New BBC drama Danny Boy examines Phil Shiner Iraq 'war crimes' scandal - with help of falsely-accused veteran Brian Wood

Based on real life events, new feature-length BBC Two drama Danny Boy depicts the realities and repercussions of war, as Danielle de Wolfe discovers.

Anthony Boyle and Toby Jones star in new one-off drama Danny Boy.
Anthony Boyle and Toby Jones star in new one-off drama Danny Boy.

Stepping into the shoes of a living person is a daunting task for any actor.

It’s a feat made all the more intimidating when the individual’s first-hand experiences involve war and they have faced events that are both traumatic and undoubtedly life-changing.

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A delicate balancing act between creativity and veracity, it’s precisely the scenario faced by the cast of new feature-length BBC Two battlefield drama, Danny Boy.

Toby Jones as Phil Shiner.

Based on real life events, the gritty 90-minute film sees Harry Potter And The Cursed Child star Anthony Boyle take on the role of Iraq War veteran Brian Wood, a soldier wrongly accused of historic war crimes.

A court case which went on to dominate newspaper headlines as part of the Al-Sweady Inquiry, the one-off film also sees Golden Globe nominated Toby Jones best known for his roles in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Hunger Games, star as human rights lawyer, Phil Shiner.

“I inquired whether I was able to meet him, but that wasn’t open to me,” says Jones, 54, of potential interactions with the real life legal figure.

“So I gleaned what I could from the research that the production had done… and I tried to gen up a little bit on the legal system – I have home help in that my wife’s a barrister.”

Boyle met with the real Brian Wood before playing the soldier.

Boyle, however, proved to have greater success where contextual character research was concerned, having been able to meet with Brian Wood ahead of filming.

“Originally I didn’t really want to; I wanted (the character) to just be off Robert Jones’s script and some videos that I had seen of Brian online,” says Boyle, 26, of his character’s foundations.

But “luckily”, he says, he did meet with Brian.

“We were going to have a two-hour meeting and then we ended up being there for seven hours.

“It’s so rare for someone to go into intense battle zones and come out and have to be a father; to go back into civilian life.

“To look into the eyes of someone who’s actually been there was just invaluable.”

Written by Bafta-winner Robert Jones (Murder, Party Animals) and directed by Sam Miller (I May Destroy You, Luther), Danny Boy swapped the desert of Iraq for a location a little closer to home courtesy of the pandemic-induced travel restrictions.

“Sam’s done an incredible job of making it look like Iraq when it was some freezing pitch in Watford,” says Boyle, nodding to the director’s visual achievements.

“We had Brian on set for the battle scenes. I didn’t really want him there when I was doing emotional, domestic things because I thought it might get in the way, but I thought it would be invaluable for the battle scenes.

“And it really was – just to have him watching me rehearse, then come over and say, ‘it was actually like this’, or ‘your blood would be up here’, ‘you’d be more focused at this point’.

The experience was also proof that a soldier’s military training is never truly forgotten, despite departing the battlefield, with Brian adding in true-to-life nuances.

“There was one moment when he started to fix the helmet of one of the supporting cast, one of the extras,” says Boyle.

“We had already (completed) a shot and costume came over and was sort of like, ‘You can’t do it, we’ve already shot that’.

“His army training kicked in, he couldn’t see a strap not right.”

Titled after the military checkpoint in Iraq, Danny Boy explores all manner of legal and moral conflicts pertaining to life within and beyond a warzone, as Boyle’s character finds himself at the mercy of the British legal system.

The real-life Sgt Wood was a lance corporal in the 1st Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment at the Battle of Danny Boy in May 2004.

The battle sparked a 13-year legal fight after British troops were given an order to remove the bodies of 20 Iraqis who had died and take them back to a nearby camp along with nine prisoners of war.

The detainees, who were insurgents with the Shia militia Mahdi Army, went on to claim they had been mistreated and heard the torture and murder of their compatriots.

A soldier once bestowed a Military Cross for bravery by the Queen, Wood later found himself falsely accused of war crimes and was summoned to testify to the Al-Sweady Inquiry – one of Britain’s biggest ever public inquiries, into allegations of mistreatment of the Iraqi nationals by British soldiers.

For Jones, despite the marked differences between the soldier and lawyer, the pair’s stories boast remarkable similarities.

“Something that hadn’t occurred to me before was the way that Shiner has a similar trajectory (to Brian Wood),” he notes poignantly.

“He’s not the lead character of the film, but he goes from being a hero to having everything thrown into question.

“There’s a kind of micro parallel journey that they go on.”

For him, stepping into the shoes of disgraced lawyer Shiner was a job to be relished, ensuring preconceived notions of the lawyer were put aside in favour of challenging opinion.

Ultimately, Shiner was struck off from practising law after being found to have acted dishonestly in bringing murder and torture claims against Iraq war veterans.

“A lot of people have a lot of opinions about Shiner and I was very aware of them when I started rehearsing the part,” says Jones.

“My job as an actor is obviously to cut all of that out; I can’t play guilty people and non-guilty people, I can’t play good people or bad people.

“I can just play people trying to be the best they can, do the best they can, make choices that make for the best drama, that make for the best entertainment.

“You’re always looking to open up the space of a character that the audience aren’t expecting, which contradicts the assumption about the character.

“You’re not trying to tell the truth, you’re trying to honour the script and tell the drama in the most entertaining way you can.

“So in that sense, it didn’t feel confusing at all.”

Danny Boy will air on BBC Two and BBC iPlayer on May 12.

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