentum that, in English’s view leads directly to what are the most dominant global forms of television in the world (2011). In terms of format licensing (…Idol, …Got Talent) the British dominate, he argues, not because they successfully exported an aesthetic or a style but a means of assembly, an architecture that can be filled with whatever local, cultural specificity required to sufficiently indigenise it. (In contrast the introspection of American drama points to English’s characterisation of an earlier stage of national self-anthropology.) What makes them distinct from their drama and documentary antecedents is that they are fundamentally rooted in the real time immediacy of the broadcast schedule; they also, I suspect, have little hope of an afterlife beyond the time of their transmission. This does not make them bad texts or unworthy television: but it does mean they are unlikely to bear the repeated critical attention which produces rich criticism. What they might well produce instead is an extension of the kind of critical commentary exemplified by Helen Piper’s essay ‘Reality TV, Wife Swap and the drama of banality’: which is to say reality television may well continue to be the object where paradigm shifting theoretical work continues to get done. It is ironic that Occupation in its ethically hygienic depiction of the monstrosity of US commercialism subtly reminds us of a televisual mode where the Brits really do dominate the business.
(Originally published at Critical Studies in Television Online.)