It's a bit of a stressful day in the House of Saddam. George W has just announced that armageddon will be unleashed in 48 hours, one of Saddam's wives is rushing about the place with an assault rifle trying to get the children organised and Saddam himself is saying goodbye to Uday and Qusay, both of them chips off the bloodstained old block. And then the BBC's historical soap opera – The Sopranos with Scud missiles – flashes back to a happier time in the tyrant's life. It is 1979 and Saddam – incorrigible old multi-tasker that he is – has decided to have two parties in one. As his daughter celebrates her seventh birthday, Saddam takes the Ba'ath leader aside and makes him an offer he can't refuse: "Retire now and nominate me as your successor." Colleagues who dissent from this unexpected turn of events are introduced to the terminally mind-changing properties of a .45 bullet, in several cases delivered by ministers eager to show their support for the new president.
Fans of The Sopranos will have no difficulty recognising the model for the opening of Alex Holmes and Stephen Butchard's four-part mini-series, produced by the BBC in conjunction with HBO. Just like Tony, Saddam is having a hard time juggling the day-job (the brutal consolidation of absolute power) with the nagging demands of family life. Uday whines about the heat when he takes him on a hunting trip, his terrifying mother kvetches about his responsibilities to his relatives and on top of all that he's got the Khomeini mob threatening to muscle in on his territory to the south. No wonder that, like Tony, he likes to get away to a nightclub with his cronies every now and then and relax with a come-hither blonde. There the similarities end. The dialogue in The Sopranos seemed to be imitating life. The dialogue in House of Saddam frequently seems to be imitating Dallas.
It may not matter a lot to most viewers. House of Saddam certainly isn't dull and though Igal Naor's performance struggles a little with the stock swarthy-villain effect that follows from the decision to have everyone speak a heavily accented English, he does effectively capture the penumbra of terror that must have surrounded Saddam. A good moment occured last night when he gently said, "I forgive you" to one of his cronies, and a spasm of dread crossed the man's face. He hadn't a clue what needed forgiveness but understood with absolute certainty that, whatever Saddam was saying, it hadn't yet been wiped from the slate. The drama also conveys the extent of Saddam's ruthlessness, which led him to execute his closest friend and his own brother-in-law.
But even halfway through (I looked ahead at part two) there remain two substantial mysteries about it. Why, in a drama that purports to give us the human side of a politically convenient monster, does the action only start when he's already risen close to the very top? Saddam's brutal step-father gets a passing mention, but there's no direct account of the deprivation and poverty of his youth or any explanation of how a boy who peddled fruit as a teenager managed to rise to high political position. Far more significantly, who the hell airbrushed the Americans out of the picture? There's good evidence that the CIA aided and abetted an assassination attempt in 1959 on the then Iraqi Prime Minister, which Saddam took part in. The CIA may also have supported the bloody 1963 coup that succeeded. And if the documentary evidence for that is difficult to pin down precisely, there's no question at all that the American government encouraged Saddam in his war with Iran, with Donald Rumsfeld himself visiting Baghdad to seal the deal. Here, all you get in the way of an American accent is a Time reporter, following Saddam around for a colour piece. I suppose these omissions may still be made good in the last two episodes, but as it stands they disqualify House of Saddam from any serious consideration as psychological case study or drama documentary. Watch for entertainment, but don't expect anything more
Dangerous Jobs for Girls, a bizarrely reactionary series from Channel 4, sets out to test feminist claims of across-the-board equality by challenging high-achieving women to take on tasks that ooze testosterone. Last night, Nicola, Gemma and Laura went off to work as cowpunchers in the Brazilian Pantanal, briskly establishing that they could do pretty much anything the men could, though they jibbed a bit at the thought of castrating a stallion without any anaesthetic. The biggest problem Nicola and Gemma faced, in fact, wasn't controlling the steers or the horses but reining in their desire to bite Laura, a gratingly defensive type whose talents, though considerable, did not include humility, graciousness or a sense of humour. Stick to the law courts, Laura. If you became a cowboy I don't think it would be long before you found a rattler in your bedroll.