Before watching BBC Two real-life drama Danny Boy, I knew very little about the five-year Al-Sweady Inquiry. After watching Danny Boy, I can’t say I know much more about the true story behind Danny Boy.
The BBC billed the drama as “a legal and moral conflict that takes us from the battlefield – at so-called Checkpoint Danny Boy – to the courtroom,” but unfortunately viewers see very little of the ‘legal’ aspect, and even less of the courtroom.
In fact, we never even see our central character, accused soldier Brian Wood, inside the courtroom itself. We don’t see him take the stand and deliver his testimony. We don’t see him in the dock during questioning, a tense and “humiliat[ing]” experience the real-life Wood later compared to “walking through a minefield” in a piece for The Daily Mail. Nor do we witness the full reckoning that comes later for now-disgraced solicitor Phil Shiner.
Danny Boy feels like it was originally conceived as a two-part drama (which in fact it was, says screenwriter Robert Jones), with the climactic courtroom scenes reserved for the second episode that never was.
Instead upbeat, almost cheery music plays at the end of the drama alongside on-screen text that explains – at a hundred miles an hour – the inquiry, its outcome, and what happened next to the characters. An unusually packed postscript, it reads almost like a synopsis for a second episode.
At the very least, the anti-climactic ending feels like a missed opportunity, because what we do see of the central performances is invariably great.
Olivier-winner Anthony Boyle – who played Scorpius in Harry Potter and The Cursed Child on-stage – leads the Danny Boy cast as real-life British soldier Brian Wood, who was only in his very early 20s when he was deployed to Iraq, returning home with a medal for gallantry.
Meanwhile Toby Jones plays the charismatic human rights lawyer Phil Shiner who accused British troops (including Wood) of unlawfully killing and torturing Iraqi detainees at The Battle of Danny Boy.
The soldiers were eventually cleared of those allegations, which the judge described as “wholly without foundation”. Following the Al-Sweady Inquiry, a disciplinary tribunal into Shiner’s work revealed evidence of errors and misconduct. He was struck off the national roll of solicitors.
Brian Wood’s battle to clear his name, contrasted with Phil Shiner’s full fall from grace, would have made for great television. It’s a shame that both those arcs aren’t fully explored, but what we do focus on still makes for compelling viewing.
Boyle fully inhabits the character, and his scenes with his on-screen father (also a former soldier) are particularly heartrending. The legal inquiry catalyses a period of soul-searching in the Wood households, and both father and adult son reflect on modern warfare and how it impacts personal relationships back home.
We see less of Phil Shiner (Jones) than I expected, instead focussing on the taciturn Brian, who struggles to reconnect with his wife Lucy and baby son, and is initially unable to open up about the horrors he saw in Iraq. We also witness flashbacks to those horrors (scenes set in Iraq were filmed at a Buckinghamshire quarry), which Brian has debilitating nightmares about.
The standalone drama (although much shorter than I would hope) is a brilliant showcase for Boyle’s talents as a leading man. And the drama is full of great supporting turns (in The Big RT Interview with Leah McNamara, the actress spoke movingly to RadioTimes.com about her experience playing Lucy Wood, wife of Brian).
Almost all of the characters go on difficult personal journeys. But with such an anti-climactic ending, those journeys are sometimes robbed of their full poignancy.
Danny Boy will air on 12th May on BBC Two and BBC iPlayer. While you’re waiting, take a look at our other Drama coverage, or find out what else is on with our TV Guide. And you can also check out all of our Big RT Interview articles.