Mark of Cain - Press reaction


Book Reviewer
I know there are others threads running on this but I thought it might be interesting to see what the reviewers in the newspapers thought.

They all seemed to be full of praise for the programme except, bizarrely, the Guardian who quoted 'an online forum used by serving and ex-soldiers' ;)

Feel free to merge PTP if it's one thread too many.

The Herald

Just like Tony Marchant's most recent TV drama, Recovery, The Mark of Cain began with a caption reminding us that while it was based on extensive research, it should be considered a work of fiction.

Just like Recovery, Tony Marchant's latest creation was also a meticulously researched and affecting work of dramatic power and complexity.

In depicting the lethal nightmare currently enveloping the British Army in war-ravaged Iraq, Marchant chose to walk the painful path of subtlety, narrative complexity, thoughtfulness and attention to even-handed detail.

Marchant's perplexed working-class squaddies patrolled the streets of Basra equipped with little to protect them from harm, aside from their own fast-diminishing humanity. "I'm gonna get shot in the back," one acidly observed as he ventured down an ominous back street.

Asked why, he spat: "Because I'm wearing body armour on me front." Such bleak gallows humour swiftly gave way to a hellish mockery of justice - the type of military barbarism we've all seen in photos from Abu Ghraib prison.

In the wake of a savage ambush which claimed two of their comrades' lives, the British squaddies demonstrated the insidious means by which conflict brutalises everyone who takes part in it. In the name of revenge, manhood and group trust, suspect insurgents were beaten half to death.

Portraying good young Brits gone bad under inhuman martial stress, Gerard Kearns (Ian in Shameless) and Shaun Dooley (wasted in Mobile) were riveting, spell-binding, harrowing. Were you watching, Tony Blair?
The Times

Bloody, battered faces acted almost like bookends for Tony Marchant’s drama The Mark of Cain. At the start they were those of Iraqi detainees abused by British soldiers. At the end it was that of a British squaddie, beaten by members of his regiment for having broken ranks to confess everything and name names during a court martial. No wonder the Ministry of Defence didn’t want this screened. As it turned out, Channel 4 postponed its scheduled transmission last week amid the then unresolved crisis regarding the British military personnel held in Iran. It went out last night with the MoD still facing the flak for allowing the released sailors and Marines to sell their stories to the press. Clearly, the military is trying to adjust to the full glare of the media while still on active service.

From the soldier’s point of view, according to one of Marchant’s squaddies: “We barely get a mention if we’re killed but we’re headline news if something goes wrong.” Marchant offered a sympathetic portrait of the daily pressures faced by soldiers on patrol. We saw Shane and Mark, lifelong friends and 18-year-old raw recruits, out of their depth amid baying mobs, roadside bombs and the uncertainty of who’s friend or foe, during their first tour of duty in Basra in 2003.

Having witnessed the compromises of their peacekeeping role through the beating of a smuggler to pacify an angry mob, the rookies then saw their unit stoked up by the death of two platoon members ambushed by insurgents. Retaliation seemed sanctioned by the unit’s superiors — “You walk away from this,” Shane warned Mark, “and it’ll be the same as deserting” — and the abuse of two prisoners followed, their brutal humiliation shockingly revealed in more detail towards the end as Shane stood in the dock.

Marchant’s work picks away at questions of personal responsibility, whether it’s the recent Recovery (Sarah Parish faced with looking after a brain-injured husband, David Tennant), The Family Man (IVF consultant Trevor Eve playing God with childless couples) or Passer-by (James Nesbitt failing to rescue a girl who’s being raped). The Mark of Cain was also looking for the root cause of moral failure in individuals and society. Marchant saw Mark and Shane as victims of a brutalising army culture of peer pressure, misplaced loyalty and a pack mentality as their comrades closed ranks and left them to take the rap after Shane’s “trophy” photographs rebounded on them back home.

Nowadays, finding a TV drama that hasn’t been built around a murder-mystery or conceived as a vehicle for David Jason is a cause for celebration. Tautly directed by Marc Munden, The Mark of Cain conveyed powerfully how a peacekeeping force can easily adopt a retaliatory position as violence breeds violence. It also boasted fine performances, including Matthew McNulty as Shane, Gerard Kearns as Mark, whose disintegration and eventual suicide was painful to watch, and Shaun Dooley as their career-soldier corporal, a troubling voice of moral relativism, orchestrating the unit’s actions. This had the power to raise compassion and indignation.

Yet the opening caption — “This film is based on extensive research but is a dramatic work of fiction” — kept gnawing at me. Of the events before us, what had been taken from definite events and what from rumour or suspicion? Marchant had clearly been inspired by documented cases, even prefiguring a six-month court martial covering similar abuse charges that delayed the film’s original transmission last year. So why didn’t he come up with a straight drama-documentary that would have clarified the division between fact and dramatic licence?

You could argue that Marchant is fulfilling a dramatist’s role of raising issues for debate, like David Hare’s Iraq plays and Gregory Burke’s stage hit Black Watch , based on the verbatim accounts of regimental disillusionment in Iraq. And The Mark of Cain was welcome for illustrating powerfully how one slides into brutality. But you had to regard this as a polemical drama that depicted nearly every authority figure, whether officer, padre or army doctor, as either a moral coward or uncaring villain. This was the British Army of Deepcut. Where was the comradeship that can make soldiers love each other more than their families?

In the end this offered a selective view bathed in an aura of authenticity that could have been taken as the whole picture. Sure, the film stated again in the final credits that this was fiction. But that was in the small print — and who really reads that?

The Guardian

Basra, southern Iraq, 2003, and a unit of British soldiers is at the centre of the conflict. It's a dirty, uncertain war, the rules of engagement are blurred. Sometimes it's unclear who's on which side, or who's right and who's wrong. And it's a bloody one, with plenty of casualties. This is not a fight between coalition forces and insurgents, though that does come into it. It's more of a civil war, an internal conflict - between moral courage and loyalty.

Moral courage is about being brave enough to disobey an order when you know it's wrong, reporting it up the chain of command, dobbing on your mates. Moral courage is about individuality, and is not generally looked upon kindly in the army. Loyalty is loyalty to the regiment; a loyal regiment is a regiment that works. It's about looking after your fellow soldiers, covering their backs and having yours covered in return, mob mentality, and doing stuff you know is wrong because you're expected to. Or ordered to. Stuff like beating the crap out of Iraqi prisoners, taunting them, sexually assaulting them, urinating on them.

This moral courage v loyalty conflict is at the heart of Tony Marchant's drama The Mark of Cain (Channel 4). More specifically, it's about two teenage privates being sucked into an appalling night of prisoner abuse, then being hung out to dry when photos of the event come to light. A work of fiction, it was inspired by the Camp Breadbasket court martial, and by other cases of alleged abuse by British soldiers. Marchant says that more than 100 interviews - with soldiers, their families and others - were carried out in research.

It is brilliant drama, bleakly beautiful, and horrifying. It perfectly captures the banality of war, the boredom, the bullying, and then the blind terror and confusion of battle. There are fantastic performances wherever you look, but especially from Gerard Kearns (of Shameless) as Mark, the young lad with a poster of Avril Lavigne on his wall at home, suddenly thrown into a very different world, a world with blood on the walls, and excrement. Mark ends up dead in the bath with a bag on his head, a gruesome nod to the Iraqi captives whose abuse he played a part in.

There is considerably sympathy for Mark, and for his friend Shane (Matthew McNulty), who eventually digs deep and finds huge reserves of moral courage. But it's not for this that Marchant is going to get attacked. He's going to get abuse (only verbal, let's hope) from the army itself, because of the way they're portrayed. Even pre-broadcast, one on-line forum used by soldiers and ex-soldiers was buzzing with rage. "[abuse of prisoners is] COMPLETELY and UTTERLY unrepresentative of the VAST majority ... gives the vermin in the media carte blanche to paint such works of fiction as 'dramatisations' and thus imbue them with a kind of credibility".

You can see this guy's point.
I didn't understand why it was pulled last week (a drama about British soldiers in Iraq endangering British sailors captured in Iran - that seems like too big a leap of the imagination), and you could say that Channel 4 lacked moral courage in doing so. But I can see that, because of all Marchant's research, and because of the manner in which it is filmed (hand-held, like a news report, very convincing), that many people will see this film as an accurate picture of what the army is like. It's not a pretty one, and nothing like Blair's ("the overwhelming majority of British troops behave properly and are doing a great job").

In The Mark of Cain, every single person in a uniform is bad, from the rawest recruit right up to the commanding officer. Even the army chaplain is a wrong 'un. It's not a case of a couple of rotten apples; every apple in the orchard is bad. I can see that if there was such a thing as a good soldier, behaving properly, even doing Blair's "great job", The Mark of Cain could be pretty bloody disheartening.

A fairly mixed bag (there was also one in the Indy but they don't publish online until days afterwards) and I think the Telegraph.

Quite apart from Marchant's ill-concealed anti-army agenda, I thought it was an extraordinarily crude, simplistic, almost naive bit of drama.

The Guardian ( puts the early audience estimates at 900,000 and a 5% share. If we subtract the serving, ex-service and aspirant elements, who watched out of some personal, professional interest, we have not many at all left.

As it deserved, IMHO.

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