REVIEW / Twenty-five years of fear and loathing

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The Independent Culture
THE ANNIVERSARY has long exercised the same fascination for television producers as trees do for dogs. They sometimes try to walk past without cocking their legs, but they just can't do it - driven by an instinct deeper than rationality they have to leave their own territorial scent on these temporal lampposts.

So, after copious spasms of film-making generated by Woodstock, the Moon landings, the attempts on Hitler's life, the D-Day landings and Chappaquiddick we find that it is 25 years since the Troubles began in Northern Ireland - the occasion for an extensive season on Channel 4 a couple of weeks ago and, now, 25 Bloody Years on BBC 2.

The effect can induce a sort of chronological vertigo - in which the salient moments of our recent history swirl around in odd conjunctions. It was slightly starting to realise, for instance, that only 25 years after the attempted putsch against Hitler (less since the end of the war) men would walk on the Moon. But the programmes about Northern Ireland involve another trick of perspective, one generated by the fact that the conflict continues still.

This was particularly brought home by the first two programmes in the BBC's series, both broadcast over the weekend. The first, 'Real Lives: At the Edge of the Union', was a repeat of the controversial documentary shelved in 1985 by the BBC governors at the request of the Home Secretary. The second, 'A Soldier's Tale', was specifically made for this new season and served, among other things, as a barometer of how the BBC's relationship to the government has changed. It is difficult to imagine that Margaret Thatcher would have lightly countenanced the broadcast of a documentary in which former soldiers confessed to beating Irish suspects, even to torturing them when the opportunity arose.

'Real Lives' is even more depressing now than it was then, an exploration of sectarian righteousness married to violence, with no hope of imminent divorce. But nine years ago, at least, you could harbour the hope of change. Now, you could only note morosely that neither of the men profiled, Martin McGuinness and Gregory Campbell, would have much to add or alter. Campbell's warning that loyalists would eventually apply violence to political ends - half prediction, half promise - has been made to come true. McGuinness still absolves himself of any responsibility for the murders he condones. The cataracts of hatred have thickened, making it even more difficult for these men to see any trace of themselves in the other.

The optical condition is catching, if 'A Soldier's Tale' is any evidence. 'What you've got to remember,' said an unrepentant squaddie, recalling summary beatings, 'is that you're not dealing with ordinary people.' But they had been only months before, ordinary people who brought out tea and cakes to the ordinary soldiers who had come to protect them. 'A Soldier's Tale' was remarkable for the candour of its interviews, for its trick of selective hindsight, and for its reminder of how the surreal playfulness of the early days - in which the riots were a sort of wild sporting encounter, hardened into something brutally ugly. Throughout, you saw hatred and fear corrupting all those it touched, sticking and disfiguring - Catholic women turned to harridans, young boys growing into killers, decent soldiers led to casual vandalism and worse.

Both programmes included the same disgusting sight - the aftermath of an explosion with a man trying to lift a bloody torso on a spade. In that moment you saw the desire to render your opponent unrecognisable literally made flesh.