You’re probably best known as a writer for Casualty and the musical drama Blackpool. Occupation is a long way from that. What made you decide to write a drama about British troops in Iraq?
The Iraq war is one of the major stories of our time and by early 2004 director Derek Wax and myself knew we had to do a drama about it.
My starting point was three films -Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, and Three Kings—all of which are about war, but, because they tell wider human stories, say more about its effects than most hard hitting documentaries.
I started work with the belief that, although new technology and 24-hour news coverage means Iraq has been one of the best documented wars there has ever been, there is still something that drama can tell us that documentary can’t.
The question was how do we get under the skin of this?
I was inspired by being from a working class family in Stockport and based many of my characters on people I grew up with—lads who joined the army and who today live with the constant expectation of conflict.
One of the most powerful scenes in Occupation centres on a soldier who returns from Iraq to an empty home—which seems to symbolise both the trauma of war and emptiness he now feels about his life.
How important was that part of the story for you?
The papers don’t have a problem depicting the noble solider but they do have a problem showing what happens to the soldiers who become damaged. Yet one inevitably follows the other.
I spent time with former soldiers at Combat Stress, a charity that counsels ex-servicemen suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
They said that when a war appears to be widely supported among the public, fewer soldiers return with long-term psychological damage.
But Iraq, like Northern Ireland, is not widely supported.
Soldiers sent there expected a warm welcome from the people they were told they were going in to protect—only to find that it was their houses that they were raiding.
They told me that this generation of soldiers is suffering a faster degeneration as a result of increased drug use.
In the drama I really wanted to show the way that lack of support for the war at home, and in soldiers’ families, affected them.
In the scene you mention, I wanted to show that sense of dislocation.
That feeling that what you’ve been through means you will never quite fit together again.
Another vital scene shows the chaos of an Iraqi hospital that the soldier brings a wounded Iraqi child to. The reality of the hell hole he arrives at could not be better illustrated. What do you hope people will learn from it?
Basra, where the hospital is, suffered disproportionately under Saddam Hussein. But it was United Nations sanctions that really crippled what was one of the best health services in the Middle East.
In that scene the soldier finally makes it to the hospital by running through a gun fight.
But when he arrives he finds the hospital is far from a safe haven—it’s worse than it is outside on the streets. I wanted people to see that contrast.
Part of the authentic feel of Occupation derives from the language the soldiers use. For instance, there is quite a lot of casual racism. Was it difficult to script that element of the story?
For me, there is an important issue here that centres on my own experience working in a car factory in the 1970s.
There I found that the most difficult racists to tackle were not the boneheads.
It was the funny and likable guys who would say things like, “I’m not sure who I’m going to vote for—its either Labour or the National Front” who were really tough!
As an 18 year old Rock Against Racism supporter I found it hard to understand how someone can be a nice person in many aspects of their life, and at the same time be a racist—but maybe someone who can be redeemed.
I’ve always tried to incorporate that kind of ambiguity into my work.
Is your hope that, after watching Occupation, some people might rethink their attitude to the war, or do you think that is beyond the role of drama?
I hope that Occupation prompts viewers to ask themselves questions about the war.
It’s possible that they might come up with answers I don’t agree with—but yes, for me, part of the purpose of drama, as well as entertaining, is to get people to ask questions.
Occupation starts on BBC1 at 9pm on Tuesday 16 June