What we were promised was that with loving authenticity, on a disused barracks, 30 modern lads would be put through 1950s basic Army training: reveille, square-bashing, cold showers, kit cleaning , corned beef, NAAFI, flat beer, the lot - even authentic underwear and suitably itchy uniforms. Spokesmen for the company said (and we should have heard warning bells) that it would "combine the popularity of both history and 'reality'
television" and "see if today's generation is up to scratch".
Phooey. The uniforms and accessories looked right and the routines well researched , but what was abundantly clear was that the real hook was humiliation. The makers thought we would enjoy seeing boys humiliated and shouted at by day, while continuing (Big Brother style) to spy on them by night in what would have been, in 1950, the communal privacy of barracks. They wanted to put the pressure on, and create Big-Brothery personalities who could be singled out and spat on.
NCOs and officers were uniformly vile: well, so they may have been in the very worst of national service, but in 1950 there were no intrusive television cameras watching every twitch of the recruit's face.
The editing of the main series was reasonably decorous, but if you wanted the real whiff of sulphur you had to turn - as invited - to digital ITV 2, where a prurient blonde moppet called Kate tittered over the covert barracks cameras whose operators boasted "we see them picking their noses, crying, farting, swearing..." and played back clips of bare bottoms and re-runs of contemptuous, insulting rebukes from officers. This viewer, at least, longed for one of the lads to snarl back : "Shut up, you nasty jumped-up little television creep, this is only a game and a lousy one at that. And you, get that camera out of my face before I smash it".
But the lads put up with it. They're very young. One said sadly: "You got to accept that you're shit really."
Woolf was thrown out, amid hysterical officerly yelpings of "You lack leadership qualities, you are abysmal, you are piss!". He had tried to leave voluntarily, been persuaded back and finally absconded for a walk "to consider the universe and why it is a better place than Lads' Army". Asked why by Kate afterwards, he said that the experience was "boring, repetitive, claustrophobic, stifling initiative", whereon she giggled "But that's army life..."
But of course, it isn't. Hasn't been for years. As Woolf said, reasonably enough , he wasn't really prepared for the 1950s conscript army because he knew more about the modern professional army. In a school cadet corps, while doing plenty of assault-courses and exhausting training, he had picked up a contemporary ethos: you look after your men, you encourage the weakest, you motivate, you lead by example. As a naval officer said about the late Admiral Lord Lewin: "He never shouted, he just made you feel you never wanted to let him down." There is discipline all right, and what Sandhurst cadets call "beasting" from sergeant-majors and officers; but there is not the relentless, brainless, humourless, worst-of-1950 bullying and ritual humiliation so relished by this programme.
And Woolf knew that, so the whole thing felt stupid to him and he left. Good luck to the ones who stayed: but it was far more a bear-baiting exercise than a history show. It will set back army recruiting, because people will not understand the difference. And it is not a fair test of a generation: national service recruits did not have cameras trained on their buttocks by nasty tittering little girls, or their tellings-off relayed to friends and family.
The defection of Tom Woolf also reminded me of the time when my daughter's Year 6 group tried out Anne Fine's experiment of Flour Babies, vulnerable sacks representing infants which they had to care for 24 hours a day. Most threw themselves into the exercise, but one girl refused to play. It wasn't that she was unmaternal: it was that she knew too much about reality. This was a rural child who often nursed fledglings and baby hedgehogs and injured voles back to health. Playing stupid games with a flour-bag had nothing for her, because she already worked with life and death in a real, if tiny, world. Thus Woolf, who had investigated a modern service career, couldn't be bothered with the brainless, purposeless, made-for-TV brutality of Lads' Army. It was a stupid game. He's better out of it.