There is a small sub-genre of reality tv that I find fascinating, the historical reality tv show. I love history, I enjoy reality tv at times, so naturally this genre has an attraction for me. Bad Lad’s Army (2002–2006) is one such show, but does it hold up? Do the problematic issues of the subject matter detract from the show’s overall quality? Let’s find out.
Originally called Lad’s Army, Bad Lad’s Army consist of four series. The first series see’s a group of ordinary men volunteer to participate in a two month long national service style program where they experience army life as it was in the 1950’s. Series two changes the format slightly, now instead of ordinary men, the contestants are ‘bad lads’, young men who have either served time or are considered anti-social. Series three has the bad lads in officer training, where they learn how to manage their own platoon, and series four is based around the parachute regiment, culminating in the recruits performing a solo parachute jump.
I think very highly of Bad Lad’s Army. There’s a lot of potential in this premise and the show rarely disappoints in reaching it. It’s difficult to know where to start, the Section Commanders the show uses to teach the recruits are excellent, clearly know what they’re doing, and even likable. The contestants are memorable and even some of the most disruptive of the ‘bad lads’, while unlikable, are still a joy to watch. Later series would include short segments where celebrities who experienced actual national service give their impressions of the experience, and their recollections are so interesting it could frankly be a show on its own. Although, in the light of Operation Yewtree, some of those interviews are difficult to watch.
The lessons taught throughout the show are stellar. Not only are we given a great insight into what national service actually was, but we also see some of the kinder moments. When one recruit falls behind the others during a routine trek, their section commander makes it clear that it is better to lose as a team than to win alone, a lesson which has application in life as well as a more practical one in the armed forces. Another great example comes when a recruit breaks down and cries during a pretty stressful incident where he’s missing his family and the heavy workload becomes too much. Instead of chastising him, his section commander sits down with the guy, tells him how well he’s doing and that sometimes it takes a man to cry. When I first saw that, I was blown away. My impression of the armed forces was that they had a zero tolerance on that sort of emotional outburst but I was totally wrong, I gained more respect for the armed forces in that one five minute section of an episode than in a lifetime of recruitment videos.
Bad Lad’s Army is also incredibly educational, aside from the great life lessons and celebrity interviews, watching the process the army goes through to transform the average citizen into an effective soldier is fascinating. Watching a series of Bad Lad’s Army is, in some respects, like watching a documentary, I cannot praise it enough in this regard. It balances entertainment and education wonderfully, to the point where when the contestants complete the process and pass out, you share in their pride, you have been a first-hand witness to their improvement process and I wouldn’t be surprised if viewers of the show actually signed up after watching it, it’s that good.
There are, however, some flaws. While I love the fact that each series tackles a different aspect of the military, it would’ve been nice to see the section commanders remain consistent throughout. I like all of them, but Joe Murray and Richard Nauyokas are easily the best. It does get a bit grating and propaganda-ish when the recruits visit places like the Women’s Institute and old people’s homes in the later stages of the series, if only because they do regurgitate the whole “I was a thug and now I am productive member of society” line that we’ve all heard a million times. The series itself rarely steps into the sort of armed forces hero worship that is all too common in our society, but it does happen and it makes me cringe a little.
The original narrator for the first series was Kevin Whately, most famous for his role as Lewis in Inspector Morse (1987-2000) and his vocal style is perfect for Lad’s Army, sort of relentlessly normal, everyman approach that works really well. Bad Lad’s Army’s narrator is Dennis Waterman, and while he’s good he often see’s like he really hates the contestants, berating them for being workshy louts. I wouldn’t mind so much but there’s a real venom in it, like just before he went into the recording booth he found out one of them had nicked his bike, it’s that personal.
By far the biggest problem I have with Bad Lad’s Army is the homophobia, which mercifully is only present it the first series. Now, let me be clear, in the context of trying to accurately portray the Armed Forces as they were during national service, I am in favour of the section commanders and officers using homophobic language. This is simply because it is historically accurate and serves to demonstrate how far both the army and the world has come since the 1950’s. My only conditions would be if the recruits were informed of this, the section commanders knew when to hold back, and they all had a member of the production crew to talk to if it got too much. From what I can tell it looks like that was the case, so I’m not really concerned by that, it just makes me feel uncomfortable, which it should. However, the show never goes out of its way to say that this sort of language is a bad thing, it never even touches upon it. My second criticism is similar, where is the racism?
The British Army of the 1950’s would have undoubtedly used racist language to ‘motivate’ the recruits. There is a black guy in the first series so it would be historically accurate if they used some of that language, again, providing he was told beforehand, given support, and the section commanders knew when to stop. As such, all we have is homophobia, which really acts as more of a commentary on the age the show was made rather than the period in which it is set. There must have been, I imagine, a meeting where historical consultants said that both racist and homophobic language was widely used in the age of national service and ITV must have made the decision to leave the racism because it was, understandably, too toxic, but to allow the homophobia because they knew that the average viewer wouldn’t mind. It’s a long-winded explanation but it does give us a window into a time period where homophobia was fine but racism wasn’t. Mercifully they tone done the homophobia drastically in the Bad Lad’s series, but with regards to the first series, that stuff was horribly botched.
Bad Lad’s Army is a truly excellent series, informative and entertaining in equal measure. The flaws it has are often minor and do little to detract from its overall quality. It’s a shame they aren’t still making it because not only is it one of the best reality tv shows I’ve ever seen, its probably the best advert for the army that has ever existed.