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Occupation

Someone should send Tony Blair a DVD of this superb drama about Iraq

Do politicians watch any television other than Newsnight? I ask only because, at last, writers are beginning to process some of the more distressingly bizarre political decisions taken since 1997. This feels good, but it would feel even better if one could be sure that a certain Anthony Charles Lynton Blair were tucked up with his tray supper, too.

Watching Peter Bowker’s excellent drama Occupation, screened on BBC1 over three nights this past week (16-18 June, 9pm), my greatest feeling, beyond all the pity and the horror, was one of relief. If you abhorred the Iraq War, and continue to believe that its consequences remain unspeakably dire, you can occasionally feel somewhat lonely. It is extremely reassuring to be reminded that there are still sane people who are thinking what you’re thinking.

Tony Blair, whom I interviewed a few weeks ago, now talks of his adventures in Iraq as a “hassle” (this, I promise you, is a direct quotation). Ask him about the numbers of those killed since 2003, and he will tell you that most of this bloodshed is thanks to Iraqis killing other Iraqis, as though this absolved him, and us, from any responsibility for it.

In Occupation, one of the characters made a nasty little speech on exactly these lines, and it was the source of some pleasure to me that the character in question was Danny Peterson (played by Stephen Graham), whom we first saw as a British army corporal, but who by this point was making a living as a “security” operative in post-invasion Iraq. “These people can’t stop killing each other,” he said. “They’re like Scousers at a wedding.” Peterson, his feelings numbed by all he had seen in battle, was a horrifying, 21st-century version of the spiv. His plan now was to make a lot of money on the back of one nation’s misery.

Still, as he pointed out, at least making money counts as a logical reason – if not a morally decent one – for being in Iraq. The first time around, when he and his comrades spent their days driving through Basra in an armoured personnel carrier, they had been damned if they knew why they were there. This, I think, was the secret of Occupation’s success:

by covering a five-year period in the lives of three soldiers, it gave an impression of cause and effect, both in terms of individual lives (theirs could never be the same again once they came home, which was why, in the end, they all returned to Iraq, like murderers returning to the scene of a crime) and in a wider setting (the Iraq to which they returned was in chaos; meanwhile, back in Blighty, a gang of young Muslim men had carried bombs on to the Underground).

Graham’s performance as Peterson was triumphantly good, his bluster masking his fear like badly applied fake tan. But he was outshone by both Warren Brown as Lance Corporal Lee Hibbs and James Nesbitt as Sergeant Mike Swift. I used to think of Nesbitt as the annoying Irish one from Cold Feet, but his recent work has all but scratched that from my mind.

As Swift – perilously in love with an Iraqi doctor – he was wonderful, carrying his bewilderment at his feelings for her, and for Iraq, in front of him like some soft, glowing torch. In the role of Hibbs, whose time as one of Peterson’s mercenaries had all but driven him mad, Brown was effortlessly touching. Kidnapped by extremists who were apparently about to execute him, he explained to his captors why his life wasn’t supposed to end like this, sobbing something about how he’d been a quiet lad, one who liked to watch Casualty in his pyjamas. This scene was so painful that I had to watch it from the other side of the room.

I could, I suppose, pick holes in Bowker’s plotting – Peterson found Hibbs in the bowels of Sadr City and rescued him in the blinking of an eye – but my heart would not be in it. I loved this series. It stirred me. When it was over, I got as far as putting my preview DVDs in an envelope marked for the attention of Matthew Doyle, the blithe young man who is now Blair’s chief aide. Then I came to my senses. Our former leader sleeps at night, or so he says. It will take more than some parcel from me to change that.

Pick of the week

The Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Revolutionaries
23 June, 8.30pm, BBC4
They loved colour, and they let it show . . .

Famous, Rich and Homeless
24 and 25 June, 9pm, BBC1
Five celebrities spend ten days on the streets.

Ugly Betty
24 June, 10pm, Channel 4
More NY fashion mag wackiness.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Iran