Black Watch: A Soldier's Story

BBC Scotland documentary
John Williams Productions DVD

Twice over, once in an old Drill Hall in Edinburgh and then two years later at a reconfigured Barbican Theatre, I enjoyed one of most profound theatrical experiences imaginable.

Black Watch by Gregory Burke had fantastic word of mouth and despite the highest of expectations, turned out to be incredibly moving, often funny and very insightful about life in the Army and especially ordinary Scottish squaddies posted to the war zones of Iraq.

It was therefore with some trepidation that I approached the DVD that Peter Lathan is reviewing this weekend. His view and mine will be significantly different, as he has not yet had the opportunity to see the staged production, most recently reviewed by Lynn Rusk in Dublin and universally loved by BTG reviewers and pretty much all others, with the single exception of a man in Wales who got hung up on the swearing.

There is no substitute for seeing a play live and despite the finest efforts of the production crew, the DVD does not have quite the same devastating impact, if only because the neighbours would complain if the volume is turned up to ground shaking levels.

There are pros as well as cons. The TV camera is able to close in on characters' faces and at times, particularly when they wish to be threatening or are scared, the impression is far more forceful. Where the film misses out, even on widescreen TV, is in the great, stagey moments where you really do need to see the whole scene to get the full experience.

Even so, watching Black Watch through this medium turned out to be both a wonderful reminder of the original evening and also highly worthwhile on its own account. This will be one of those rare DVDs that never gathers dust.

The DVD also contains a one-hour long BBC Scotland documentary which combines a "making of" view of the play with a series of interviews and footage featuring the real soldiers who lived through the experience and in some cases inspired a play that launched the National Theatre of Scotland as a world-class company.

The documentary includes interviews with Gregory Burke and director John Tiffany, always together, Vicky Featherstone from the National Theatre of Scotland talking about the inspiration behind the work, and several of the actors. On the other side, Defence Secretary Jeff Hoon provides justification for his Government's position on both the war in Iraq and the disbanding of the regiment while, in addition to a number of officers, the soldiers at the hard end of the fighting also contribute.

This companion to the play will prove unforgettable for two different interviews. The first was with the mother of a boy of 19, who died while fighting with the Black Watch. The other featured a lad of a similar age, who twice went to Iraq and was invalided out of the Army with post-traumatic stress syndrome.

In a clever and perhaps inspired moment, the director invited them both to witness a performance of the show and it clearly affected them deeply, which is both a great testament to Gregory Burke and his creative team but also reflects the terrible time that each has suffered in recent years.

This is an unmissable DVD that should be on everybody's Christmas present list.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher