There are many examples of television series ideas that begin as one thing - and develop in an altogether different way. One example is Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais' first attempt at writing Porridge. When the pair sat down to write about life in prison, they soon found themselves moving in a different direction to the one planned and came up with the sitcom Thick as Thieves. Of course, Porridge was finally written by Clement and La Frenais and became one of the best loved British sitcoms of all time, whilst Thick as Thieves is less easily remembered. Another example is Soldier, Soldier, a series that was originally planned as a soap-like drama about Army wives. Had the producers stuck to their original vision it is highly likely that the series wouldn't have run for seven seasons, made stars out of Robson Green and Jerome Flynn, produced a Number One record and garnered two National Television Awards.
The last Army drama on British television had been the wartime series Danger UXB which had been a big hit for Thames Television in the late 1970s, but by 1991 it was felt that the viewing public had grown tired of military tales. Shows like Granada Television’s Coronation Street, the BBC’s EastEnders and Yorkshire’s Emmerdale were enjoying immense popularity, but Central Television had closed the doors of the Crossroads Motel several years ago.
And so, as the 1990s began, Central’s Head of Drama Development, Tim Whitby, and Drama Associate Harriet Davison, began mulling over ideas for a new drama series that, whilst not necessarily intended to be a soap opera, would certainly have soap opera elements in it. Davison would later admit that ‘we thought a good twist would be to do Army wives.’ Although they knew nothing about the Army other than it being an institution with strict rules and regulations, they admitted to having a preconceived idea that it was probably about twenty years out of date with regards to women’s rights and leaned heavily on chauvinistic attitudes. And that’s where they thought the drama would come from. ‘We were particularly keen on the wives’ sense of community and camaraderie but with that tension between the characters’, said Davison. What they needed next was a writer who could flesh out the characters and write a pilot.
Lucy Gannon was a ‘Army brat’, that is, she was the daughter of a serving officer and had grown up on Army bases in such diverse places as Cyprus, Egypt and Colchester in Essex. After her mother died, when Lucy was seven-years-old, she relied so much on her Army ‘family’ that on leaving school she immediately enlisted herself. She later described herself as the most ‘stunningly unsuccessful member of the Military Police.’ In the two years she was an MP she never arrested anyone and was advised by her CO to become either a nurse or a social worker! (An encounter which found its way into the first episode of Soldier, Soldier).
Gannon spent the next twenty-or-so years as a nurse, working sixty-hours a week, bringing up her daughter and supporting her husband as he sought work for himself. Then, in 1987, her father, who remembered that his daughter was ‘good at writing at school’, sent her an entry form for the Richard Burton Award for New Playwrights, a prestigious award that offered a £2,000 prize for the best play. Not only did she win the Award but the BBC produced her play, Keeping Tom Nice, with John Alderton and Gwen Taylor in the lead role. The play tells the story of Doug and Winnie who have tried hard to keep their disabled son Tom (Linus Roache) 'nice', but when Stephen (Sean Chapman), a young social worker, takes a professional interest it has tragic consequences.
With Gannon on board as writer, the next step was to find a producer, and for this Whitby and Davison turned to the experienced writer and TV presenter Chris Kelly. It would be his debut as a producer. When the format of the series was explained to him, Kelly felt strongly that there should be an even split between the stories of the Army wives and their military husbands. Gannon agreed with Kelly that a series about Army wives on their own would be boring, ‘just like soldiers on their own are quite boring. It’s when you merge the two together that they become interesting,’ she later said. The next step would be to see if the programme makers could get the approval and cooperation of the real Army.
Harriet Davison carried out much of the early research for the series. Not wanting to approach the Army without giving them confidence that the team knew what they were talking about, she spoke to defence experts and read a good few books about the Army. Having Gannon as writer was also very much in their favour. The Army though, would not get involved unless they had approval from the Ministry of Defence. Once this was obtained by Chris Kelly the MoD assigned a military advisor to the project in order to ensure authenticity and credibility to the series.
Soldier, Soldier followed the fictional King’s Fusiliers (later amalgamated with another regiment to form the King’s Own Fusiliers) on their tours of duty around the world – Hong Kong (which was still under British rule), Germany, Cyprus, New Zealand and Australia. The characters came from diverse backgrounds which reflected every class of British society. The Company Commander, Major Tom Cadman (David Haig) was an officer of long standing who, despite his rank, felt that he was never allowed to reach his full potential. His wife, Laura (Cathryn Harrison) had a drink problem stemming from the fact that during their nine years of marriage she had been having an affair with another officer whenever Tom was away on a tour of duty.
Cadman’s second-in-command was Lieutenant Nick Pasco (Peter Wingfield), a man more at ease with man management than traditional Army discipline. Sgt Ian Anderson (Robert Glenister - Hustle) was an academic, having graduated as an Open University student. He would have been quite happy working in civilian life, but his wife, Carol (Melanie Kilburn), a soldier’s daughter herself, liked the security of Army life for herself and their two children. Corporal Nancy Thorpe (Holly Aird) was based on Lucy Gannon. She is in a relationship with Lance Corporal Paddy Garvey (Jerome Flynn – Ripper Street) who was forever getting in trouble. Not a great pairing these two as she was a military policewoman.
Fusilier Dave Tucker (Robson Green - Casualty) was totally unsuited to Army life. His continual lateness for duty was reflected in his scruffy attire which resulted in him being continually fined for either or both, much to the dismay of his wife, Donna (Rosie Rowell) who wasn’t exactly a picture of elegance. She was, what would be described today as ‘chavvy’. Dressed in skirts that were too short, stilettos that were too high and bras that were too small, she spent most of her morning in bed before managing to force herself onto the couch where she would watch TV for the rest of the day. But the evenings? Ah, those were for living! Neither of them were anything like Corporal Tony Wilton (Gary Love) who lives, breathes, eats and sleeps the Army, much to the intense admiration of his wife, Joy (Annabelle Apsion).
The first episode of Soldier, Soldier, (All the King’s Men) was broadcast on 10 June 1991 and hit our screens with all the force of a high velocity bullet. Set in Northern Ireland, ‘A’ Company are assigned to protect an RUC constable who is delivering a subpoena to an address in Ulster. Four soldiers, including Garvey and Tucker are ambushed by a sniper and the constable and one of the King’s Fusiliers are shot dead. This was clearly not a series merely about Army wives. And although there were moments of high shenanigans and outright laughs, there was always a serious tale to be told. In addition to the tough routine of Army life, there was also examinations of the stresses and strains placed on the soldiers and their families sometimes separated for long periods due to exercises or overseas action, the uncertainty of their futures, and how they dealt with tragic circumstances. But it was also about community spirit and the bonding together of characters that, in ordinary circumstances, probably wouldn’t even give each other the time of day.
The first series of Soldier, Soldier reached an average audience of 9 million viewers and comfortably found its way into the Top Ten of ITV programmes, as well as winning the Gold Award for Best Drama Series at the Houston International Film Festival, whose notable festival alumni include Steven Spielberg. As well as plaudits from the critics it is also notable how military personnel were quick to praise the series for its accurate portrayal of Army life. That first series was filmed in Staffordshire, England, but production would move to other countries as The King’s Fusiliers received postings around the world. In 1992 Soldier, Soldier was set in Hong Kong – with a move in 1993 to New Zealand & Germany for the third series.
What emerged from that first series and continued to drive the programme towards its peak of 16.1 million – an extraordinary 65% of the viewing share, was the chemistry between the two mischievous friends, Garvey and Tucker. That relationship fast became the main focus of the show to the extent that a special video was released featuring highlights of their exploits, which itself became a top seller. It was when Series 4 saw the Fusiliers move to Cyprus that the duo really became major stars.
In episode nine of that series (Band of Gold - written by Heidi Call the Midwife Thomas), Paddy and Tucker had to sing at a wedding reception for their CO, after the band that had been booked failed to turn up. They sang Unchained Melody, and it was enough to have viewers wanting more. In fact, ITV was inundated by people looking to buy the song, and the pair were persuaded by record producer Simon Cowell to record it and release it as a single. Released under the name Robson & Jerome, the record reached number one in the UK chart in 1995. It stayed there for 7 weeks and went ‘gold’ by selling more than 1.9 million copies and became the best-selling single of the year, winning the Music Week Awards in 1996 for best single. The duo had two more number one hits in 1995 and 1996 with I Believe and What Becomes of the Broken Hearted, both also re-makes of standards. They also produced two number one albums.
Another strength of the series was the rotation of cast. As in the real Army, people come and people go – sometimes of their own free will, sometimes through tragic circumstances. The series never shied away from this. By the end of Series 1, the programme makers had decided that they had far too many characters. With Tucker, Garvey and Wilton emerging as the principal characters, they were kept on. But others, including Cadman, left the series (although this was David Haig’s decision as he left to do Othello). For Season 2, new characters were introduced and for each subsequent season the rotating doors of characters would continue. Actors who came and went, either for a long stay, a short stay, or fleetingly, included Denise Welch, Shaun Dingwall, Dougray Scott, James Cosmo, Paterson Joseph, Rakie Ayola, Leslie Manville, Meera Syal, Danny Dyer, Joe Swash, James Nesbitt, Philip Glenister, Alexis Denisof, Jim Carter, Adrian Lester, John Challis and Alex Kingston.
Series 5 was set in Australia, UK & South Africa. By this time both Jerome and Robson were proving to be popular as individuals rather than just as Paddy and Tucker, and their attentions turned to other projects. They left the series after appearing in 41 episodes. Series 6 initially returned to home soil – Aldershot to be exact. Series 7 was the last roll call for Soldier, Soldier. Declining viewing figures could no longer justify the budget and the cast were demobbed for one last time. But at its peak, Soldier, Soldier produced all the vital ingredients of a successful television series; action, adventure, humour and emotion and, above all, believable warm characters that the viewing public were more than happy to welcome into their homes.
Published on February 1st, 2023. Written by Marc Saul for Television Heaven.