Last Night's TV: Mission almost accomplished

Age of Terror, BBC2; Am I Normal? BBC2
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The Independent Culture

In common with television executives, terrorists like to get good ratings. Capturing public attention is part of the plan, and though their actions generally have a narrowly defined goal – the release of imprisoned comrades, say – they're alway advertising for the cause as well, pushing what they regard as a criminally neglected injustice into the headlines. Which means that the relationship between terrorists and journalists is always potentially compromised, the interests of both parties overlapping in a slightly queasy way. The problem is conspicuous in Age of Terror, Peter Taylor's new series, which purports to be about cardinal moments in the recent history of applied terror but that can't help but look like what old print journalists used to call "marmalade droppers", stories so captivating that the toast halts in midair as it travels to the mouth of the newspaper reader.

"What happened during those six days in Entebbe transformed the age of terror," Taylor claimed about the 1976 hijacking of an Air France aircraft and the Israeli commando raid that subsequently released many of the hostages. But he never persuasively explained how. It seemed just as likely that this incident had been singled out from the many assaults and atrocities of the Seventies for the same reasons that it had dominated the headlines at the time: the story might have been crafted for Hollywood in its combination of historical irony and bold endeavour.

The historical irony, a cruel one, came from the fact that Israeli passengers found themselves undergoing a selection as menacing as anything that had occurred on an Auschwitz platform: the German- accented voice of Brigitte Kuhlmann, one of the four hijackers, calling out the names of Jewish passengers as she sifted through their passports. Since part of the fuel for the German revolutionary underground had been rage at the country's Nazi period, there was something grotesque about this echo from the past, and there was some evidence that it contributed to the Israelis' determination to go the extra mile in avoiding any kind of deal with the hijackers.

Or rather the extra 2,500 miles, the jet having been flown from Athens to Uganda, where the hijackers felt confident of a friendly welcome from Idi Amin, who had recently transferred his dubious loyalties from the Israeli government to Colonel Gaddafi. This is where the bold endeavour came in, the plan to take direct action and snatch the hostages out of captivity being so difficult and so unlikely to succeed that the hijackers almost certainly believed that it wouldn't be attempted. The very improbability of the deed may have contributed to its success, as did the canny decision to drive the kilometre from the Israeli transport planes to the terminal building in a black Mercedes limousine, favoured vehicle of the Ugandan élite and thus likely to stay the trigger finger of the Ugandan guards at the airport. Taylor's account of this operation was gripping, underlined by interviews with several of the original hostages. But the very cursory thumbnail sketches of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the curiously unprobing interview with a former colleague of Brigitte Kuhlmann and Wilfred Bose, the two German members of the hijack team, left you feeling that you knew more about the incident without learning a lot more about why it had occurred, or what relation it might bear to our own status as terrorist targets now.

I used BBC's iPlayer to catch up with Monday night's edition of Am I Normal?, Dr Tanya Byron's new series, because I was curious to see whether it was as good as the Radio 4 show from which the idea appears to have been nicked wholesale. Television does this quite a lot, but the programme makers generally have the decency to change the plates and give the thing a quick respray. Here it is being rolled out under exactly the same title as the Radio 4 original, and the short answer to my question is: no. The subject – whether addiction is a temporary cultural fashion rather than a belatedly recognised medical reality – was an excellent one, but the exploration of it turned out to be flabbily anecdotal and unfocused. Byron talked to addicts who were convinced that they were the blameless victims of a diseased constitution and to a ludicrously dogmatic American doctor who takes the view that they are all moral delinquents and liars.

There were some interesting facts that seemed to bear out the possibility that we've become overdependent on addiction. Eighty-seven per cent of American soldiers who had used heroin in Vietnam stopped when they returned home, for instance, and Byron noted, too, that the concept of addiction had received its biggest boost from proponents of Prohibition in the US, who needed a useful monster. But she seemed so nervous of appearing unfeeling or judgemental – the obvious danger for anyone prescribing a bit of self-control to addicts – that you never got a firm sense of which direction she thought her findings were pointing.