Daytime TV: Lunar landscapes

Gary Day is appalled by the desolation in Iraq but exhilarated at watching men walk on the Moon

June 25, 2009

I grow old, I grow old but I'm damned if I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. There are more important things to think about than turn-ups. My memory is not what it used to be and right now, I'm trying to remember what Tony Blair's slogan was back in 1997. Was it "education, education, education" or was it "occupation, occupation, occupation"? I ask only because there doesn't seem to have been much improvement in schools and universities, while at the same time the British Army has taken up residence in foreign parts, without much idea of what it is doing there.

My God, if we learnt from history we wouldn't be in Iraq, the subject of Peter Bowker's three-part drama Occupation (BBC One, Tuesday 16, Wednesday 17 and Thursday 18 June 9pm). Then again, if we did learn from history we wouldn't have art. It's a real dilemma. The story centres around three soldiers whose experience of the country affects them in different ways. There's Mike whose affair costs him his marriage, Danny who co-founds a security company and Lee who is taken hostage and nearly beheaded.

It was a good job this was put on over three nights. You needed a day to recover after each episode. Iraq, of course, is a long way from recovery since we went in to put it right. James Nesbitt, who played Mike, was riveting, but he would be even if he were standing in a queue. Stephen Graham as Danny spoke as if he were going to glass whoever he was addressing, while Warren Brown as Lee looked, with his Bambi eyes, like a dead Disney character unwillingly brought back to life. The pitch and roll of the camera added to the sense of disorientation. This is a topsy-turvy world. A hospital is built, a hospital is blown up. "If it's not politics, it's religion," hissed Danny. "If it's not religion, it's tribal. These people, they're like Scousers at a wedding." You take Danny's word for this because he comes from Liverpool. And because you want to keep your teeth.

Iraq is seen from the road. It is flat and featureless. Everywhere you look, nothing. Except for helicopters, hanging in the air like enormous insects. The soldiers' vehicles rattle into town. On the outskirts, an abandoned white car smeared with blood. A parody of the flag of St George? Out of nowhere a figure emerges to hurl a stone at the windscreen. Nothing looks lived in. The buildings are spotted with bullet holes. There are no shops. A body with a hood on its head sits propped against a wall. Men juggle a coffin along the street. The wind makes a woman's burka billow out. This is Beckett's symbolic landscape translated into politics.

The only comfort comes from the Epic of Gilgamesh. The Iraqi doctor, Aliyah, with whom Mike falls ruinously in love, quotes him her favourite passage. "Let your every day be full of joy. Love the child that holds your hand. Let your wife delight in your embrace. For these alone are the concerns of humanity." She is pressed up against a hospital wall and shot through the head by a fundamentalist who believes that women shouldn't treat the sick. Somehow Blair's recent description of the situation in Iraq as a "hassle" doesn't quite capture what has happened to that country, but then he was only Prime Minister, not a dramatist.

At least when the Americans went to the Moon, the place was already desolate. It's coming up to the 40th anniversary of the first lunar landing. Expect a rush of programmes about this historic event over the next few weeks. Using archive film, Days that Shook the World - Moon Landing (BBC Four, Thursday 18 June 8.30pm) told the story of 20 July 1969. Flight director Eugene Kranz put on his lucky waistcoat, then went to put a spacecraft on another world. It had less computer power than one of today's mobile phones. A few days earlier, a crowd at the Kennedy Space Centre raised their faces to watch Apollo 11 blaze into space. All shot in glorious Technicolor, though strangely faded now.

Eagle, released from the command module Columbia, began its dramatic descent. First of all, radio communication was lost, then alarms began to flash, and then Eagle was travelling too fast. The flight team stared at their screens, smoking, undoing their ties. Neil Armstrong steered the craft, now dangerously short of fuel, to a new landing spot. His heart rate had gone up from 77 to 156. But the Eagle had touched down safely. Moments later, Armstrong put his foot in the dust, leaving a print that will last a million years.

The rest is history - though a disputed one. There are those who believe the whole thing was a fake. Rather reminiscent of the reasons we were given for the invasion of Iraq.

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