In the UK: Tuesdays, 10pm, ITV4
Sometimes it's hard to be a man. Probably not as hard as it is to be a woman, what with the glass ceiling, low relative pay rates, systematic oppression by religions, etc. But it's still hard, sometimes.
Indeed, being 'hard' is one of those issues that affects men more than women. Just as (apparently) you can never be too thin – or have too much hair – if you're a woman, you can never be too hard if you're a man.
Clearly, that's not true though. If you live in a city, are a teenage boy and everyone has knives or guns, trying to be hard is probably going to get you killed, so it's not always a good thing. But as books like Amazing Tales For Making Men Out of Boys, have demonstrated, in times of war or emergency, it's a great thing to be since you're going to end up saving lives. You're going to be a hero.
If you draw up a hierarchy of hardness – since no matter how hard you are, there's always someone harder than you – the SAS are going to be very near the top. Andy McNab, who led the ill-fated Bravo 20 SAS mission during the last Gulf War, has spent the last two decades writing books about fictional hard men, but now he's fronting a new documentary series for 'man's channel' ITV4 about the real deal.
Called Andy McNab's Tour of Duty, it aims to show what it's like for both UK and US soldiers who have been fighting in the Middle East and to show great battalions of British men what real-life heroes are like. Which is a laudable aim, even if it does involve SHOUTING EVERY WORD.
Plot (if that's the right word)
One of the most decorated members of the British services, Andy McNab, uses his unparalleled knowledge and experience to tell the real story of British and American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Featuring exclusive Ministry of Defence footage, User Generated Content from the troops on the front line and reconstructions and interviews with serving personnel, McNab’s Tour of Duty goes behind the lines of two of the most intense wars fought by British troops since World War Two. McNab’s Tour of Duty is a Flashback Television Production for ITV4.
McNab said “Whatever you think about the rights and wrongs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, what our soldiers are doing there is remarkable and is making history. This series for ITV4 will tell the real stories of real courage and bravery in the theatre of war.”
Is it any good?
Erm. Yes and no. On the one hand, the stories told are all incredibly impressive. The documentary makers have had access to the soldiers involved – both US and UK – as well as footage they shot themselves at the time. They recreate other parts of the various battles. You really do get a good insight into what was going on and the courage of the people involved.
On the other hand, the documentary makers don't seem completely convinced that that's enough. So there's barely a single camera angle that's horizontal or that isn't shifting every second of the filming. McNab IS TRYING TO TELL YOU HOW IT IS BUT KEEPS SHOUTING AND COMING UP WITH GUNG HO LINES LIKE "THE BRITISH ARMY ISN'T TRAINED TO SIT AROUND AND WAIT TO DIE". It's very hard to follow what's going on, since combined with the voiceover and the music, there's so much stuff coming at you, it'll give you sensory overload.
A lot of the shifty camera angles seem to be designed to cover up the fact all the recreations are filmed on a trading estate in Swindon because of budget issues: if you can't see what's going on in the background, maybe you won't notice. But sometimes they're gratuitous. Really, we don't need to have the cook serving food made to seem more exciting – it never will be.
It's also a bit unfocused (and I don't just mean whenever Andy McNab's on camera). The first episode spent about two-thirds of its time dealing with one encounter for the Princess of Wales' Royal Regiment; it then spent the next third dealing with a similar situation for the US Marines – the linking concept was "when snipers save the day". It kind of works, but it feels like either they didn't have enough material for two episodes, or there's a contractual obligation to have a US and a UK story in each episode to make overseas sales easier.
There's also a bit called "Andy McNab's Basic Training" where he explains how guns work, etc, which feels very "boys with toys" and breaks up the narrative. Bored already, Playstation generation? Or is there simply a group of viewers who are trying to get 'passive hardness' through watching a documentary about hard blokes and big guns? Surely not.
So, while in many ways it's an admirable show and one in theory that we should all be watching, it's also struggling to overcome its makers' lack of confidence in their own work, a certain degree of gung ho overload and ITV4 budgets so is quite hard to watch as a result.
Here's the first of Andy McNab's Basic Training segments, which appears, anyway, to have originally appeared on Battle Scene, a web site for soldiers' UGC.