A hero’s welcome

In current times, when the BBC finances are a bridge over the troubled fiscal waters of commercial television, the Beeb’s scheduling choices appear particularly interesting. Perhaps this is because we are forced to wonder what makes the BBC so worthy of its licence fee and why it is reasonable that the corporation has so strongly refused any kind of deal involving a top-slicing of the licence fee to help the beleaguered Channel 4 recover its fortunes. What is it, we are forced to ask, which makes their public service remit so water tight as opposed to that of Channel 4? Does the BBC still manage to fly the Reithian “inform, educate and entertain” flag?

Last Tuesday night’s BBC schedule seemed to me a particularly interesting case study. Two programmes were especially remarkable when considered in the context of the current debate. Great British Menu (Tuesday, 8.00pm, BBC2), and Occupation (Tuesday, 9.00pm, BBC1), do not appear to have much in common. One is ostensibly a competition to find Britain’s top chefs, and the other is the latest gritty drama to grace the BBC1 top slot. But something uncanny occurred to me while I was watching these two programmes back-to-back.

The final episode of Great British Menu was what the series had been leading up to: a glorious feast “designed to deliver a sweet taste of home” to those service men and women recently returned from combat in Afghanistan. The programme was to do with homecomings – returning to England, to family, to the taste of home. “What does home taste like?” you may ask. The answer would be treacle tart and clotted cream, Lancashire hotpot (very different to the instant-sachet conflict version), roasted beef and (accompanied by strange and unnecessarily multicultural self-consciousness) curried lentils and monkfish. Of course there was spectacle as well: fireworks and Ross Kemp (also recently returned from Afghanistan’s frontline), all overlaid by Jenny Bond’s hyperbolic voiceovers as she seemed to fear imminent gastronomic doom with each course.

Immediately following, on BBC1, was the first episode of Peter Bowker’s Occupation. This, too, was a programme to do with homecomings. Here, the men returned from Iraq, and their greeting tasted of a wife’s burned ‘welcome home’ cake, takeaway pizza, barbeques and cocaine. RAF Halton House (venue of the Great British Menu banquet and once owned by the Rothschilds) is replaced by the grim repetitions of a Mancunian housing estate. Unlike Ross Kemp in GBM, the people of this world think little of “showing our appreciation for the effort and the sacrifice made by our armed forces”. When the central character Mike Swift (James Nesbitt) walks to the local hospital for a press conference with an Iraqi girl whose life he saved, youths block his path on the pavement, blind to his formal uniform and plumed beret. Similarly, Lee Hibbs (Warren Brown) returns home to a sister who talks of an illegal war and is intolerant of her brother’s unquestioning nature.

For the central characters of Occupation, returning home is difficult to stomach. By the end of the first episode, two of the three main characters have signed up to a poorly run, poorly equipped mercenary (Risk Management Operative) unit and returned to Iraq. They seem to have done this by force of necessity, confronted with emotional emptiness and an altogether different hostility to that they are used to. For the Nesbitt character, Mike Swift, a return to Iraq is also imminent; following an affair with an Iraqi doctor he has signed-up for action once again.

The line between ‘factual’ entertainment and drama here was blurred, as I was left asking which programme was the real performance and which was closer to the truth. A direct comparison is, of course, impossible and unfair. Perhaps the truest representation was that which the BBC chose – to show both. I can think of few better ways to use license-fee money than to pay for a banquet for British service personnel – it is an important reminder of how much we owe our troops. But the following hour of television should stop us from feeling smug. I can also think of few better ways to use license-fee money than commissioning a challenging, moving drama such as Occupation – it too is an important reminder of how much we owe our troops.

Between these two narratives – one perhaps excessively gritty, another perhaps excessively celebratory – there is a third narrative. These two programmes appeared in a kind of thesis/antithesis form, implicitly posing a synthesised question – ‘What is coming home from a war really like?’ and ‘What would it be like for me?’ Of course most of us will never know, but this was cleverly orchestrated television which begged the question, and perhaps the importance lies is in the question itself rather than any potential answers.

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