Soldier Girls: On the road to Afghanistan
Keo Films for C4
The challenge: To gain access to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and follow the training of two female soldiers there.
While Princes William and Harry were at Sandhurst, the Ministry of Defence did its utmost to keep the media away. A maze of red tape and armed Gurkhas at the gates kept all but the most insistent film crews out. Keo was one of the lucky ones. We were making a series about a military expedition to Everest and were given a glimpse of life behind the fence at the most elite officer training academy in the world.
It seemed incredible to us that shop assistants, bar staff and primary school teachers could enter Sandhurst with no previous military experience and just 18 months later find themselves on the front line in Iraq or Afghanistan, in charge of keeping 30 soldiers alive. Talk about an extreme makeover.
Once the princes had left we went straight back to the MoD to ask if we could film this remark-able transformation. It turned out we were not the only ones. As the numbers of soldiers being killed in the line of duty rose, more and more TV people were knocking at Sandhurst's door. The new commandant summoned the MoD's top five indies to Sandhurst to pitch to a room full of three-star generals and civil servants. We had just 45 minutes to win them over.
Looking back, I'm not convinced that the haircuts or the polished shoes really made that much difference. The masterstroke was to ask our military friends from the Everest series to use their video phones to send us messages of support. They came in from all over the world. An SAS officer, a helicopter pilot and a frontline medic all gave the same, vital message: we could be trusted.
While we were negotiating with broadcasters, Aysha Rafaele at Channel 4 docs asked if we could do anything with our Sandhurst access for her First Cut strand. We found our director in Vanessa Stockley, still at the National Film and Television School but already an exceptionally accomplished young director, who was interested in what drove girls of her age to risk their lives at war.
Shadowing the female officer cadets through their final term, she joined them on their 10-mile route marches, bunked down with them in their trenches in rain-soaked northern France, and shared hair and make-up tips back in their dorm. Her first broadcast film is an extremely moving portrait of innocence and war.
Soldier Girls: On the Road to Afghanistan transmits on 6 March in First Cut, C4's new directors' strand.