Written by Peter Moffat
Directed by John Campbell, Miranda Bowen
This series is something of a hidden gem. Released by the BBC back in 2017, it garnered mixed critical reception and was thus binned after just one 6-episode stint. I’d never even heard of it before stumbling across it scrolling through Netflix. A bit like myself, I don’t think it was suited to live in the time it was produced.
It follows the lives of a unit of Royal Military Police personnel during a time in history that is rarely brought to the screen, the Aden Emergency in the 1960s. Subsequently, critics judged the show on its ‘troubling and problematic’ representations of the local population and the fact that it dared to be about British colonial rule without overtly showing how nasty and bad they all were (one Telegraph writer branding it ‘a missed opportunity’). When judged on what the show actually tries to achieve, I would say it does a good job. It is a nuanced look at the lives of normal British Army soldiers and their wives doing their well-intentioned best on the ultimately flawed and doomed stage of the dying days of the empire. Had it been made 10 years earlier I think the almost tragic- and fascinating- feeling it evokes from us 21st century viewers and our knowledge of the past would have been appreciated.
The show’s biggest strengths are its character writing and the way they’re portrayed. Alison Laithewaite is the deeply dissatisfied wife of Leitenant Ed Laithewaite (Stephen Campbell Moore) who spends her days drinking heavily and sleeping with Ed’s colleague Captain Page. Moffat insights strong disdain for her from the first episode through introducing us to her kind and well-intentioned husband Ed, whilst simultaneously showing Alison spit on their marriage and his unconditional love for her. As the show goes on, we begin to empathize and understand her more. She is smart, funny, and fun-loving (revealed in episode 3 by some shameless dance moves), but she is trapped in a marriage with her only escape being a bottle of vodka. As a result, she is very sardonic and almost cold. Her character and outlook is cuttingly realistic- to the point of being difficult to watch- and serves as a comment on the absurdities of normal 20th century life. Jessica Raine is very well suited to the role and portrays the character excellently. I did find the happy resolution of Alison and Ed’s marriage to be a bit contrived and unbelievable based on what we had seen from them, but it made me feel good nonetheless. As well as Alison, the series is full of other interesting, believable characters. Honor Martin (Jessie Buckley) in particular, stands out.
The plot also examines the unscrupulousness and hypocrisy of the British government and empire. Captain Martin (Jeremy Jones) is arrested for the release of the terrorist Kadir (Aymen Hamdouchi) in return for the captured son of the unit commander Major Markham (Ben Miles). It is later revealed that the government themselves had been negotiating with Kadir. Kadir is also the only member of the local population with a substantial speaking role but he is portrayed as cognizant and righteous, simply fighting for his country’s freedom. Ultimately, the show does well in painting the empire as the oppressive authority it was. One in which the soldiers fighting for, as well as against, fell victim to.
It’s a shame this series- much like the British empire- was branded as outdated and confined to the annals of TV history because I feel like Moffat and his characters had a lot more to offer.