The Weekend's TV: The perils of keeping up with the Joneses

Jonestown: the world's biggest mass suicide, SUN BBC2

If you ever see a signpost pointing towards utopia, turn on your heels and walk the other way. Not always easy to do that, of course. The destination sounds attractive and the road may be broad and well-lit. And by the time it gets tough and twisted enough for even the most delusional to recognise that they have taken a wrong turning, it may be too late. It certainly was in the case of Jim Jones's People's Temple, the members of which laid the foundations for utopia in the Guyanan jungle but ended up scattered across the ground like trash after a pop concert. The story was retold in Stanley Nelson's film Jonestown: the World's Biggest Mass Suicide, a documentary that slid with some expertise from inspirational hope to deranged horror.

Hindsight is always easy in such cases, the murder of a congressional fact-finding team and the mass killing of 909 of your followers pretty much putting a terminal stop to any ambiguity about the nature of your ministry. So the childhood friend of Jim Jones who pitched up to explain that he'd known from the age of five that there was something strange about his friend didn't strike me as entirely reliable. Apparently, Jim had a penchant for holding funerals for family pets, and wasn't always patient enough to wait for nature to provide a corpse. Perhaps so, but this sounded like just the kind of thing you'd come up with if you wanted to oblige a needy journalist. The really convincing testimonies were from those followers who could still wistfully recall what they'd hoped Jones might be, in among the appalled recognition of what he'd turned into.

Jones acquired his skill on the Pentecostal preaching circuit, whipping up a whirlwind in clapboard churches and marking himself out by his open opposition to segregation. When he launched a commune in northern California, it was with the idea of creating a kind of Christian socialism, in which all were equal and everything was owned in common. And initially it looked, to his new recruits, as if Jones had created a heaven on earth, establishing care homes for the elderly and a successful farm. True, members had to work incredibly hard and sign over their pay cheques to the People's Temple, but they were genuinely thrilled to play their part in the New Jerusalem. And then the cracks started to appear. One woman discovered that an "old lady" miraculously raised from her wheelchair to skip down the aisles was actually one of the church secretaries made up to look disabled. A young man recalled being bluntly propositioned by Jones in a way that suggested it wasn't a one-off. But individual doubts about the Father's intentions got lost in the mass delirium of the services he led.

The cracks reached Jones himself after he'd used his increasing political power (he could supply a polite, respectable army of demonstrators and cheerleaders at 20 minutes' notice) to get a job in city politics. A journalist got interested and found enough disenchanted worshippers to back up the first really critical article, which so alarmed Jones that he fled overnight to the bolt hole he'd already prepared in Guyana, a place where his growing paranoia and derangement encountered little resistance. "He had a real issue with separation," said one of the contributors, a bit of an understatement given that the departure of a mere handful of his followers provoked first murder and then communal annihilation. His voice, as he presided over the administration of the poison, was pleading and desperate, the bullying leached away to be replaced by a frantic disappointment that his flock wouldn't die with the dutiful obedience he wanted from them. But only five people present at the site escaped into the jungle. Some of them, astoundingly, still sounded nostalgic about their experiment – "At least we tried," said one veteran of People's Temple. The legacy of Jim Jones for all the rest of us is that invaluable piece of advice whenever you encounter the messianiac or seductively authoritarian: "Don't drink the Kool-Aid."

Primo Levi wasn't a volunteer for utopia but the victim of one of its most atrocious architects. In Primo, Richard Wilson directed a television version of Antony Sher's one-man play based on Levi's memoir of Auschwitz, a monologue played out in a set largely made of light, now pooled downwards like the platform lights as the new arrivals stagger from the transport, now glaring into the face as a barracks door is thrown open. It didn't entirely work, requiring a slightly uneasy amalgam of Levi's forensically understated text and Sher's actorly performance, which inflected the words with panic and hope. But what a terrific text it is: a Beckett nightmare experienced for real. At one point, Levi describes a camp idyll, a bit of icy sunshine in the morning and the theft of some rancid soup from the civilian canteen: "For a few hours," he writes brilliantly, "we are able to be unhappy in the manner of free men."

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions