The entertainment industry has thrived with stories that take place during WWII; war movies and miniseries have proven to be some of the most successful and awarded projects in history. However, little attention has been given to what happened to the soldiers coming back from battle. Other than works like The Best Years of Our Lives, movies that take place during WWII without focusing on soldiers, concentrate on the people that were left behind (like Mrs. Miniver and most Japanese cinema of the era). It’s as if these two worlds were impossible to unite; as if the existence of one denied the other.
This is why up to a certain degree, Demob is refreshing. The British miniseries begins, not with teary farewells in crowded train stations, but in a military base at the end of the war, where the soldiers are being “demobbed”, that is being demobilized in order to return to civilian life.
The show then follows two soldiers: Captain Ian Deasey (Griff Rhys Jones) and Lance Corporal Dick Dobson (Martin Clunes), who in the army, beyond their battle tactics, had specialized in providing live entertainment for the troops. As Ian is discharged and receives his money, completely disenchanted he comments “four years of blood, sweat and tears just for a fiver”. Deasey and Dobson, say their goodbyes and each goes on to see what the future has prepared for them in London.
For Deasey, it’s back home to his wife Janet (Amanda Redman) and his young son Alan (Luke Marcel) who welcomes him asking “did you kill any Germans?”, Dobson is off to find an easy life. After running a few errands and collecting on favors owed, he gets a job at a local nightclub, appropriately called “The Blue Parrot”. This is the kind of club used in Hollywood movies for disruptive musical intermissions, where fruit clad women would sing in exotic languages while the film’s narrative took a break.
Dobson tries to lure Deasey back into entertainment and finally succeeds after he makes him realize that having a clerk job is not what he was in the army for and perhaps if the series had concentrated on this topic, it would’ve become transcendental. For what could be more fascinating than seeing characters deal with what they think life owes them after they literally sacrificed their lives for the world?
Instead, Demob focuses on the surface of things and becomes an overlong, mildly entertaining chronicle of showbiz in postwar England. The miniseries’ mood is quite light which makes it prone to fall into redundancy more often than not. Most of the running time consists of watching ways in which Deasey and Dobson fail at coming up with the spectacle that will finally make them famous. However since the show is so light, it also fails to explore the way in which these men are constantly robbed of their masculinity, at least in strictly societal terms.
Deasey becomes unable to provide for his family, causing his wife to say “he’s run away to join the bloody circus” before she has to look for a job herself. It’s a shame that the filmmakers didn’t treat these topics in a more curious way, because instead of coming up with nostalgia (can it be that the men miss the army?), it just makes them look as buffoons.
Eventually, Demob makes a revelation that would’ve made more sense if it had shown a little bit more reverence to the characters’ inner lives and their longings, instead of treating them with such carelessness. It’s fortunate then, that the actors involved do such great work. The leading men are satisfying, with Jones delivering a heartfelt performance full of deadpan and Clunes delivering one final punch with his sad clown face.
The real stars, however, are the women. Redman gives the best performance in the miniseries, making Janet perhaps the only character we would imagine existing beyond the running time. When she feels abandoned by her husband and looks for love with an engaged doctor (Harry Burton) we get a sense that this is a woman who’s dealing with society in the only way she can. She needs to feed herself and her husband’s work doesn’t guarantee her the kind of life she had before the war.
Liz Fraser as her mother steals every scene she’s in. Despite showing her dislike of her son-in-law, she actually comes off as a beautiful character worried about her daughter and grandson. She often hands out advice one would expect from Judi Dench (and the miniseries does feel a bit like Dench’s star vehicle Mrs. Henderson Presents). “They’re only good for one thing and not much cop at that truth be told” she says about men, with the authority of someone who’s suffered enough to know what to expect from life.
Perhaps if Demob had concentrated a bit more on the behind the scenes of the people putting on the show, instead of worrying about actual showbiz technicalities, it would’ve been able to encompass the feeling of limbo that prevailed after the war was over. Alas, it doesn’t, and most of the time the show feels like a dated attempt to entertain the very people it tries to portray.