OK, first the premise, which is simple enough: 30 young men will essentially be sent back in time to the ’50s, where they will be subjected to a month’s national service in the British Army. Everything about their experience will be 100 pecent authentic: the isolation from society, the uniforms, types of food, style of soldiering, exercise, punishment, equipment, and even the barracks will all be exactly as they were when millions of young British men were wrestled from the bosom of a loving family, and with rifle-in-hand and boot-up-arse, were spirited away for some military discipline and ‘character building’ (a sinister euphemism shared, I would imagine, with the harsh, non-rehabilitative regimes of prisons of that era).
Welcome, then, to the regressive social experiment that is Lads Army (a play on the title of Dad’s Army, the beloved British sitcom about a geriatric gaggle of rural Home Guard soldiers during WWII). The concept of Lads Army, at first glance, would appear to neatly encapsulate all the authoritarian fantasies harboured by the Daily Mail readership’s right-wing fraternity. Such fantasies posit that if all the UK’s supposedly feral, aggressive, criminal and emotionally bankrupt young men were exposed for a short time to the strict control of the army, then their collective foibles would be ironed out (ouch), their moral compasses would be realigned, and the end result would see the wayward urges of youth culture forever banished with each successive draft. Something like that.
Thankfully, things aren’t as straightforward or reactionary in Lads Army. Using troubled young men – often society’s scapegoats — to populate the series would have been too obvious, politicised and clichéd an option (but one that ITV nevertheless undertook with the subsequent creation of Bad Lads Army in 2004, which exploited the delinquency angle), so for this series we instead get a socio-economically diverse group of upstanding young chaps, who display nothing more subversive than high spirits, a very low-level lack of discipline, and frequent bouts of harmless tomfoolery. Overall, the participants are a predominantly hard-working, good-natured and likeable bunch, all taking part for nothing more than adventure and the opportunity to test their constitution.
As the basic training gets underway, our lads-to-the-slaughter must adjust to the wrath of the two main supervising officers, who each command a platoon of 15 men. The first is Corporal Joe Murray, a huge barrel-chested Scotsman who is a combination of Govan nightclub doorman and the Fantastic Four’s The Thing, and the second is the swarthy Corporal Richard Nauyokas, a short, powerful and gruff man and the one with the I’ll-rip-off-your-head-and-shit-down-your-neck mode of sound bite. To this end, each of these men predictably function within their own platoon like an ersatz Sgt. Hartman from Full Metal Jacket, which primarily seems to involve tipping groggy young men out of Spartan beds at five o’clock in the morning, smashing dirty tea mugs during inspection, and bellowing until the billet’s windows rattle.
However, by focussing on such simple and basic regimented ‘pleasures’, the main problem with Lads Army is unsurprisingly its rather repetitive narrative. With each episode consisting of mainly cleaning, drill, exercise, recreation and, er, shouting, I began to covet the moments of comedy, high drama and emotional upset that punctuate the predictability. Plenty of entertainment is certainly gleaned not just from the general cheeriness and good humour of the young participants, but from Corporal Nauyokas’s put-downs and observations too, which are often hilarious (standing outside the front gate with a recruit he has just caught trying to escape, Nauyokas says, “You were going the wrong way anyway, you should have waited until after we do the map reading class”).
Amidst such high jinks, there are also the inevitable tearful traumas, which are edited artfully into the programme but are affecting nonetheless. Due to the ordeal the recruits are undertaking, these moments of dismay are peppered more liberally throughout the series than the smiles. One such scene sees one of Corporal Nauyokas’s troubled young recruits — a recent father — ask touchingly for some reassurance that his ten-month-old son won’t forget him while he’s away.
On a later occasion, the formidable Corporal Murray, sitting in the corner and consoling yet another crying, dejected rookie, reveals a lovely and unexpected paternal side as he holds the young man’s hand and talks compassionately to him, soothing his upset. Perhaps saddest of all though is Pitman, a young gay man who seems reluctant to reveal his homosexuality for fear of what his peers may think of him (and this would most certainly have mirrored the dilemma faced by any gay enlistee in the ’50s, when homosexuality was still ‘illegal’ in the UK).
If the programme’s adherence to the military protocol of the period is impressive, then it is certainly equalled by the attention to period detail. The recruits exist in a sort of convincing ’50s microcosm, observing the customs of the day, getting paid in obsolete currency (to spend in the NAAFI bar no doubt), and receiving an emotionally repressive and stark sex education – national service-style – which amounts to the compulsory viewing of a series of queasy 16mm public information films about STDs.
All their simple material items look authentic too; the men use old safety razors, sleep under drab military wool blankets, polish both hobnail boots and genuine Lee-Enfield rifles, and those without 20/20 vision wear standard-issue round wire spectacles, that sit upon noses recently bloodied by long-obsolete competitive army boxing matches (and I happened to notice that these glasses seemed to transform each wearer, regardless of face shape, into Toht, the squinting little Nazi from Raiders of the Lost Ark). If attention to detail was a mantra extolled during national service, it has certainly been observed by the Lads Army props department.
Of course, like most reality television series, Lads Army is emotionally manipulative, skilfully constructed (it was nominated for a BAFTA TV award), and ultimately pretty addictive, and the makers adeptly wring the maximum drama from each tense or tearful scenario that occurs. The programme is also to some extent knowingly cineliterate and therefore aware of its fictional heritage; for example, how many Hollywood films set in ‘Nam have the obligatory ‘new recruit head-shaving scene’, which of course makes its appearance early in Lads Army?
As things draw to a close and basic training is completed, many of the young men do seem to have matured quite considerably, not because they’ve had to clean the toilets with a toothbrush, cut the grass with nail scissors or eat each other’s severed fingers when rations were low (actually, I made that last one up), but because a genuine sense of camaraderie, loyalty and self-awareness has developed amongst them, unifying both platoons. The triumphant soldiers learn to greatly respect their commanding officers, and they all seem to have gained something positive from the experience.
Some declare a new-found empathy with the national service soldiers of a bygone era (perhaps it was having to endure those eye-watering gonorrhoea films too), and most of them, when welcomed back by their proud families, claim to have learnt the importance of diligence, focus and respect, the benefits of which will no doubt enrich their lives back in ‘Civvy Street’. And regardless of the political context of either Lads Army, long-abolished national service, or even those aforementioned Daily Mail readers, these simple virtues are surely facets of an admirable and universal ideology for any age, and any age group, are they not?
Good. Now fall out, you ‘orrible lot, and I’ll see you back in 2010!
The DVD extras are as basic as army rations, consisting of a very short picture gallery, a list of the Top Ten Punishments, and a few pages of background information about the series.