Tumbledown attracted 10.5 million viewers on its first transmission - a stunning success for a serious drama. The film was hugely controversial, drawing fire from right and left alike. A year earlier, Alan Bleasdale's The Monocled Mutineer (BBC, 31/8-21/9/1997) had dealt with the touchy subject matter of patriotism, loyalty and military brutality, and thus marched into a media crossfire; Charles Wood's Tumbledown was destined from the start for the same bombardment.
Wood was a veteran irritant to the Establishment. His play 'Dingo' (1967) dealt with atrocities committed by British troops fighting in the Second World War, and was rejected by the Lord Chamberlain's office. His screenplays for the films How I Won the War (d. Richard Lester, 1967) and The Charge of the Light Brigade (d. Tony Richardson, 1968) satirised the incompetence and complacency of the British officer class.
However, Wood strove to prevent Tumbledown being viewed as a political statement. The film foregoes satire. It advances no opinion as to whether the Falklands war was just or desirable. It does not invite sympathy for the Argentinians. It is not even, in the end, particularly interested in the question of whether the military treats injured soldiers decently. What it is interested in is what we expect from our soldiers.
Tumbledown opens with the English countryside baked golden in the summer heat, a military march on the soundtrack, an RAF fighter soaring overhead; a combination designed to evoke Britain's 'finest hour'. It ends with George and Helen Stubbs comparing Falklands veterans Robert and Hugh unfavourably with the 'heroes' they remember going off to fight the Second World War. Robert and Hugh are not heroes, but 'killers'.
The Second World War, Woods suggests, has led us to make a dubious moral investment in the image of the British army as a plucky yeomanry, drawn from and sharing the same values as wider society. The truth is unpalatable; our highly-trained, well-equipped, thoroughly professional armed forces disturb us. Their competence is shocking. We recoil when we learn that they may even enjoy doing their job.
In Charge of the Light Brigade, Lord Raglan glowers at the protagonist Nolan - a professional soldier in an army of amateurs - and remarks, "it'll be a sad day... when England has her armies officered by men who know too well what they're doing. Smacks of murder!" Tumbledown shows us that England.