By Caspar Salmon | TV | February 10, 2011 |
By Caspar Salmon | TV | February 10, 2011 |
This week, I bring you three programmes that all centre on issues of displacement. How about that, eh? I bet you’re pretty impressed. “Look at that!”, you’re probably thinking, “Caspar’s really nailed the theme this week! Pity, because he totally failed to identify the over-arching theme of alienation five weeks ago.” Which I think is a bit churlish of you. Can’t we all just agree that I absolutely killed this week’s theme and get on with things? Jeez.
‘Outcasts’ is the big new drama on the BBC block at the moment, with a bunch of intergalactic pioneers taking refuge on a foreign planet called (in an instance of someone at the Beeb, high on brainstorming adrenaline, clearly thinking it sounded totally mega - before everyone realised too late that it makes literally no sense whatsoever) Carpathia. In this hostile world, they have set up a fragile sort of system with captains and guns, which is all threatened - for reasons I was too bored to get to grips with - when a rogue, renegade, ne-er-do-well, maverick combatant (played by Jamie Bamber) returns and is all moody and shit. He shoots his wife and kidnaps the kid, and two of the operatives are sent off to dispatch him. Meanwhile, the feisty head woman (played with an appropriate amount of weltschmerz by Hermione Norris) of the outfit is waiting for her daughter to arrive in a rocket full of new people from earth. Meanwhile, Liam Cunningham plays someone high-powered and sits about brooding. In the first episode, he’s required to relate to a TV screen the entire time, bleating, “We hear you loud and clear” and “We will welcome you soon to Carpathia” to another fellow on a link-up inside a rocket. It’s all a bit low-budget.
Where our beloved national network really maxed out on their finances, is in the choice of locations: they bought themselves a really stonking bit of South Africa for a few months, and filmed it magnificently. When the characters adventure out into the planet’s wilderness, saying daft things like, “We’ve only got a few more hours sunlight!, South Africa really does look beautiful - large and forbidding, filmed at gorgeous low angles with a hazy white light suffusing each shot. That all looks terrific.
The problem is that everything is so turgid and uninspired. I always find that an action series suffers from having British actors utter urgent lines and run around, which often seems to me more like an American thing to do, and in this case I did find the likes of Daniel Mays a bit silly as gun-wielding executives. Mays is sensational in Mike Leigh films, where his big cow eyes and doleful voice make him a heartwarming presence, but he doesn’t make sense in this universe and struggles to make his character come alive. Jamie Bamber tries his best, but is lumbered with an extremely irritating child actor to share his scenes with, and the kid just poisons every minute he’s in - plus Bamber is trying to play a cool character from a cool series, but has to utter sterile lines from a middling series.
The problems are several: first of all, it’s too timid. The whole thing should be harsh and unrelenting, but it just plays like a standard sci-fi adventure episode, and never breaks out from gentle BBC fodder (actual dialogue: “She’s a bitch.” “Mind your tongue”). Secondly, it doesn’t have enough of a focus, and our emotional investment in it is never clear. Third, the BBC isn’t very good at genre: they’re out of their depth on this one, and it shows. The second episode improved things a little, trading Eric Mabius for Bamber and getting a bit more of a team dynamic going, while the actors settled a little into their roles, but it’s still going to need to pick itself up very quickly.
Louis Theroux: Ultra-Zionists
Louis Theroux was busy meeting another sort of settler this week: self-described ultra-zionists, who have made it their business in recent times to populate with religious Jewish residents certain Palestinian-occupied areas of the West Bank in Israel. It made for a terrifying and infuriating programme, in which Theroux turned his formidable powers of sensitivity and non-judgmentalism on some fundamentally disgusting beings, happy to displace and disparage Palestinians for the sake of furthering what they see as God’s mission in Israel. What made Theroux such a brilliant and beguiling guide to this odious mob are the qualities that in past programmes elicited shameful secrets and exquisite confidences from his interviewees back when he made shows about terrible celebrities: he is totally without guile, yet is focused and able to make points forcefully through suggestion. He editorialises in silence while his subjects dig their own grave. This could be infuriating at times, in this particular programme, as any normal spectator wanted to grab these scumbags, witlessly drawing on age-old texts and fairly recent prejudice to express their irrational loathing of other peoples, and give them a good shaking, screaming, “Only connect! Do you not understand that the suffering that rightly bought the Jewish people the world’s compassion, is revisited over time on other people, on other people who suffer too in the sort of silence that the world has seen before? That we are brothers and sisters in this world with elbows, and children, and hunger in our stomachs! That no race can be superior to any, for we are all one kind!” Which is why I’m not a presenter of these programmes, and Louis Theroux is. He allowed himself a lovely moment, when one of the Zionists - a settler in Havat Gilad - asked him why he was an atheist: “It’s very comforting. It’s very comforting to know there’s no-one up there looking after me”. It beautifully translated the problem of politicised religion in Israel.
The programme was riveting and devastating, because it cut right to the heart of the problems in Israel, showing that people have short memories, fighting a constant local vendetta, and that hatred of this sort must have a religious motivation. Throughout, the programme was caught up in a ceaseless volley of missiles aimed at civilians, and stones aimed by civilians - often children, playing a game of clans - back at the Israeli army. It ended on a note that brought a shiver to my spine, as a Zionist claimed that he would reclaim the state for the Jewish people, while beside him a Palestinian man chastised him, impotently, for having stolen his house and possessions. It was horrible.
It feels wrong to end on an almost flippant note, but I know that fanciers of Theroux would be cross if I didn’t say whether this is a good programme for Louis eye-candy. There’s a sweet moment where the lovely chap hoots in fear as rocks hit his convoy, unable to prevent his reaction of fear, which actually is represented as a charming moment, somehow, because of Theroux’s candour - and there’s also a cracking shot of him wearing a skull-cap at one point. But the programme overall is far too harrowing for mere Theroux-watching.
By a funny coincidence of scheduling, Peter Kosminsky’s slightly heavy-handed but ultimately sensitive and winning new drama, “The Promise,” touched on almost exactly these concerns, in the first episode that aired this week on Channel 4. The programme centred on two outsiders: Erin, a young British girl who is brought face to face with modern Israel when accompanying a friend there on her gap year, and her grandfather Len, whose recollections of liberating Europe and founding Israel with the British army are presented in flashback scenes extracted from his diary.
Using this rather clunky narrative device as a way to explicate the political issues at the start of the country’s foundation and now, years later, the programme actually fashioned a fairly convincing and sometimes surprising story out of the whole thing, hammering home the evidence that where fractious relations sprung up in 1946, they have only gained in animosity in 2010 (when the programme was made). When the young soldier Len deplores the violence surrounding him and hopes that it will not last long, we know the terrible history of the land, and this resonance lends much-needed weight to the contemporary half of the drama. There were also some very difficult scenes tracing the origins of Israel right back to the Holocaust. Kosminsky’s question throughout, as he has said in interviews, is “How was the world’s goodwill squandered within a lifetime?” It’s a potent one, and one that returns over and over - but it is addressed in such a variety of circumstances - personal, professional, political - and with a real reverence of tone for its subject matter, that it dispels the slight air of being taught a history lesson.
The show will doubtless be accused of liberal bias, often siding with Palestinians in the conflict, especially in the modern scenes; but on the contrary, the emphasis was shifted in a bleak final minute onto the role of terrorism/Hamas etc, and I feel sure that future episodes will necessarily address in greater depth the part played by terrorism in Palestine’s situation. In this opening episode - and you marvel that there’s ground not yet covered for Kosminsky to explore in three further instalments - the actors Christian Cooke and Claire Foy splendidly carried the show on their shoulders, evolving from wide-eyed innocents to steely, exhausted, often despairing individuals. The programme’s writing, which was considered in content and plain in prose, adroitly brought the political problems to the fore. It was a very good, very sobering programme, which I urge you to watch.
Caspar Salmon also considered “La La La La La La Bamber” as a headline for this article.