Amid all the comedy…
This is a funny series and this is a very funny episode. But it’s also a very black episode, deeply involved with people’s pain.
What episode 5 is about is the Roker Bridge TA’s Mess Night, a formal Army function involving dinner, drinks and Mess Rugby. We’ll come to Mess Rugby in its time. Mess Manager for the night is the junior Sergeant, Pete Polson, proud to be entrusted with everything going like clockwork, sure that this will earn him the respect to those three stripes on his arm. Straight away we know that it will be no such thing, especially if 2 section are among the waiters etc.
Not everyone is involved. Officer-Cadet Mrs Ally Minshull is there as a guest, in a striking red evening dress. Private Lomax (D) is going to a Masonic function in Manchester, escorted by her cousin Paul, who’s handsome and drives a flash car of exactly the right model as to confirm Eric in his self-martyrdom as not good enough for Dawn. In a way, he’s being incredbly noble, sacrificing his love for the best thing that will ever happen in his life for her benefit, and in another he’s being so compoletely and utterly Eric that he should be getting his own entry in Encyclopedia Brittanica, complete with Health Warning about reading that bit.
He’s also being utterly Eric by talking about it all the time, to the point that Hodge, who still fancies Polson’s little sister Mel but who is going all the wrong way about it, goes onto a frustrated, exasperated and quite vicious attack on him, resulting in Eric replying in kind and skewering Hodge even more effectively than Hodge is doing to him. Things are said that can’t be forgotten, or forgive: a friendship breaks.
That’s not the only place where things are being said. Ally turns up at Spock’s place to change. She can’t do it at her place because, well, it isn’t her place any more. Frasier has not been nipping off to his ex-wife’s to talk about their daughter, he’s been having an affair. With his ex-wife.
So when Ally arrives at the Mess, she’s already been at the sherry, so to speak, and he’s determined to continue. And that determination gets overloaded with a ton of guilt. Because this Mess Night is Carl Rundle’s last night with the TA. He’s resigned his commission, he’s resigned from the TA, he’s leaving Roker Bridge and Lancashire to go to Cornwall. Ally is stunned. Her ability to tolerate the poison dwarf erodes. She takes delight in ordering him as his superior. She favours him with her real and unrestrained thoughts, and if you think Hodge got skewered, it’s nothing as to how Polson is exposed to realities that he cannot escape from. She points out that the bravery of what Rundle is doing makes him twenty times the man Polson will ever be. Words can be the most dangerous things of all.
Let us remove from the Mess Hall for a short while. Hodge has given Kirsty a family heirloom, a battleship model made by his Grandad long ago. She wants to know if it floats. Both Hodge and Jeanetta assure her it doesn’t but little girls have to find these things out for themselves, in bathrooms and baths filled up, and no, it doesn’t float, so that settles that conclusively if disappointingly, and oh, by the way, Kirsty’s managed to lock herself in. In the absence of anyone better, Jeanetta calls Declan to break the door down, which he does, only he manages to crack several ribs and bust his shoulder. He’s about to go but Jeanetta, who isn’t as resigned to losing him as she outwardly appears, holds him in place by starting a shared joke, a plethora of ideas of middle-class injuries that, as he have hoped, ends with her confessions about the real reason she hid Hodge’s relationship to the family. Soberly, Declan confirms his fear that she still had feelings for him. They end up kissing. One rift, one embarrassment, is resolved.
But let’s take ourselves back to the Mess Hall. Now the dinner is done, it’s time for Mess Rubgy. It’s very like ordinary Rugby except the ‘ball’ is round, actually it’s a melon, indeed a succession of melons as each one is reduced to pulp in the melee. Yes, it’s one of those games where the rules are left out and it’s two teams in raw, glorious and bloody stupid combat. You’d say the ‘game’ degenerates as it goes along but that would be to suggest it had ever been genberate in the first place. Hodge and Eric are ineffectually beating three shades of brickdust out of each other. The other individual battle is Rundle and Hodge. Rundle headbutts Polson in the breadbasket. Polson goes for him and is side-stepped. In a blind fury, this twisted, hate-filled goblin seeks a weapon, For all his military zeal about respect being shown to the Colours, that no-one touches them, Sergeat Peter Polson grabs the colours and tries to use them to brain Rundle. Instead, he hits the C.O.
It ends up as a trip to Casualty. Hodge and Eric, still arguing through puffed lips and split faces. Mel trying to console her brother who, even before he is summoned to Preston HQ, 11.30am, Monday, knows he is up shit creek and that essential third stripe, that means respect, even though he’ll never really know if he deserved it, even though it’s forced respect that he can demand but not deserve, will be fluttering away from his arm, never to return.
So at the end we return to the Mess Hall. And then there were two. The place is a mess, a mess of a Mess. Rundle’s sitting there in the final moments of his TA career, Ally knows that she is responsible for all this. One kiss, that was all, but it was the chaos butterfly kiss, that six days later started a storm in China. They’re saying goodbye in the awkward, unexpressable stir-fry of feelings that both binds and separates them. Rundle walks away. Ally stops him momentarily, saying isn’t it traditional for goodbyes to be done with a kiss?
It’s not funny, like the moles’ blackboard, or Lloydy’s Point Taken, but I will always remember the line Tim Firth dredged up for that moment, and Lieron Flynn’s delivery of it, stood with his back to Ally, because this is going to go far too deep into him and he can’t do that if he can see her, as he tries, tries impressively, to force some kind of lightness into his voice, as he tells her that he’d thoughts about it. But that would have to be the kiss that he would remember for the rest of his life. And only then does he turn, because he can look at her as he says, ruefully, that no kiss could ever live up to that.
Rundle goes off to shower himself clean. And Ally, who had mused early on about just how you can have sex in a shower, pulls back the curtains, slips the halter of her dress over her head so that it all falls away, and asks him if he is any good at geometry…