Danny Boy: The true story of the BBC Two drama about Brian Wood, Phil Shiner and the Al-Sweady Inquiry

The cast and creators of BBC Two’s 90-minute film look back at the real events that inspired this thought-provoking drama.

By Alex Fletcher Published: 12 May 2021 - 12.58pm

Danny Boy is a must-watch new 90-minute film on BBC Two and BBC iPlayer (Premiering Wednesday, May 11th at 9pm) telling the true story of young soldier Brian Wood and the legal battle he faced when returned home from the war in Iraq.

A story of emotional and psychological trauma, it follows the story of a young man who quickly went from war hero to allegations of war criminal.

Here is everything you need to know about the true story of Danny Boy…

Danny Boy - Meet the cast

What is Danny Boy about?

Anthony Boyle as Brian Wood in Danny Boy BBC

Robert Jones describes the BBC Two drama as a “personal tale of courage, character and the intricacy of conscience”.

Starring Anthony Boyle as soldier Brian Wood and Toby Jones as human rights lawyer Phil Shiner, the film explores the expectations we place on soldiers and the moral question of where the line blurs between bravery under fire and human rights.

Boyle and Shiner go head to head in a legal and moral conflict that takes us from the battlefield - at so-called Checkpoint Danny Boy - to the courtroom, and one of Britain’s biggest ever public inquiries, the Al-Sweady Inquiry.

Memory, evidence and trauma collide, as Brian finds himself caught on the fine line between war and unlawful killing.

After his service in Iraq and years of legal investigation, will he ever be able to look his family in the eye again and be the husband, father, and son, they need him to be?

Exec producers Colin Barr and Sue Horth said: "When we first came across Brian’s experience, we said to each other, just imagine being a war hero, and at the same time, being accused of war crimes. What does that feel like, as a man and a father, and what does it say about what we ask of our soldiers, and the choices they have to make in combat?

And then, imagine that soldier is part of a family with 300 years of military history in its bones, including his own father who’s also served. That relationship between a father and son, both steeped in soldiering, is a story we rarely see in drama.

We were also fascinated by the legal scrutiny, the grounds for suspicion and investigation, and the difficulty reconstructing a definitive picture from fragmented evidence - always the challenge with prosecution, but especially in war."

The duo added: “The film is about things most of us don’t want to think about, that we usually don’t have to think about, yet have huge consequences for everyone involved. This is the side of war and soldiering we rarely get to see, those split-second moments where the task of being a soldier can be most explosive and consequential, where questions of morality and legality are at their most pertinent.”

What is the true story of Brian Wood and Danny Boy?

Toby Jones as Phil Shiner in Danny Boy BBC

Danny Boy is the true story of Brian Wood, who was awarded the Military Cross for valour for his involvement in the Battle of Danny Boy in Iraq, only to later find himself caught in a ten-year fight against the accusation that he was a war criminal.

“Young men on both sides of this conflict had tough decisions to make in the heat of battle - and before and after it too,” said writer Robert Jones.

“Decisions that would define their lives for years after. Decisions that would later be scrutinised and argued over in ways never hinted at by those who sent them to fight.”

The Al-Sweady Inquiry examined allegations of murder and torture used by the British forces, brought by Phil Shiner and his team.

The verdict of the inquiry was that the allegations were “deliberate lies” and “reckless speculation”. The Defence Secretary described the allegations from Shiner as “completely baseless”.

The Inquiry found examples of the troops mistreating Iraqis, but the vast majority of allegations were dismissed.

Following the inquiry, Shiner was struck off the Roll of Solicitors and a tribunal found him guilty of “multiple professional misconduct charges, including dishonesty and lack of integrity”.

Brian Wood released a book, Double Crossed, about his experience and was also involved in the making of Danny Boy.

Anthony Boyle as Brian Wood in Danny Boy BBC

Anthony Boyle revealed: “I originally didn’t want to meet Brian before filming as I didn’t want it to cloud my judgement on how I was going to play the role. But I ended up meeting him alongside Sam Miller a few days before we started shooting and it couldn’t have been more beneficial.

“We spoke for about eight hours straight. That man has been through things not many people on the planet have, so to hear him speak was endlessly fascinating.”

Talking about the responsibilities and challenges of playing Shiner, Toby Jones said: “When you’re playing a living person you feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to that person. I’ve done it a few times and you’re not acting them, you’re acting a version of them that is suggested by the screenplay.

“You play the choices that they make according to the writer, and I know in this case that Robert’s script was based on a great deal of research. The main thing for me was to cut out all of the noise and opinion about Phil Shiner that I was aware of, and to try to play those choices in real time with the other actors who are playing parts there and then.

Anthony Boyle as Brian Wood in Danny Boy BBC

“I have to make it credible that a man is making these decisions. My job is to always make the character a three-dimensional human being who you believe in.

“I think that this is such an emotional and heart-breaking story for all the parties concerned. I feel it’s important that, when you’re making something artistic out of something from the real world, that you don’t listen to too many people. You have to listen to the director and the script, and primarily agree with the director what the writer is saying.

“You’re asking questions all the time to make sure you’re all on the same page with how you’re playing the part. Both Sam and Robert were very accommodating in terms of clarifying and adjusting elements so that we all knew where we were in the story at each point. Danny Boy is almost like three films, and my stage of the film is complex stuff, so we wanted it to be clear to the audience what has happened at the end and why these things have happened.”

How to watch Danny Boy

Danny Boy premieres on Wednesday, May 11th at 9pm on BBC Two and BBC iPlayer.

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