Last Night's TV Col. Tim Collins Had Shades of Henry V. No Wonder Branagh Played Him So Well

The Guardian, 20 March 2008
By Nancy Banks-Smith

Col Tim Collins says in the Radio Times that, when he was serving with the SAS, they had a video of Kenneth Branagh's "Henry V" and little else to amuse themselves. "We played it again and again." Well, thank God it wasn't "Rambo". A decade later, Shakespeare had so invaded, colonised and coloured Collins' subconscious that, when called upon to say a few words to the troops on the eve of invading Iraq, he spoke in the plain, unvarnished voice of Henry V at Agincourt. With some biblical additions of his own. It was "Cry God for Harry, England and the St James version!"

This was the last in the "10 Days to War" series (BBC2). Kenneth Branagh was playing Collins with ease. He had borrowed his uniform and, as they are both from Northern Ireland, his accent. The sand-blasted border of Kuwait was bleaker than the moon. He looked beyond it like a prophet seeing a promised land or a traveller a mirage. "Iraq," he said softly, "is steeped in history. It is the site of the Garden of Eden, of the Great Flood. It is the birthplace of Abraham. You tread lightly there."

(It is as well when going into battle to have, as here, a reporter taking it down in scorching shorthand. It was not the sort of speech where you can miss a bit. It all hung together like a living thing.)

The words were simple but the tone was sonorous. He spoke of the enemy dead: "If there are casualties of war remember that, when they got up this morning and got dressed, they did not plan to die this day. So allow them dignity in death. Bury them with due reverence and properly mark their graves."

He said it was a big step to take a human life and those who did so needlessly carried the Mark of Cain. "I know your mas will be in the queue at the Co-op next week and they won't want you to let 'em down." How strange the change from major to minor but how natural. Cain had a mother.

When a soldier had a panic attack, his reaction was pure Henry V: "We would not die in that man's company that fears his fellowship to die with us." Or, put it another way, "You don't want to go, that's fine with me because I don't want you anywhere near me.

So fuck off!"

There were no huzzas, no hats in the air. Nothing but the putter putter of helicopter blades. It was powerful and, with hindsight, painful. "Saddam has some very nasty biological and chemical weapons waiting for us . . . you'll be embarrassed at the hospitality the Iraqis offer you ... let's leave Iraq a better place for having been there."

A war or two ago, another Anglo-Irish CO in another desert was haranguing his troops from a lorry. He glanced down and found himself looking at two-thirds of The Goon Show. One was very tall and thin. One was very short and fat. He hesitated. The fat one, spectacles askew, piped up shrilly (for, indeed, he was a tenor): "We're with you, sir!" Monty, according to Spike Milligan, staggered.

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