TUMBLEDOWN: Five out of five stars
Revisiting old television dramas can sometimes be a deeply disappointing experience.
Programmes that once gripped viewers and seemed fresh and exciting can often look clunky and obvious.
Take last Wednesday’s once-controversial The Falklands Play on BBC4. Shelved by the BBC in 1987, shortly before production was due to start, Ian Curteis’s drama about the behind-the-scenes political and diplomatic tussling in the run-up to the Falklands War was eventually produced and broadcast in 2002.
It may have benefitted from a polished 21st century production, yet it was hard to disagree with the BBC top brass in the 1980s, who claimed they’d cancelled the original play not because, as was suggested at the time, it was too pro-Margaret Thatcher, but simply because it just wasn’t very good.
It was natural, then, to approach a repeat of another Falklands War drama that once sparked controversy, the 1988 film Tumbledown (BBC4), with trepidation. Would it be as good as the millions of us who watched it 34 years ago remember it being, or had time robbed it of its potency and softened its visceral and emotional punch?
Absolutely not. Were Tumbledown to be made today, there would be some changes. It would be shot in widescreen, rather than the 1.33:1 (or 4:3) ratio of TV screens in the 1980s. The battle scenes would most likely be more expansive and expensive — and, inevitably, created with the aid of CGI.
But none of these cosmetic touches could improve upon the work of writer Charles Wood, who died two years ago, or director Richard Eyre, who’s thankfully still with us.
It’s also impossible to see any other actor besting the performance of a perfectly cast Colin Firth, then just 28, as Lieutenant Robert Lawrence, the real-life Scots Guards officer who incurred life-changing injuries after being shot in the head by an Argentinian sniper during the Battle of Mount Tumbledown.
It took hours to bring Lawrence down from the mountain and it seemed unlikely he would survive. His life was saved by surgeons at a ramshackle field hospital (the graphic, blood-soaked operation scenes will still make you wince), but he lost 42 pc of his brain matter and was paralysed on the whole of his left side.
He eventually learned to walk again, with a pronounced limp, although he never regained the use of his left arm. Wood’s script tells the story non-chronologically (fashionable in TV dramas these days, uncommon at the time), jumping between Lawrence’s pre- and post-injury life, the battle that disabled him and his long, slow, painful rehabilitation.
What’s remarkable still is how Wood, who specialised in military dramas and films (How I Won the War, The Charge of the Light Brigade) and has been described as a “pro-soldier but anti-war” writer, never goes out of his way to make Lawrence particularly likeable.
He’s well-off, well-connected — his father John, played by the wonderful David Calder, is a former RAF wing-commander — and extremely sure of himself. He’s not just a natural-born soldier, he loves soldiering. It’s the only job he’s ever wanted to do.
So when the ability to do that job is taken away from him, he becomes angry and bitter, lashing out at everyone near him, from the doctors, nurses and physiotherapists trying to help him, to the army desk jockeys and pen-pushers who wear uniforms but have never soldiered a single day in their lives.
In the end, he reserves his deepest anger and bitterness for the government and the military establishment who effectively forget him and his comrades. He’s dumped into a grim military hospital where nobody knows who he is or cares how he came to be there.
At a memorial service attended by members of the royal family, Lawrence is placed at the very back, sitting in a wheelchair, unable to see anything and refused permission to wear his beloved uniform. It’s as if he’s considered an embarrassment.
The British Ministry of Defence and many politicians, on the left and right, were outraged by Tumbledown, and particularly by the battle scenes, which show Lawrence revelling and exulting in war and its violence.
It’s disturbing to watch, but it’s the unvarnished truth about war — something those who send young men to be maimed and killed hate.