Next Wednesday night at 9 o’clock, Sky1HD will show the first two episodes of its new drama series based on former SAS operative Chris Ryan’s bestselling novel Strike Back. Ryan is best known as being the only member of the famous Bravo Two Zero patrol in the first Gulf War to evade capture. After writing a book about his long journey by foot to Syria, thought to be the most difficult escape a British solider has ever made, he began a successful career as a novelist.
It’s the last of the three novels Sky bought the rights to adapt two years ago as part of a £10m commitment to home-grown drama, following Tim Roth’s starring role in David Almond’s Skellig and the excellent adaptation of Martina Cole’s The Take. The route of adapting popular fiction was taken by Sky after seeing the success of their versions of some of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, the latest of which, Going Postal, will be airing towards the end of May. The channel has also made other forays into producing drama, from being co-producers on the internationally acclaimed reimagining of Battlestar Galactica, to its little-known but fondly remembered witchcraft drama Hex, and for many years the long-running Premiership football soap Dream Team. But Strike Back is perhaps Sky’s most ambitious drama project yet.
Shot on 35mm film on location in South Africa, it’s clear that Sky are attempting to recreate the high-budget, high-octane action of its most popular American imports such as 24, which remains a big hit for the channel in it’s final season. The cinematic feel is noticed by star Richard Armitage, best known for his roles in Spooks and Robin Hood, who plays John Porter, a veteran of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
“It’s an ambitious project for television,” he says. “We’ve made three feature films on a TV budget and schedule. But the advantage of that is that these three feature films are linked together so you get a really interesting character arc through all episodes. American television is being brave and doing that at the moment, and this is stepping into that area.”
The first episode begins with events in 2003, with John Porter leading a Special Forces Unit, including Hugh Collinson (Andrew Lincoln, of This Life and Teachers), across the border into Basra. Their mission ends in disaster, something which haunts Porter for many years following his return home to Britain, when he quits the army. We then jump to 2010, and Collinson is now a senior intelligence officer. A journalist is kidnapped in Iraq, and the perpetrator has links to that fateful day in 2003. He calls Porter back into action and, keen to redeem himself, he agrees.
As Armitage mentioned, over the six-episode series three separate two-hour stories play out, first in Iraq, then in Zimbabwe, then finally in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The series will be shown over three weeks, two episodes at a time, adding to the movie-like feel. Chris Ryan was closely involved in the production, acting as series consultant and script advisor. He’s enjoying seeing his novel transferred to the screen.
Ryan says, “When you produce a novel it’s like a child and to see it put onto screen opens it up to a greater audience. I class myself as a storyteller now, and to tell that story on paper is a great privilege, then to see it on screen is even better.”
The cast also includes Ewen Bremner, Colin Salmon and Orla Brady. It’ll be interesting to follow the story of Collinson and Porter’s interlinking lives, but it’ll be just as interesting to see if Sky has finally been able to come up with an action drama series that can stand alongside the big hits from across the Atlantic.
Catch Chris Ryan’s Strike Back on Wednesday 5 May, 9pm on Sky1 and Sky1 HD.