Archive for the ‘TV’ Category

The Promise: Review

February 25, 2011

To make a TV series about the origins of the state of Israel is to walk into the lion’s den, so inevitable are the criticisms made by supporters, armchair and actual, of each ‘side’. It is then no small achievement that Peter Kosminsky’s The Promise (Channel 4) largely succeeds in drawing out the key themes of the conflict through a compelling drama which gives the conflict a human face.

 The four part series is split between two moments in history, the twilight years of the British mandate of Palestine in 1946 and the second Intifada of 2005. To tie the two the narrative is divided between Sergeant Len Matthews, part of the British occupying force, and his granddaughter Erin.

The opening shots reveal that Len, a paratrooper, took part in the Liberation of Bergan Belsen concentration camp, unflinchingly showing footage of the camps to highlight the huge role that the industrial slaughter of the Holocaust played on the collective memory of the Jewish people post-1945.

From Belsen Len is moved to Mandate Palestine, where he is forced to guard camps of Jewish refugees that are teeming off ships such as the Exodus, carrying refugees from Europe to their promised land. To say Len is pro-Jewish or pro-Zionist at this point would be too clear cut, but it is clear that after witnessing the horrors of Nazism he believes the survivors deserve something better.

From here Len is thrust into the developing Jewish insurgency, led by the underground Irgun. As the series develops he survives the bombing of the British HQ at the King David Hotel, an ambush by guerillas, and a betrayal by his Zionist girlfriend before he is finally held hostage while his friends are executed.

For Len the story arc is clear, his sympathies great as they were for the Zionist cause turn to hatred of the Irgun and leads to his own tragedy, which isn’t revealed until the final part.

As an example of storytelling The Promise falls to some of the predicable plot devices which beset many historical dramas. Characters inevitably fall in love, discover unknown historical connections and consistently find themselves at the centre of unfolding events.

From a historical perspective it also sidesteps some hugely significant aspects of the conflict. The central story arc throughout the Mandate section of the drama frames the conflict between the Zionist guerilla group, the Irgun and the British occupies. This ignores the fact the British army initially armed and trained the official Jewish defense force, the Hagganah and that the Jewish Agency of David Ben-Gurion operated as a semi-open shadow government, while it was the more extreme groups such as Irgun and the Stern Gang which carried out terror attacks, such as the bombing of the King David Hotel in 1946.

The most important aspect of the conflict from this period which is missing is of course the Palestinian Arab population, portrayed by a single family. This not only ignores the fact that the Arab population formed the overwhelming majority of Palestine at this time, but similarly overlooks the role Arabic groups played in the struggle against both British occupiers and the Zionist movement. Indeed the British decision to limit Jewish immigration in 1946 was not, as the film implies, a decision taken in London alone, but was a concession to Arab rioting. The story also ignores the Arabic guerilla movement which carried out attacks on both British forces and the Jewish Agency, revealing that like their Jewish adversaries, the Arabs played the roles of victim and fighter both.

In the modern scenes the major flaw, beyond the contrived relationships and coincidences used to drive the plot, is the character of Erin, who seems at best indifferent to her environment and at worst willfully ignorant to its complexities as she shops in Tel Aviv and stomps around the West Bank.

Erin’s story begins with the discovery of her now ailing grandfather’s diary, days before she is to take a tenuous journey to Israel to spend her gap year living with the parents of her best friends, who has been called up for national service with the IDF.

From start to end Erin is intent to strop her way through cultural and political sensitivities; inviting a former Palestinian prisoner to dine with her host, who is a retired general; forcing an elderly Palestinian man to visit the home he left 60-years before and of course becoming romantically connected to both the former militant and an Ex-soldier.

She, perhaps inevitably, is also witness to the suicide bombing of a Tel Aviv cafe, making the not at all subtle, but important, demand for the viewer to consider the parallels between the Irgun terror campaign, and that of Hamas. Thankfully Kosminsky doesn’t use the parallel to justify the latter, but to condemn both.

The set up of Erin’s story, based around her discovery of Len’s diary, is quite a jarring cliché, already done in numerous novels and more successfully in Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom. In Land and Freedom the entire story of the International Brigader is told through the diary, which is being read by a granddaughter after he has died.

In Erin’s case however the diary is used more like a treasure map, making her travel throughout the West Bank to piece the story together, allowing the viewer to see the modern repercussions of the mandate era. The obvious flaw here is that you’d be forgiven for thinking Eric could simply read the entire diary or just call up and talk to Len, who we’re told has been making a fine recovery in her absence. Of course this wouldn’t allow for the slowly developing narrative.

These flaws however are forgivable, used as they are to help signpost key points or explain context. Indeed it would take a writer/director of some genius to explain the Arab-Israeli conflict to a new audience without them. Only the harshest critic would condemn the director for making a film which doesn’t pander to the purest political analysis, but is able to frame the conflict progressively, and more importantly, with a human face.

Throughout four episodes Kosminsky succeeds in drawing out the key themes of this unending modern tragedy; the post-war decline of Empire, the gradual transformation of a brutalised people from the role of victims to oppressor, and the fact that no matter the side or allegiance the people of each side play the roles of victim and fighter both.


People’s Supermarket: Right Problem, Wrong Solution

February 21, 2011

At first Channel Four’s latest crusading documentary The People’s Supermarket seemed to strike the right tones. A community unite to turn their collective backs on the big business supermarkets that dominate the food industry and set up their own shop – groceries for the people by the people. However, as David Cameron swiftly spotted, the idea has more in kin with his ‘Big Society’ then it does with collective ownership.

The series follows the efforts of unknown-celebrity chef Arthur Potts Dawson as he takes a defiant aim at the goliaths of the food industry, which dominate over 80% of the market, leaving independent stores with just 2.2 per cent of food sales in the UK.

In the first episode Potts Dawson meets a dairy farmer who is being forced out of business. His problem is that supermarkets will only pay him 15 pence per litre of milk, yet it costs 29 pence a litre to produce. Both farmer and host lament that the likes of Tesco buy cheap and sell cheap, while smaller shops cannot afford to compete or buy the produce at a fairer cost.

Here Potts Dawson hits upon the central problem, not only for the food industry but for capitalism at large. As a shop manager he cannot afford to pay the farmer the 29 pence a litre if he is to make a profit and pay his staff a decent wage, yet if he pays less for the milk it is the farmer who is out of pocket.

To solve this traditional problem of capitalism Potts Dawson turns to the traditional solution, if he wants to pay the farmer a fairer deal he’s going to have to cut his staff’s wages.

With an epiphany which would make Phillip Green proud he realises that if he can cut labour costs to sell the food cheaper and give the producers a fairer deal, what would happen if he just didn’t pay his staff anything at all?  

The result is for Potts Dawson to proclaim that any member who buys into the project must pay him a £25 entry fee and promise to work for free for at least four hours a month. In return they will get a discount to his – and it remains his – barren shelved corner shop and if they are lucky they may find themselves featured on TV.

Hoping for exactly that David Cameron visited the shop last week to explain that this is a prime example of his ‘Big Society’ idea made reality. Presumably he didn’t explicitly mean people working for nothing for little result to satisfy the crusade of one wealthy cost cutting zealot.

As the series unfolds our hosts decries the waste generated by big business and battles the bureaucracy of his local council, yet by the third episode he discovers that ‘people aren’t getting it’ and his store is failing to attract the membership, and money, it needs to survive.

The reality is that like the ‘Big Society’ people understand and  reject the suggestion that after a full working day they might like to run a supermarket, a care home, a fire station or any other service where the management have discovered Potts Dawson’s magical formula of abolishing pay and promoting volunteerism as a cover to cut costs.

As well intentioned as Potts Dawson may be to encourage community unity or to promote ethical food production his sole achievement, beyond enhancing his TV credentials, is to demonstrate that under capitalism the circle of production, profit and labour costs cannot be squared for a fair deal for all.  It remains to be seen how long the venture will continue and if the support of the Prime Minister will attract new converts. Perhaps if membership begins to nosedive Cameron might chip in his own four hours worth once a month?