The Weekend's TV: The Promise, Sun, Channel 4
Faulks on Fiction, Sat, BBC2
Soldier's story wins hearts and minds
Monday 07 February 2011
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.
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