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

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

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."