Last Night's TV: This hindsight's a wonderful thing
10 Days To War, BBC2; Sport Relief Does The Apprentice, BBC1
Thursday 13 March 2008
History, famously, is written by the victors, but not in the case of 10 Days to War, Newsnight's intriguing excursion into drama-documentary. The writer Ronan Bennett was asked to produce 10 short dramas set on successive days leading up to the outbreak of war and, so far at least, it has been a history of the losers. Monday's drama was centred on the deputy legal adviser at the Foreign Office, Elizabeth Wilmshurst, who resigned because her advice that the war would be illegal without a second resolution was ignored by Lord Goldsmith. Tuesday's episode featured the abortive attempt to create a provisional Iraqi government under Ahmed Chalabi, which the British vetoed at the 11th hour. And last night's film followed the abortive attempts of Major General Tim Cross, deputy head of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, to alert the Government to the potentially catastrophic shortcomings of post-invasion planning. All three films end in the dismay and defeat of their protagonists, though to describe them as losers and leave it at that would obviously be highly tendentious. They may have lost the argument then, but they appear to have won it subsequently. So, perhaps it is a history of the victors after all... irretrievably distorted by knowledge of what came to be.
In talking about the series, Ronan Bennett was at pains to forestall such criticisms: "We won't exploit retrospect or hindsight," he said, and it's true that an exasperated case for military action is made in the first drama by one of Wilmshurst's colleagues. But the truth is that it's virtually impossible for Bennett to unilaterally decline the advantages of hindsight. Whatever he wants as the writer, we as the audience are going to view these moments in the smoky, overcast light of what happened next. Every hopeful prediction will look foolish, and every baleful one far-sighted and wise. To recover the teetering uncertainty of the time (and the sincere conviction of those who argued that war was the lesser of two evils) would now require leaning on the scales more heavily than I think Bennett can quite bring himself to do. It may be that forthcoming episodes will prove me wrong, of course, but even if not, there are plenty of reasons to watch the series, and to admire its disruption of the usual schedules.
Ten minutes isn't a lot of time to get a drama into any kind of shape, but in at least two of those so far broadcast, Bennett has somehow managed to carve out a real narrative structure, while still giving you a lot of fine detail. Monday's, in which Juliet Stevenson played Elizabeth Wilmshurst, was the most artistically satisfying, counterpointing one woman's very discreet opposition to the war with the vocal hostility of an anti-war group that had been assembled to give Tony Blair one of the vox-pop flagellations that he increasingly seemed to relish. In front of the TV cameras, tearful mothers put the moral case against war, while in an office upstairs, Wilmshurst forensically went through the fine print of UN resolutions. And what was intriguing about her position was its academic detachment: "If a war is not lawful, then it's a crime, it's a crime of aggression, and to say that it isn't is very detrimental to the international order and the rule of law... and it makes a mockery of the whole legal profession." What begins as a repudiation of "crime" ends as concern for professional reputation, a speech convincingly less heroic than it might have been. In last night's drama, too, in which Stephen Rea played a military adviser on post-war reconstruction, Bennett punctuated Major General Cross's meetings with senior figures in London with phone-calls to his wife delaying his return home, a trivial postponement that seemed to underline the inexorable timetable of war. And, yes, you might want to pick an argument with the way these reconstructions shape history, too, but as Newsnight has been demonstrating with its follow-up discussions, they were always meant to be debatable.
There was only one task in Sport Relief Does The Apprentice – stock an empty shop with high-end toot and sell it for a breathtaking mark-up – and only one firing, which we get to see on Friday. But although the celebs only have to put up with the stress for three days, they have much more to lose than their nonentity counterparts. Kirstie Allsopp volunteered for the bit where someone throws all their toys out of the pram and flounces off in a huff. Hardeep Singh Koli confirmed that he's got a very short temper, after Kelvin MacKenzie jokingly compared him to Hitler. And the MP Lembit Opik revealed that he has all the commanding authority of a kitten that's just come out of a tumble dryer. I hope that he doesn't have Lib Dem leadership ambitions, because all an opponent would have to do to dish his chances utterly would be to play a DVD of this programme.
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