It’s an apt moment for Danny Boy (BBC Two), Robert Jones’s one-off drama based on the Al-Sweady inquiry into war crimes committed during the invasion of Iraq. The report, which came out in 2014, took five years and cost nearly £25m. Last month, the junior defence minister Johnny Mercer was sacked for insisting that British troops who served in Northern Ireland were included in new legislation designed to protect soldiers from historic prosecutions. The subject is practically guaranteed to provoke strong emotions. Any opinion inevitably ends up reflecting what you think about the army, British foreign policy, human rights law, the legal procedure, memory itself.
In less subtle hands, this kind of real-life courtroom battle could easily descend into a dry procession of facts. That it doesn’t is credit to Jones’s writing – which is scrupulously even-handed and gives its central characters depth – as well as strong lead performances. Anthony Boyle is excellent as Lance Corporal Brian Wood, the young soldier who won the Military Cross for his actions at the Battle of Danny Boy in southern Iraq in 2004, before subsequently being accused of murder and torture. The accusations come soon after he has become a father, so the stress of the investigation coincides with sleepless nights and a stressed wife Lucy (Leah McNamara). Wood’s memory of the fateful day, relived in flashback, starts to crack under questioning. His father Gavin (Alex Ferns) was a soldier, too, and can’t believe his son has been put through this. The jumbled narrative echoes the chaos of his memories. Of course, he doubts his own testimony – what honest man wouldn’t – but in the circumstances, doubt can easily be mistaken for guilt.
Opposite him, Toby Jones gives a busy, bustling turn as the human rights lawyer Phil Shiner. When journalist turns up on his doorstep with a folder full of possible abuse victims, Shiner’s first instinct is to turn him down. Besides, although his previous investigation proved British soldiers had abused Baha Mousa, the Iraqi prisoner who died in custody, the army had ultimately been exonerated. In the end he is persuaded by the testimony that this is a worthy cause, and he chases it down like a bulldog with a bone, eventually to a fault.
It’s hardly a spoiler to say that in the end, although the prisoners were found to be mistreated, Wood was cleared of the most serious crimes. In 2017, Shiner was struck off after the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal found he had acted dishonestly. He declared himself bankrupt. His firm, Public Interest Lawyers, was closed down. It was a sorry end to an incident that none of the participants emerged from unscathed. These incidents and the responses to them become part of the national mythology. Modern liberal democracies like to think they elevate themselves by applying the rule of law strictly to their soldiers. Maybe. Those closer to the real-life events will have strong views on Danny Boy, and perhaps accuse it of warping one side or the other. For the rest of us, it’s a humane and skilfully made drama which serves as a reminder that people at the centre of historical events are not always rich or powerful. The ugly aftermath of war can take as much of a toll as the fighting.