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Channel 4 may pull Iraq war abuse drama

London Independent | April 4, 2007
Terri Judd

The writer of a drama about British soldiers abusing Iraqis defended his work last night as Channel 4 revealed that it was considering pulling the programme amid accusations it could upset negotiations with Iran.

As Tony Blair insisted that negotiations surrounding the 15 captive marines and sailors had reached a "critical" period, the broadcaster said that it was in hourly discussions with the Foreign Office over whether to go ahead with tomorrow night's airing of The Mark of Cain.

The provocative drama's screenwriter, Bafta-award winner Tony Marchant, told The Independent that he felt his work was being unfairly targeted and the families of the captives had been "manipulated" into condemning a drama they had not viewed.

"It is very difficult," Marchant said. "Of course, like anybody else, I am extremely concerned for the welfare of those 15 marines and sailors. But I have to say hand on heart I don't feel it could in any way adversely affect negotiations. It seems a bit of a leap to me.

"But if there is a perception the film is problematic and Channel 4 decided to take action, I am going to have to accept that."

Acknowledging that he always knew the film would be controversial, he added: "No one could anticipate it being caught up in the marines hostage situation, that it was going to be propelled to a whole new level."

Lisa Marshall, Channel 4's commissioning editor for drama, said the broadcaster was considering delaying the screening of the programme.

"We are monitoring the situation carefully and continuing to review our decision," she said.

The problem arose after senior military figures and the parents of some of the captives expressed their concern. Robin Air, whose Royal Marine son, Capt Chris Air, is among the detainees, said: "It would be very distressing if a television broadcast was to affect the negotiations that our diplomatic service is engaged in at the moment. It would be an act which is at best reckless."

He was backed by Maj Gen Patrick Cordingley, who commanded the 7th Armoured Brigade "Desert Rats" during the Gulf War in 1991. "I would like to see it delayed," he said. "I don't want it not to be shown but I think this is just the wrong moment to do it."

The Mark of Cain is the story of two teenage privates serving in Iraq after the initial phase of war. Following the death of two of their regiment in a rocket-propelled grenade attack, they arrest suspects and are drawn into taking part in abuse. Returning home, they are identified in photographs and find themselves "hung out to dry" by more senior soldiers.

Marchant, who interviewed dozens of soldiers and veterans of the Iraq conflict as research, portrays the brutal environment the young squaddies inhabit as well as the violent punishment meted out by Iraqis themselves on offenders.

While not condoning the abuse, the author portrays the anguish of the soldiers as they come to terms with what they have done.

"The redemptive glimmer in the drama is that it is about acknowledging the humanity of people you have abused," Marchant said. "In the end it is about moral responsibility and taking personal responsibility for your actions... Ultimately the soldiers acknowledge the humanity of the Iraqis."

He added: "I am not suggesting it is systematic. I am suggesting you cannot blame one or two abhorrent individuals in a culture where brutality manifests itself.

"I would think it [the programme] might make more of a case for a whistleblowers' charter. I know they have a legal right to refuse orders that are immoral but there should be something enshrined in the Army."

The film was initially inspired by news of the photographs which emerged from the Camp Breadbasket court martial, which led to the conviction of three soldiers from the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers in February 2005. But it hints at other cases such as the arrest and subsequent death of hotel receptionist Baha Mousa following the killing of a popular officer. It led to the court martial of seven soldiers, all of whom were acquitted bar one corporal who admitted treating Iraqi detainees inhumanely.

Col Tim Collins, whose speech on the eve of war calling on his men to "not take life needlessly" or "live with the mark of Cain" inspired the title, has accused the drama of "pandering to popular prejudices".

Marchant has denied the film is "straightforwardly critical of the Army" but rather an "attempt to get under the skin of the soldiers", and rebutted claims that it would only fuel attacks on servicemen and women in Iraq.

"I have to say unfortunately there are loads of real-life provocations [such as courts martial and images of abuse] that have been shown on Al-Jazeera," Marchant said.

A Channel 4 spokesman said last night: "While we are not convinced there is a serious danger of the drama influencing the outcome of the negotiations for their release, we are open to further dialogue.

"As we have said, we are monitoring the situation carefully and continuing to review the planned broadcast date."

Controversy on film

The Deal

Michael Sheen starred as Tony Blair in this film about the deal Mr Blair struck with Gordon Brown over the leadership of the Labour Party following the death of John Smith in 1994.

The Government Inspector

Mark Rylance played the weapons inspector David Kelly who found himself at the centre of the dispute between Downing Street and the BBC with tragic consequences.

The Hamburg Cell

The drama followed the men behind the September 11 terror plot from their meeting while studying in Hamburg to their suicide mission in the US.

The Road To Guantanamo

Michael Winterbottom directed the film about the "Tipton Three", the British Muslims who were freed without charge after two years in the US prison.

Bradford Riots

Neil Biswas's drama relived the events of 7 July 2001 when tension broke out in the Manningham area of Bradford, from the perspective of a group of young Asian men.


Archie Panjabi, a star of East is East and Bend It Like Beckham, played a Westernised young Muslim woman forced to marry her Pakistani goatherd cousin.

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