Once Upon a Time in Iraq BBC2/iPlayer ****

IN early 2003, a TV station brought together two groups of youths, one in Baghdad and the other in New York. It was the eve of the US-UK led invasion and the idea was that teenager would speak unto teenager.

“Let’s live a happy life, and let’s rock and roll,” said a member of the Baghdad group. You got the drift.

Seventeen years on, the cheery heavy metal fan, Waleed Neysif, was in front of the cameras again for Once Upon a Time in Iraq. The title suggested the beginnings of a fairy story, one that we know ended in horror, not least for the people of Iraq.

This documentary, the first in a series of five, told the tale again, but this time from the point of view of civilians, reporters and soldiers. Clips of George W Bush and Tony Blair trying to justify their actions aside, this was a largely politician-free zone, and all the more powerful for it.

“Am I wrong or did I sound like Borat?” laughed Neysif, watching his youthful self and bringing to mind Sacha Baron Cohen’s comedy creation. Then 18, Neysif loved everything American. He wanted the blue jeans, the skateboard, the headphones, and yes, the war. “I was pro-war. Absolutely pro war.”

We heard from Neysif and others about life in Iraq under Saddam. The regime provided safety and security, as long as you gave absolute loyalty to Saddam. Informers were everywhere. Even the youngsters on the TV show had a minder sitting a few feet away.

Narrated by Andy Serkis (the shape-shifting actor behind Gollum and King Kong), the tone darkened as optimism gave way to unease and then fear as the bombing began. One woman, six at the time, remembered cowering in the dark as a missile struck a house nearby. The family thought the building they were in was about to come down on their heads.

Next with his testimony was US Sergeant Rudy Reyes. Arms like Popeye post-spinach, he was one of a group of recon Marines – “the Jedi of the Marine Corps” – told to clear a path to Baghdad. Three weeks of killing, blowing things up, and no sleep. It felt “God-like”, he said.

The bravado was undermined by the way he necked a shot of Tequila at the start of the interview, then asked for the bottle.