Good Lord, Toby Jones is tremendous, isn’t he? It’s absurd that he’s only got the one Bafta, when he should have all the Baftas, plus all the Emmys and the Oscars, too. The vivid humanity he brings to every role – as open-hearted Lance in Detectorists, as a semi-mystical football mascot in Marvellous, as a status-hungry banker in Capital – is always remarkable; in this one-off factual drama, it becomes essential. Danny Boy (BBC Two) carefully lights the way through a particularly opaque patch in the fog of war, illuminating the contemporary workings of the British military and government in the process.
Jones plays the human rights lawyer Phil Shiner, now routinely referred to as the “disgraced human rights lawyer Phil Shiner”. Yet during the period depicted in the opening of Danny Boy, he was still basking in the afterglow of his work on the case of Baha Mousa, an Iraqi hotel receptionist who died in British Army custody in 2003. Our story’s hero, however – speaking narratively and militarily – is C/Sgt Brian Wood, played by Anthony Boyle. In 2004, Wood led a bayonet charge in the battle of Danny Boy, near the city of Amarah in southern Iraq, and was subsequently awarded the Military Cross for gallantry. Just five years later, he was summoned to appear at the al-Sweady inquiry, set up at Shiner’s urging, and intended to investigate allegations of unlawful killing at the same battle.
The excellent script by Robert Jones keeps circling back to the moment of enemy engagement, adding more detail and different emphases each time, like a soldier sorting through his traumatised memories. Great sound design immerses us in the dust and confusion, when all Wood could hear was the ringing in his ears and his own heavy breathing. It’s a vivid illustration of not only the uniquely high-pressure environment in which soldiers make decisions but the ordeal of having to later justify these decisions in a civilian courtroom. Particularly effective are the scenes between Wood and his veteran father (Alex Ferns), as they begin to question the codes of honour they’ve always lived by.
Aside from being compelling drama, then, Danny Boy is a kind of peacemaker’s intervention in the culture war, helping “woke warriors” to better understand their “flag-shagging” brethren and vice versa. Without resorting to any false, kumbaya-ish promise of reconciliation, it shows what commonalities may exist between men on opposing sides. Wood and Shiner use running to aid their mental health, and the “resilience” that Wood’s father drums into him on their uphill races sounds a lot like the “thick skin” Shiner tells his students they’ll need in human rights work. “They’ll tell you you’re a bleeding heart, they’ll tell you you’re naive, they’ll tell you you’re money-grubbing,” he instructs. “Why? … Because now and then you’re going to have to tell them things they really don’t want to hear.” Cpl Wood teaches, too. In fact, he’s giving a lecture to a room of army fatigue-wearing students when he’s humiliatingly called to interview by the military police. Shiner’s own reputation-shredding humiliation was, at this point, yet to come.
Danny Boy offers no apologia for the real-life Shiner, who, as we’re reminded in the closing titles, was struck off in 2017 over misconduct relating to the inquiry. Still, being played by one of Britain’s best living actors is about as close as the court of public opinion gets to assurances of a fair trial. Jones portrays unflagging self-belief, and how utterly necessary it must be to a small-practice solicitor taking on the British state. With excellent assistance from Kiran Sonia Sawar, as Shiner’s loyal-but-weary colleague, he reveals, too, the flipside of this character type: a fall-preceding pride that will not allow for criticism or self-reflection. Even as Shiner was holding the British military to the highest professional standard, he was falling far short of standards in his own profession.
Danny Boy closes at the collapse of the inquiry without going into any detail on the fallout. But perhaps, seven years on, TV can succeed where, in the immediate aftermath of Shiner’s downfall, many activists and journalists were defeated. It refocuses attention away from the splashy, shady politics and back to the urgent, ethical question: should the British military be above the law? With the controversial overseas operations bill having now passed, this is as relevant as ever.