There’s a trend forming on TV for showing major one-off drama series that are issue-led with strong ensemble casts. Occupation was one such and it’s compelling viewing.
The plot premise is the British invasion of Iraq and the subsequent lives of three soldiers who were there from the start. Mike (James Nesbitt), Danny (Stephen Graham) and Lee (Warren Brown) served in Basra and have all since returned home to Manchester before deciding to return to Iraq. They’re not returning to fight, though. Mike, married with a couple of kids, is going back to see Aliyah, the Iraqi doctor he fell in love with while on his tour of duty. Danny struggled with civilian life – drinking, taking drugs and paying for sex – and is now looking to make big money by selling security services in a country that has become increasingly unsafe since the allied invasion. Lee is troubled by the morality of the war and is motivated by a growing altruism to go back and help the Iraqi people.
Occupation is an immensely powerful drama as it explores all the troublesome issues surrounding British intervention in Iraq. It questions why the government took us into a conflict that the public did not want or support. It holds an unflinching gaze at the effect of British troops on Basra on the Iraqi locals. It forces us to understand the difference between supporting troops who need public backing for doing a difficult job and not supporting the political decisions that sent those troops there. We see all this through the eyes of Mike, Danny and Lee, well-written and well-rounded characters complete with flaws, who face their own dilemmas and struggles in regard to their relationship with the conflict and subsequent occupation.
The acting is sharp and contained, the writing flawless in a tight screenplay that resonates with subtle direction. I’ve never been a huge fan of Jimmy Nesbitt but he is outstanding here as the conflicted husband torn between his family in the UK and his lover in Iraq. None of the three leads milk the emotions yet turn in incredibly emotional performances in some very difficult scenes. The timeline of the plot is not linear, yet even though events are sometimes depicted out of sequence, you never feel as though you’ve lost track of what’s happening. It’s easy to get distracted when watching even a big production if all the elements don’t quite mesh but Occupation held my full attention all the way through and I plan to rewatch it to pick up on some of the more subtle layers.
Occupation was a ratings hit when first broadcast over three nights and the DVD was released almost immediately after for those who missed it on the BBC. It’s a landmark production for the way it reinvents topical drama and comparable to The Wire for making us look at an old genre afresh. All TV dramas should be this good.
EXTRAS ** Cast interviews; “making of” diary; photo gallery