It's one of the most dangerous times to be a British soldier since the Second World War, particularly if you’re in the infantry. BBC3 and Lion’s new access doc gets close to the raw recruits signing up to fight for their country in Afghanistan
With the 10-year anniversary of the Afghan war approaching, there are plenty of docs about the British soldiers at the sharp end. But while many focus on life on the frontline, Lion TV's new BBC3 doc series takes a look at new recruits as they prepare for battle.
Access was, of course, key to the doc and particularly access to Catterick, the infantry's basic training centre where all new recruits spend their first six months. "Lion had been working on the access quite heavily for nine or 10 months before it got the greenlight," says the show's director and series producer, Dov Freedman. And the indie's "reputation helped. They'd done a lot of access documentaries with the MOD in the past" including ITV series Guarding the Queen and the MOD were happy with that. The BBC3 audience demographic helped too, says Freedman. "The age to join the infantry is 17 to 32 which is pretty much BBC3's target audience so all that made it appealing" to the army.
The show focuses on four main characters joining The Rifles regiment and casting began as the slew of recruits arrived on their first day at Catterick. “We didn’t know anyone before they pitched up for their first day so we were casting as we went along." Each of the characters was there for a different reason. "There's a guy whose brother had been blown up in Afghanistan and suffered some quite bad injuries, another who'd been in the TA before but was struggling to find a job and an out of work tiler trying to support his son." Through those stories "we're trying to paint a picture of Britain," says Freedman. And also ask why, when it's such a dangerous time to join the army, recruitment is still high.
Even though much of the focus is on the training process, the series would be incomplete without following the characters to Afghanistan's Camp Bastion and the front line. This meant a hostile environment training course for Freedman and a shock to the system. "The heat and the dust is unbelievable" especially when you're dragging body armour and camera kit too. "It's pretty challenging but not as challenging as what the soldiers have to do." For his trips to the frontline, Freedman hired an ex soldier turned DV director. "He's been filming out there for the last four or five years and had been in the army for a long time. He knew what to look out for and what to do and what not to do."
Although the UK footage was shot on a Sony DSR 450, Freedland took the decision not to take that camera to Afghanistan. "I was keen to because I knew there was going to be a fantastic light." But at the same time "you've got to be able to carry your own kit. I didn't want to take the DSR because you've got the Peli cases and batteries and stuff. The last thing the soldiers want to see is you schlepping around with loads of boxes."
In the end he took the Sony Z7 body with a Canon J22 lens. "We got a converter and retro fitted the Z7 with a big lens and the results were pretty good." He also shot on tape, despite the heat and dust of Afghanistan. "If I went again I would shoot tapeless but we started on tape and I didn't want to take a fresh camera out. You just had to change tape when you were inside to try and keep the dust out of it and just really mother it."
details Young Soldiers A 5x60-minute observational documentary that follows a group of new infantry recruits from basic training at Catterick through to the front line in Afghanistan TX September 2011 Production company Lion TV Broadcaster BBC3 Exec producers Donna Clark and Jeremy Mills Director and series producer Dov Freedman Commissioned by BBC3 commissioning editor of factual, formats and specialist factual, Harry Lansdown Cameras Sony DSR 450, Sony Z7 Post In-house at Lion with final audio post at Rapid Pictures