The Last Post may be a well-made period drama but it glosses over the brutal history of British colonial rule in the Yemen of the 1960s, says TANUSHKA MARAH
AT A time when Yemen is facing famine and cholera brought on by a British-backed war, the BBC decides to schedule The Last Post — a “heroic,” human-interest colonial drama set during the dying days of British-ruled Yemen.
Under Queen Victoria, Britain seized Aden as a major strategic port and held the surrounding protectorate for 130 years until its forced withdrawal in 1967 and the drama takes place during the state of emergency imposed as anti-British and anti-colonial sentiments were growing and while the RAF was bombing Yemen rebels.
Filmed in Cape Town, 1960s Yemen is the backdrop to what is an engaging narrative written by Peter Moffatt. We delve into the complex lives of members of the British army and their pretty wives as they struggle with the heat, the Arabs and the minutiae of family life.
Sometimes sentimental, it’s nevertheless a watchable drama with accurate period detail in the British fashion of the time.
Yet as we get to know these strong-chinned British boys, their struggles with class, family dynamics and life in the army, we know nothing of the people fighting to take their country back or what life was like for the Yemenis living under British rule. Arabs appear as curly-whiskered villains, rolling their “rs” as they sip Moroccan tea, with South African actors doing their best to look and sound Arabic in the landscape of their own country.
Somehow, the urge to free one’s own people from colonialism is presented as the radical wish of one ruthless extremist. Thus the leader of the Yemeni National Liberation Front (NLF) smirks wickedly as he sips coffee after kidnapping a child and beheading a British soldier.
Elsewhere Honor Martin, the young English woman with coiffured hair, played sensitively by Jessie Buckley, lets a tear carefully drop onto her vintage white blouse as her husband faces court martial for doing a private deal with the rebel leader to save the boy.
If half the care that had been put into costume and period make-up had been invested in the Yemeni characters, maybe we could have moved towards some actual representation of the colonised instead of 1970s-throwback villains and exotic beauties.
We witness the NLF atrocities, the kidnapping and threatened execution of a child and the terror faced by informers. A nod is made to the British brutality in army prisons — reported by Amnesty International in 1966 — but it is quickly justified as the only way to protect the fair-minded British in the land of the savages.
The one Muslim female character Yuzra is played by the stunning and excellent Ouidad Elma, who performs her silent role with depth, expressiveness and determination. But the positive of having an Arab female protagonist does not excuse her lack of backstory or character development.
We know Yusra is poor, mysterious and brave. Just like in a fairy tale, she is trapped in the old cliche of the beauty in the desert. The forbidden love interest is between her and a young British soldier, played by Tom Glynn-Carney. But the character is allowed no screen time to mourn her entire family, burned alive as punishment for her helping free the little English boy captured by the rebels.
No, romance is the priority as she kisses the blond soldier and, just like in a James Bond film, the exotic beauty is shot pretty soon after.
By contrast, there is plenty of time to delve into the travails of Alison Laithwaite, faultlessly performed by Jessica Raine. She has been having an affair and is pregnant, can’t stop drinking and is desperately seeking an abortion.
Through her we see the lives of the army wives and the sexism of the time, as well as the class struggle within the army. But, strangely, a colonial drama set in Yemen doesn’t even touch upon race.
Channel 4’s The State earlier this year had sympathetic and complex Arab and Asian protagonists rather than throwbacks to colonial-era stereotypes. The dialect was perfect, accents were faultless and all the actors played their own nationality — no handy swapping around of brown-skinned actors here. Yet these characters were off to join a death cult and we felt for them deeply without understanding their motives.
So it ought to have been that much easier with The Last Post to create sympathetic characters among people involved in anti-colonial struggle wanting to free themselves and their country from foreign rule.
It is precisely the very contemporary issue of British military occupation and war on Arab soil that makes the dramatic failure of programmes like The Last Post so problematic.
As the NLF grew in strength and militancy, and successfully pinned down Britain’s 30,000-plus army, London made hurried preparations for withdrawal from Yemen and, soon after, from the wider Middle East. The Last Post barely hints at this imminent end of empire. Three decades on, Blair took us back in again with the Iraq war despite the biggest march against it on British soil.
The events depicted in The Last Post are not just an obscure colonial adventure. They say a great deal about our current relationship with the Arab world and Britain appears to have learnt nothing.
Today, it is firmly back in the Gulf, making huge profits in support of the Saudi war in Yemen and our proud soldiers are once again assisting in the bombing of the region’s poorest country.
This makes it all the more disturbing that the BBC thinks its audience are up for a bit of sweet vintage colonialism. Perhaps the Beeb should stick to Call
The Midwife, where nostalgia for the good old days comes dressed in a nurse’s uniform rather than that of a squaddie sent to Yemen to fight the Arabs.
Tanushka Marah is a British-born Palestinian-Jordanian theatre director, actor and teacher. This article first appeared in Middle East Eye, middleeasteye.net