Last Night's TV - Twenty Twelve, BBC4; The Secret War on Terror, BBC2
At the top of their Games
Tuesday 15 March 2011
One of the pleasures of being British lies in our willingness to sit squarely on whoopee cushions of our own making and positioning, of which the latest example is
Twenty Twelve, a six-part spoof documentary poking relentless fun at the preparations for next year's Olympic Games. There is surely no other country in the world that would laugh at itself in this way, even persuading the vast project's principal mover-and-shaker, in our case the Rt Hon Lord Coe KBE, to participate in the joke.
In last night's opener, Seb Coe's contribution was restricted to a few references and an appearance in a trailer for next week's episode. But by then I was hooked anyway, by the mischief in John Morton's script and the beautifully nuanced performances of, in particular, Hugh Bonneville and Jessica Hynes.
Bonneville plays Ian Fletcher, head of the (fictional) Olympic Deliverance Commission. Hynes is Siobhan Sharp, whose firm, Perfect Curve, has somehow landed the public relations contract. The best spoof documentaries rarely veer too far away from plausibility. That was the beauty of The Office, and Twenty Twelve nails it too. Siobhan's gabbled PR-speak masks a cluelessness that is frighteningly convincing. "Matthew Pinsent? I don't know who that is," she snapped dismissively into her mobile. It's all too painfully, horribly likely.
Bonneville's Fletcher, meanwhile, has a veneer of competence, albeit diminished by his daily fumblings with his folding bike. It was a smart idea, too, to give him a nagging, as-yet-unseen wife, and if you don't think it strains credibility for a powerful administrator in the testosterone-fuelled world of sport to find himself in thrall to a domineering wife then you haven't read No Angel, Tom Bower's biography of Formula 1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone.
No, Twenty Twelve was pitch perfect throughout, with the possible exception of head of contracts Nick Jowett (Vincent Franklin), who seemed too obviously inspired by Mackenzie Crook's immortal Gareth in The Office. That said, I enjoyed Jowett's tribulations with the new traffic-light phasing software, not least because like pretty much everything in the first episode, it didn't take a Bob Beamon-style leap of the imagination to picture it happening for real. Indeed, I can still recall a conversation I had with a London cabbie shortly after London was awarded the Games. He predicted extensive roadworks starting a couple of days before the opening ceremony. It is that same pervasive British cynicism that brought us Twenty Twelve and should deliver it a healthy audience.
As for Lord Coe and those people actually engaged in delivering the Olympics, the sad fact of 21st-century life is that the word terrorism looms just as large as traffic, and in The Secret War on Terror the indefatigable Peter Taylor asked whether the world has been made safer by the West's efforts to suppress al-Qa'ida.
Intriguingly, the question seemed to boil down to one of morality, even philosophy. Is there any justification for what the CIA euphemistically calls "enhanced interrogation techniques", meaning torture, as routinely practised at Guantanamo Bay? Waterboarding, once practicised by the Spanish Inquisition, has yielded information that has saved innocent lives: does that make it defensible?
Taylor thinks not, and found some illustrious contributors to agree with him, up to and including the former director-general of MI5, Baroness Manningham-Buller, giving a rare TV interview and recalling her "shock" at the discovery that the mastermind of 9/11, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, had been waterboarded 183 times in a month by his American captors. It was, she reckoned, a huge propaganda coup for al-Qa'ida that the West with its "much-vaunted principles" should resort to such practices. General Musharraf, on the other hand, asked bluntly whether the ends justify the means, replied "to an extent, yes". Taylor didn't push the former president of Pakistan on the definition of "an extent". After all, how long is a piece of string, or perhaps in this case a piece of piano wire? "Unusual circumstances demand unusual measures," added Musharraf. It is the explanation offered by tyrants and torturers through the ages, although, despite British protestations to the contrary, he didn't recall being asked to curb his unusual measures by Her Majesty's Government.
From General Hayden, the former head of the CIA, Taylor got a more gnomic response, perhaps inspired by the memorable circumlocutions of Hayden's old boss, Donald Rumsfeld. "My view is that I don't have a view," said the general, regarding the propriety of techniques used in what the CIA, very hot on euphemisms, also calls "the Programme". Rumsfeld, with his known knowns and unknown unknowns, would have approved.
Taylor's own modus operandi, meanwhile, are not above criticism. He has an agenda, and fashions his documentary to fit it, finding an eloquent critic of US-sponsored torture, in the admirable form of lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, but not a similarly eloquent apologist. That I happen to agree with his agenda doesn't mean that I can't spot a glaring lack of objectivity, but then who can be objective about human-rights abuses? And hats off to him for assembling a truly stellar collection of talking heads. It was a mild surprise, in fact, not to find him sitting in an Afghan cave with Osama bin Laden.
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros
Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awardsTheatre
Grace DentChannel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Rarest Beanie Baby bought for just £10 at car boot sale could be sold for £62,500 on eBay
- 2 Katie Hopkins and The Sun editor are reported to police for incitement to racial hatred following migrant boat column
- 3 Katie Hopkins has just written a piece so hateful that it might give Hitler pause – why was it published?
- 4 Australian student Tommy Connolly, 23, adopts his pregnant, homeless 17-year-old cousin to give her a chance at 'a better life'
- 5 Cancel Sky at your peril: man spends 96 minutes in chat but fails to get rid of service
Britain's Got Talent 2015: RSPCA investigating Marc Metral's miming dog after cruelty complaints
Star Wars 7: George Lucas admits he hasn't seen The Force Awakens trailer
Star Wars: Rogue One trailer: Watch the teaser for the Jedi-less Death Star heist film
Avengers: Age of Ultron: 'After credits' scene leaks online
Kevin Spacey's successor at The Old Vic promises a more low-key approach
If I’m being racially abused I don’t need a stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me
The only black face in the Ukip manifesto is on the page about overseas aid
Ukip is the only main political party to not address LGBT rights in its manifesto
Food banks: One million Britons will soon be using them, according to Trussell Trust
Religion isn't growing, it is becoming vigorous in its demise, says philosopher AC Grayling
BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate