Imagine: The Fatwa - Salman's Story, BBC1, Wednesday Downton Abbey, ITV1, Sunday

It is the supporting cast that proves brave and resilient in the hunted author's personal saga

Rhiannon Harries
Saturday 22 September 2012 19:01

Salman Rushdie's decision to write his memoir, Joseph Anton, in the third person might seem odd given the amount of first person involved in the promotional interviews since its publication on Tuesday. But watching BBC1's Imagine – a mixture of interviews with the author and some of those close to him – Rushdie's evasion of the most personal of pronouns, on the printed page at least, seemed wise.

In part of the book, the author revisits the decade he spent more or less in hiding, flanked by police bodyguards, following the 1989 declaration of a fatwa upon him by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini. The title is the pseudonym that Rushdie assumed for security purposes, humbly borrowed from Anton Chekov and Joseph Conrad.

The inside story on what happened when Rushdie "disappeared into the front page", as his pal Martin Amis had it, was bound to generate more interest than the average slice of autobiography. That attention has only swollen with the violent responses to the US-made film Innocence of Muslims, offering an appetising link with the outrage that Rushdie's Satanic Verses provoked. It's a connection drawn by Ayatollah Hassan Sanei, now reported to have upped the price that remains on Rushdie's head.

In conversation with Alan Yentob on Imagine, Rushdie, too, appeared to trace a fairly direct line between the fatwa and current tensions between the West and the Muslim world, describing his condemnation as "the first notes" in a musical score that climbed to the "crash" of 9/11. But in the main, the balance here favoured the personal over the political, and it was the particulars of an everyday existence lived under extraordinary circumstances that made it completely absorbing.

Some details – the restless movement from place to place, restrictions on banal freedoms such as taking a walk or popping to the loo without a Scotland Yard officer – were as you'd imagine. Others less so. Where would you go first if you were fleeing for your life? Well, Rushdie plumped for a mini-break in the Cotswolds.

Perhaps it shouldn't have come as a surprise that Rushdie's own contributions were underwhelming; presumably, he has said what he wanted to say, in the way that he wanted to, in the 606 pages of Joseph Anton. Speaking in person, he is a strangely unengaging narrator of his innermost feelings and I couldn't catch a flicker of the warmth that those around him clearly feel. But recounting one's own adversity is not an easy pose to strike.

More engrossing were conversations with the supporting cast in this saga – his sister, son Zafar, literary agent Andrew Wylie, friend and fellow author Ian McEwan, second wife, Elizabeth (whom he somehow met and married during the high-security years), and members of his protection team. If Rushdie found himself in a strange vacuum at the eye of the storm, those on the periphery found their lives unchanged but for invisible currents of worry and danger.

Some had no choice (Zafar spoke of passing the phone to his mother whenever someone rang up with a death threat, in the way most of us dodge telesales calls), others voluntarily embraced it. I hadn't known that Rushdie's Japanese editor was killed; his Italian translator stabbed; his Norwegian publisher shot. Polyphony is one of the qualities that contributes to the beauty of Rushdie's fiction, but if you're reading his memoir, this felt like a unique opportunity to hear first-hand the voices of some of those with a stake in his tale.

Catching the opening strains of the Downton Abbey theme tune, returning for its third series, I was tempted to stop my ears with wax, Odysseus-style, before I was sucked once more into the Sunday-night upstairs-downstairs silliness. Too late, I watched the whole thing. It's the roaring Twenties and the social change that has been tapping at the tradesmen's entrance since series one is now hammering brazenly on the front door. Lord Downton looks to have lost a pile – and potentially the pile – on the stock market, Lady Sybil has turned up with her Irish chauffeur husband (now a journalist, so not everyone's gone up in the world) and Daisy the maid attempted a one-woman workers' strike.

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Watching Downton is like looking at the back of a clock. You can see the wheels of a basic drama grinding away, unfleshed save for some lovely costumes and decent-ish acting. Utterly pointless, it's inexplicably mesmerising. Before you know it, you've lost an hour.

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