The Weekend's TV: The Promise, Sun, Channel 4
Faulks on Fiction, Sat, BBC2

Soldier's story wins hearts and minds

Bolder than most writer/directors, Peter Kosminsky began The Promise, his four-part series about the British Mandate in Palestine, with a kind of promise of his own. Whatever happened, we were in for a hard time.

His drama, several years in the making, begins in an NHS ward with a sulky teenager, Erin, visiting her sick grandfather and making a poor job of concealing her indifference. And then a flashback took us to an even grimmer place, as a British Army sergeant cradled a dying child. "It's time to grow up, Erin," the teenager's exasperated mother snapped at her daughter back in the present, and sitting at home you felt a little bit of that rebuke had been aimed at you. Television's willingness to infantilise and distract us wasn't going to apply here, was the implication. We were going to have to face up to unpalatable facts. And then, in a striking collision of the fictional and the documentary, we got the worst yet – archive footage of Bergen-Belsen, and the appalling sight of a British squaddie bulldozing corpses into a mass grave.

The footage was there to fill out what Erin had just read in her grandfather Len's wartime diary, discovered at the back of a cupboard as she and her mother cleared out his house. "The worst day of my life so far," it begins. "We buried 1,700 bodies today." And this narrative, too, we suspect, has darker places to go, after Len finds himself not in the position of liberator but of oppressor, rounding up Jewish refugees as they land on the beaches of Palestine, and putting them back behind barbed wire. "Our job is to get them living together peacefully again... to be the meat in the sandwich between the Arabs and the Jews," he is told by a senior officer. And though Len is sympathetic (he is disciplined for trying to let one refugee slip through the net), his feelings are soon complicated by the attacks of Zionist paramilitaries from the Irgun and by the contempt of Jewish settlers. Having a brimming chamberpot emptied over you, he discovers, doesn't increase your feelings of empathy.

Kosminsky cuts between the historical scenes involving Len, and Erin's realisation that she has a personal stake in the moral ambiguities of modern Israel. Accompanying her best friend, Eliza, who has returned to do a stint of National Service, she finds herself in a prosperous middle-class neighbourhood at odds with her expectations. "It's like paradise," she says, startled. But even through this broadly liberal family run fissures of disagreement. Eliza's grandfather fought for the Irgun but her brother, Paul, is a peace activist, so bitter about the current situation that he regards protest itself as a figleaf for "a military dictatorship". This will be fighting talk for many viewers, but one of the virtues of Kosminsky's drama is that it seems intent in offering comfort to no party at all. Paul's efforts on behalf of reconciliation – as part of a group called Combatants for Peace – don't protect him from the suicide bombing that concludes the episode, filmed with a shocking realism.

To say that this is all impeccably balanced – our highest term of praise for the treatment of controversial subjects – doesn't quite get it right. For one thing, balance won't count as a virtue to anyone with a dog in the fight, only a kind of limp prevarication. But it's also because Kosminsky has gone for impeccable imbalance, tugging us emotionally from one side to the other in a way that shows you how difficult it is to achieve any facile equilibrium. Think you know where you stand now? Well, what happens if the ground suddenly shifts like this then? And between them, Len and Erin serve as a proxy for our confusions, one of them haplessly well intentioned (Len also intervenes to prevent the racist bullying of a Palestinian camp worker), the other shamefully naive about just how complex the arguments are. She's growing up fast though, and the drama she's doing it in is very grown-up indeed.

"We've always been better with words than with pictures," said Sebastian Faulks at the beginning of Faulks on Fiction, the first of a four-part series on the British novel. The problem, of course, is that television believes the opposite of itself, and is so skittish about the written word as a subject matter that it either ignores it altogether or tries to find ways to conceal the fact that that's what it's about. An inattentive viewer, for example, could reasonably have concluded that what Faulks was actually presenting here was a history of costume drama, since there can't have been more than three or four sentences of direct quotation from the novels he was discussing, as opposed to masses of clips from old telly versions, complete with all their attendant distractions from the prose.

Would inattentive viewers really have been watching though? Or, for that matter, the kind of viewer who needs a basic plot synopsis of Robinson Crusoe and Vanity Fair? Rather mysteriously, Faulks on Fiction appears to be aimed at viewers who aren't interested enough in literature to do even the basic reading, at the expense of those who hunger for something a little less Coles Notes. The best moments, tellingly, occurred when the programme stopped worrying about whether the audience will understand and let Faulks get allusive, as when he proposed that Lucky Jim was "Middle England's answer to John Paul Sartre". That was an arresting and thought-provoking line – existentialism in comic mode. But, at least in this opening episode, I'm afraid there weren't nearly enough other moments like it.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?