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Thomas Sutcliffe

Tom Sutcliffe: When it's hard to escape from reality

The week in culture

Occasionally when you're writing television reviews you come across a knot you just can't unravel before the deadline arrives. There's something in a drama or a documentary that either doesn't seem quite right – or is working at your responses in unexpected ways – but your reaction times aren't fast enough to get it into the review. Often esprit d'escalier strikes the next day, and you suddenly realise – with a clarity that was tantalisingly ungraspable the day before – what it was that you wanted to say. But sometimes the knot won't yield so easily and you find yourself picking away at it for days afterwards. It happened to me this week, after watching the first episode of Peter Kosminsky's drama series The Promise.

The knot was this. What were we to make of the footage of Bergen-Belsen, which suddenly appeared near the beginning of the first episode, as Kosminsky's character Erin began to read her grandfather's wartime diary? This was, after all, an unusual eruption of documentary into a fictional tale; a sudden – and very shocking – clash of registers. We'd begun by watching what appeared to be a drama of teenage disaffection, a surly girl at odds with her mother and not overly sympathetic to her ill grandfather, who – a line of dialogue made clear – had not previously been an important figure in her life. And though the drama had already shown us blood and violence (in a brief flashback scene) we knew that everything we'd seen so far lay in the realms of fiction. Then, without warning, real victims and a real atrocity and real corpses were on screen.

One oddity lay in the fact that this was a real collective memory, not a fictional private one. The archive footage filled the space that might conventionally have been occupied by a reconstruction of some remembered event (it was cued up by a passage in the diary). But it wasn't Erin's thought processes that were being represented (because she doesn't know a great deal about history). And it wasn't the grandfather's (since he was lying semi-conscious in a hospital bed). It was a calculated intrusion of the real world, much as if you were to interrupt a passage in a novel with a pertinent extract from a newspaper report or a parliamentary debate.

All sorts of questions were provoked by it. Was it artistically improper, for one thing, drawing on a dreadful event and a dreadful sight to deliver a punch that might otherwise be unobtainable? Holocaust footage has been used in such a manner, after all, and people are rightly wary about its casual or unearned exploitation. And since this occurred very near the beginning of the drama that was a charge that had to be considered. Alternatively, was it there as a kind of affidavit of good intentions, a way of saying, "I may have hard things to say about Israel, but I haven't forgotten that this terrible injustice preceded any later ones"? Or was it a gesture of respect in itself – a recognition that while other historical events might be susceptible to reconstruction these particular crimes should be viewed without the intervening gauze of re-enactment. How, anyway, could it conceivably be done? One of the sequences showed a British squaddie driving a bulldozer, pushing ahead of the blade a loose-limbed tumble of bodies that had gone beyond rigor into an appalling relaxation. In that case, surely, it's either the real thing or its nothing at all.

I still don't have the knot untangled yet – and it may not be untieable at all. But if there is a loose end I think it's to be found in the privilege this particular historical event has acquired as being somehow outside history altogether; not just another example of human cruelty but a unique and cardinal one. The bombing of the King David hotel, which features in this weekend's episode (where it is rendered with a slightly astonishing fidelity) is somehow up for grabs as the backdrop to a television fiction, despite the fact that real people died there too. The Holocaust is not, except in ways that carefully hold it at arm's length from the business of pretending and make-believe and restaging. It's a clue, I think, to the seriousness of Kosminsky's purposes in this drama – but also to the intractability of the conflict that he's describing.

The unmistakable hum of dramatic cliché

You wait for ages for a dead insect to come along and then two turn up in rapid succession. Catching up with the first episode of the ITV thriller Marchlands the other night I was pleased to see a canonical instance of the Struggling Wasp trope – a macro close-up of the insect on a dusty window sill, legs twitching fitfully. And then, a little later, while looking ahead at Sky's new drama Mad Dogs (well worth watching if you have a taste for black comedy), we got another upended insect, a beetle this time, filling the screen as it vainly tried to right itself. And even if you haven't seen these examples you'll probably know the kind of thing I'm talking about, because it's a reliable hallmark for a certain kind of aesthetically pretentious thriller. The cliché is a metaphor, I take it, conveying something along the lines of "As flies to wanton boys are we". But something else is going on too. They generally occur in lulls in the action (who has time to look at a dying fly in the middle of a gun-fight?) and they amplify a sense of tense, hushed expectancy, in which even the faint buzz of an insect can be heard. To be filed in the taxonomy of cinematic cliché alongside sudden giant close-ups of dripping taps, I think, though with the added advantage that these sinister little grace notes hint at the implacable cruelty of an indifferent world.

The joy of a neighbourhood watch

I felt a certain amount of envy for future customers of the three rural pop-up cinemas which have been given lottery funding by the UK Film Council to set up community screenings in church halls and sports centres. This may sound a bit dog-in-the-mangerish, given that any London resident is spoiled for choice when it comes to cinema. But whereas ordinary movie-going can sometimes be a bit of an ordeal, community film viewing, when you're watching with a large group of people you know well, can be very pleasurable indeed. I did it a lot in my youth, living in various post-colonial outposts where the film screening at the local ex-pats club would be one of the social highlights of the week. The films – which only reached us at the end of a long and wearing circuit of the Far East or Southern Africa – were extremely variable in quality and usually at least three years past their sell-by-date. The projectors were also highly unreliable, so that a sudden stalling of the image, followed by the bubbling incineration of the film stock, was relatively common. But those drawbacks were more than made up for by the fact that pretty much everyone you knew was sitting around you – and relaxed enough to pass comment occasionally. I wish there was one at the end of my road, instead of yet another Cineworld.