War and comedy. They’ve always been bedfellows, even if the general public may have been offended to hear it. Soldiers have always used gallows humour to get over the fact that today may be their last day on the planet. You can see the work of Spike Milligan, arguably the most influential comedian of the twentieth century, formed in the fires of World War II, and the depression that came with it. And as this attitude spilled over into the general public, it shocked. The material that Beyond The Fringe found most offensive was not the first stage impersonations of a sitting Prime Minister, but parodying attitudes from the War. It’s hard when watching M*A*S*H now, often sitting in a glutinous soup of saccharine liberalism, to see it in its original context, a period piece of wartime comedy drama from a couple of decades playing out alongside the Vietnam War
Now things are very different. Western armies film themselves playing out comedy sketches and songs and put them on YouTube, much to the chagrin of their superiors. There is no time between a war and the comedy that it generates it anymore.
It’s in that environment that we get Bluestone 42, a BBC sitcom about an army bomb disposal squad in Afghanistan. We are shown a bunch of flawed human beings, vain, selfish, brusque, silly, reminiscent of the cast of Inbetweeners. And then there is a shot. An explosion. An attack, and everything changes. The tomfoolery vanishes and this cast of fools become deadly serious in their attempt to save themselves, each other, to fight back, to win, to survive. It feels utterly convincing. If this is not the way it is, it feels like it very well could be. No M*A*S*H glucose syrup here, these are dry twigs, doing what needs to be done. To quote Beyond The Fringe, it is kill or be killed. Or both.
No episode lets you forget it. They all see Captain Nick Medhurst trying to get into Padre Mary’s knickers, and her showing increasing signs of getting to that point, while Lansley’s has dreams of a better life, Millsy tries to succeed through meticulous planning, Rocket and Mac playing the naughty kids, Bird dispelling any and all elements of femininity, they are all living with life and death… and being human with it.
Bluestine 42 isn’t the funniest sitcom you’ll see this year. But it may be the one that stays with you the most. And it may give you cause for those still fighting, and dying, in our name. Heroes, sometimes, yes. But mostly, just humans.