Television Review

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The Independent Culture
THE PART OF The Real General Pinochet (Sat C4) I liked most showed the General in the run-up to the Chilean presidential election of 1988. He took to the whole business of electioneering with a degree of enthusiasm that was surprising, considering that he was, after all, a dictator - considering, too, that he was the only candidate. But here he was, visiting sick children in hospital, kissing elderly peasant women, showing off in traditional Indian costume, brandishing a butcher's cleaver with a big grin on his face... No, hang on, that can't be right.

This is one of the problems with being a dictator: you get a bit rusty on the presentation side of things. In Pinochet's case, the difficulty was exacerbated by his innate sense of his own rightness. Presumably you don't get very far in the despotism game when you're plagued with doubts, but his sense of self-assurance verges on the Messianic. The word "saviour" cropped up frequently in his assessment of his place in Chilean history, and he seems to have meant it literally. After a failed assassination attempt in 1986, he claimed he had been saved by divine intervention, and that the bullet holes riddling his car formed a picture of the Virgin Mary (the resemblance, it has to be said, was not obvious to outside observers). Having lost the election (and been persuaded not to hide the results), he made a speech pointing out that when the people had been offered the choice between Jesus and Barabbas, they had voted for Barabbas.

Pinochet is not a subtle character, and Rosalind Bain and Jenny Barraclough's film seemed to run through most of the nuances inside an hour. What it didn't do, though, was take us any closer to deciding, what should happen to him now. The public argument about Pinochet has largely revolved around whether he was a good or a bad thing for Chile, and the programme seemed happy to take it on those terms. So on the one hand we had Sheila Cassidy, describing having electrodes forced up her vagina; and on the other, we had an American witness saying: "Three thousand people to see a country turn around the way Chile's turned around is a terrible price to pay, but a lot of countries have paid a whole hell of a lot worse."

Well, it seems indisputable that Pinochet is an evil figure, and I can't see how economic effectiveness excuses him. But I'm not sure that punishing evil ought to be the basis of international relations, especially after the second part of Hostage (Sun C4). In 1986, following the American bombing of Libya, the Western hostages in Beirut became a kind of international trading currency - moderate Islamic groups selling theirs on to more extreme organisations. Meanwhile, the Americans were starting their little trade in arms to Iran (one pleasing detail here: the scandal that was known as Irangate in the US was called Americagate in Iran). Over in France, Francois Mitterrand's government was doing its own secret deals, while Jacques Chirac's opposition was offering the militias a better deal if they would just keep the hostages until after the elections.

Phil Craig's series steers deftly through all these complications, managing to stay cool enough to observe the desperate humour the situation evoked as well as the drawn-out agonies. Last night's programme included John McCarthy explaining how he would try to insult his cellmate Brian Keenan into losing his temper - calling him a bastard was not enough; it had to be Irish bastard, or Irish Fenian bastard or Irish black Fenian bastard. The film cut to Keenan, saying that being with McCarthy was a life-saver: "I could have been with someone I did not get on with." But it also included Freda Douglas making a powerful effort to contain her anger as she obstinately refused to blame the British government for the death of her son, Leigh, murdered by Islamic Jihad a few days after the Libyan raid; and it had Keenan meditating movingly on the scent and texture of an orange as it decayed, a reminder of the outside world that he couldn't bear to eat.

During the hostage crisis, Mrs Thatcher never strayed from her policy of refusing to negotiate with terrorists. Meanwhile, the French wheeled and dealed like billy-o and got their hostages out in months; those Britons who survived were in captivity until 1991. Moral absolutism: it looks lovely in the catalogue, but wait till you get it home.

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