Bomb disposal in Helmand – and a war in which British soldiers are still fighting and dying – is probably not the first subject that springs to mind as the basis for a BBC comedy series. But the drama and black humour of the men and women who take the lonely walk towards a bomb, rather than running away from it, proves to be surprisingly fertile territory for Bluestone 42, an eight-part comedy-drama about a fictional bomb squad of the same name.
“When you talk to soldiers, they say how much they enjoy being in the Army,” Richard Hurst, one of the writers, explains. “Yet it feels as though when you watch a drama, or talk about war, that being a soldier must be a terrible thing. Soldiers enjoy doing their job well, and that’s something we haven’t seen a lot in fiction before.”
“It’s not a satire about war, it’s more about the characters and relationships within the team,” adds co-writer James Cary. “The characters are soldiers, but they are still people with the same needs as everyone else.” Albeit people in life-threatening situations…
But the tension offers ample opportunity for banter, bad language and sexual innuendo. In the first episode, the hero of Bluestone 42, Captain Nick Medhurst (played by Oliver Chris) spends some of his time defusing bombs and leading his team, the rest of the time focused on trying to win the affections of the attractive female padre, Mary (Kelly Adams).
Even before it was made the series attracted controversy when newspaper coverage alerted the public, including the families of some of the men and women killed while trying to defuse the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that have become one of the Taliban’s favoured weapons of war. The idea alone was enough to raise concerns at a time when several bomb disposal experts, including Captain Lisa Head and Staff Sergeant Oz Schmid, had lost their lives. Their deaths raised serious questions over whether the UK had enough counter-IED specialists, and whether the teams from the real unit serving in Helmand, 11 EOD Regiment, were being driven beyond exhaustion by the relentless scale of the task.
On the British Army Rumour Service website – an unofficial British Army website set up by officers as a forum for debate, also known by its acronym ARRSE – initial comments in 2011 also showed clear unease at the comedy’s premise.
One post read: “Another anti-army piece of work from the Beeb luvvies. I suppose it makes a change from them portraying British soldiers as bullying, demented, psychotic, unemployed idiots suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder…” Another, though, summed up with: “As long as it’s funny, who cares? As long as it captures the sick sense of humour that we know and love.”
But the man who acted as one of the military advisers to the production, former Captain Liam Fitzgerald-Finch, thinks the series is both funny and realistic. As an ammunition technical officer, one of the elite “bomb guys”, he has disposed of countless devices in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has also lost close friends and knows others who are still dealing with life-changing injuries.
“Bomb disposal is something the public has had almost zero exposure to, so I thought it was a good medium for a comedy,” he says.
“Within any small military team, banter is one way of cementing relationships. Soldiers use humour to cope in a high-stress environment, and keep a positive outlook. It’ll certainly develop some audience understanding of another side to military life – but unless you’re actually in Helmand, you’ll never truly understand what’s going on.”