One of the most common questions my co-writer James Cary and I get asked when we’re talking about our new comedy Bluestone 42, is about the research process. Did you do lots of research, people ask. Do you have a military background? The last question gets asked very rarely when it’s face-to-face. I can’t think why.
Given the subject matter of the show, a counter-IED team in Afghanistan, we knew from the outset that we were going to have to know what we were talking about. When we started developing the show, almost three years ago, we read all the books and watched all the documentaries we could. And we read reams of posts on ARRSE – the forum by soldiers, for soldiers, that gives an inside view of all things to do with the Army.
But more useful than any of that was talking to current and former soldiers first-hand about their experiences of Army life in theatre and back home. We talked to people who had served in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan, trying to focus on those who did the same job that the characters in our show do. It often seemed to work as a ‘six degrees of separation’ exercise – you’d be surprised at who your family and friends know once you start asking around.
Lots of the material in the show is inspired by stuff that really happened, not least because real life is usually funnier, weirder and more interesting than anything you could make up. However, it’s vanishingly rare that you can just lift someone’s story and drop it into the show. Research gives you a big grab-bag of props, circumstances, rules, phrases and events that still need to be assembled into stories that are driven by your central characters.
Bluestone 42 begins on 5th March at 10pm.
Although the idea of research may seem a bit dry – as I’m writing this blogpost I am imagining readers up and down the country clicking over to YouTube and starting to look for videos of humorous cats – the process is incredibly engaging. In fact, it’s too engaging – there’s always something else to read or watch, but at some point you have to remember to write the stories. Research becomes a distraction rather than an inspiration. And if you’re lucky enough to actually make the show, you have to be prepared to let the research be the background not the point of the whole thing. Getting everything right on screen is not the same as not getting anything wrong.
Of course, we have got stuff wrong – there are always limitations, be they in terms of time, money, communication or just knowledge. But the stronger your foundation the better placed you are to avoid too many howling errors.
Throughout the process our touchstone was authenticity: comedy has to have one foot in reality to be funny. If you watch something and don’t believe in the world, it’s hard to laugh at. We were lucky to have an on-set military advisor with us every day during filming, and soon discovered that authenticity is a great trump card to play if you don’t like a script note – just tell them you can’t change it because that’s how it is in the Army. Although I’m pretty sure our producer saw through that one fairly early on!
Richard Hurst is co-writer of Bluestone 42, a brand new comedy drama following the lives of a bomb disposal detachment serving in Afghanistan.
Bluestone 42 starts tonight on BBC Three at 10pm. Find out more about the soldiers and watch preview clips on the programme page.