Chris Ryan's Strike Back Sky One
GRRR! ARRGH! UH! That's how a lot of the dialogue goes in Chris Ryan's Strike Back, Sky One's new series based on a book by the ex-SAS man who isn't Andy McNab. It's the channel's biggest budget drama for a good while, aimed squarely at the blokey viewer who'd rather watch paint dry than a costume drama, and full of macho chaps being alternately stoic and heroic in Iraq.
Despite having his name in the title, there's a certain suggestion that Ryan's not-exactly-critically-praised writing has been discreetly filleted for the adaptation. A firm rewrite has turned his dodgier plot points (like having Hezbollah be responsible for the kidnapping of a Western TV reporter) into something a bit more believable (it's now attributed to drama's all-purpose "rogue elements"). While using Ryan's name to draw in the viewers, the script has actually been written by Jed Mercurio, a former doctor who wrote the excellent medical series Cardiac Arrest and Bodies – and it's all the better for it.
And to further class up the production, the cast – led by Richard Armitage, Andrew Lincoln and Orla Brady – is pretty good too. They've all proved more than capable in other things and while their roles here don't require a great deal of acting – but a lot of running around, holding guns and squinting – at least they invest their characters with a modicum of depth. But they're fighting against the limitations of the source material, which is still pretty ropey stuff.
The story begins in 2003, with a highly-effective action scene involving Special Forces rescuing a hostage from Iraq, just before the invasion. It's a bloody mess, with Saddam's soldiers swarming all over, and Armitage's character John Porter's hesitation in battle leads to half his men being killed. Not that he was cowardly, you understand: he just couldn't bring himself to shoot a boy who's been strapped to a bomb and sent amongst them. For Porter is the quintessential tough guy with a soft spot for kiddies and pretty ladies.
After the opening thrills, the drama plods on a bit as Porter isforced out of the service – no room for namby pamby guilt complexes there – and becomes a scruffy security guard, his depression symbolised by throwing away his razor and growing his hair into a semi-Liam Gallagher bad wig. See, he can't get a job anywhere else because he's got no academic qualifications, explains an Unpatriotic Man In A Suit – cue sad face, as Armitage pantomimes curling in on himself, then suddenly throws a plaque through a window in an explosion of Righteous Anger At A Country Which Doesn't Value Its Heroes.
Meanwhile, Lincoln's military intelligence officer, who was also involved in the unfortunate raid, has flourished, represented by him now also wearing a suit. But when sexy reporter Katie (Guerin) is kidnapped, men in suits are no good. What she needs is Porter to talk his way back into the service, since he's the only one who recognises that the man behind it all is the same Iraqi secret policeman who scuppered their initial unfortunate rescue. "He owes me a debt of honour," intones Porter, as convincingly as he can manage beneath the wig. He'll stop at nothing to 'strike back' – just as soon as he visits the barber.
It's hokum, all right, but polished, watchable hokum. And at least Ross Kemp isn't in it.