Does my bomb look big in this?*


So, in the week of its 25th birthday, Channel 4 galvanises its reputation for serious drama and social conscience, with Britz, a cracking and thought-provoking two-part thriller-cum-morality tale that actually worked in two parts and benefitted from being shown across two nights. Written and directed by Peter Kosminsky (The Government Inspector, Warriors, The Project), it was the story of a British Muslim brother and sister who take diverging paths in reaction to the War On Terror: one joins MI5, the other becomes a suicide bomber. [Spoiler alert! It’s impossible to write about it otherwise.] That it is Nasima (Manjinder Virk) who straps the homemade bomb to her body, concealed beneath a false pregnant belly, is the shock. She starts out as a secular political activist and medical student, seen composing a letter in her bedroom to President Bush complaining about the treatment of detainees in Guantanamo Bay: an idealist, basically. She goes against her family’s strict wishes by going out with a black non-Muslim at college. This proves a flashpoint, when she is sent back to Pakistan in shame after telling her father – the other motivating factor is the suicide of her best friend, arrested on a jumped-up non-charge under the Terrorism Act, abused and put under a Control Order, the draconian nature of which is apparently all true (you surrender your passport, you’re restricted from seeing listed persons, electronically tagged, your case is heard at a closed hearing where your legal representative is chosen by and works for the state, the Home Secretary has the power to renew indefinitely etc.). This required a leap of faith – aptly enough – on behalf of the viewer, as handing out leaflets at a student demo, which Nas is seen doing, does not necessarily lead to a training camp in Pakistan and the decision to offer up your life to jihad. You had to suspend your disbelief a bit for the story of Sohail (Riz Ahmed), too – he’s a law student, again pretty much disinterested in religion, who joins the secret service, where his position as the token Muslim – asked to spy on his friends back in Bradford – gives him pause for doubt. His story is told first, so when it intersects with Nasima’s, you’ve no idea how she got to that point. Her story, told second, fills in the gaps.

What I liked about Britz was that it seemed to sidestep cliches. Although Kosminsky clearly isn’t a Muslim, or Pakistani, he based his script on hours of interviews with British Muslims. Certainly, the legal picture painted by the film is an accurate one, and it’s not pretty for post-September 11 Asians in Britain or anywhere. The police were depicted mostly as getting on with their job under the Terrorism Act – it’s the laws passed down by this government in the last six years that were being questioned. (Certainly, we saw a couple of ignorant, racist cops, but we also saw ignorant, racist Pakistanis, kicking the shit out of Naz’s black boyfriend. Bigotry abounded throughout, not least in terms of gender within the family.) Britz pandered to neither those who would paint all Muslims as potential suicide bombers, nor those liberals who romanticise Asian religion without looking too deeply into it. The final shot – after well over four hours of drama – was Nasima’s suicide video, in which she spoke to all non-Muslim Brits (or Britz), conferring guilt upon us for voting Tony Blair back in. Which is all very well in theory, but hey, some of us didn’t. In fact, a minority of Britons voted him back in, thanks to the first-past-the-post system. It was a powerful ending nonetheless. It wasn’t put there to excuse her act of mass-murder – far from it – but this was an intelligent, educated young woman from Bradford who’d reached a point where she wasn’t gonna take it any more.

The thriller elements occasionally sat uncomfortably with the unfolding family drama, but I guess you have to keep bums on seats, and this was certainly a far more challenging two-parter than an episode of Spooks, which some of it resembled, except with a lot more paperwork. (I love Spooks, but it’s so left-wing, anti-government and anti-American, it’s possible to second-guess sometimes. Anyway, it’s a pure thriller, and the political issues it touches on are ultimately there to serve the suspense.) Reading the Channel 4 forums after the show, there was a general consensus, from Muslim and non-Muslims, that it was a good drama with useful things to say about two burning issues: how to deal with a multi-racial, multi-faith society and have we turned into a police state? One or two doubters had their say, but in CAPITAL LETTERS, which always undermines your argument, and quite a few questioned the veracity of the MI5 scenes, such as the use of a mobile phone by a visitor inside the lobby of Thames House, which isn’t permitted. (Having just seen Elizabeth: The Golden Age at the pictures, I can live with a couple of factual inaccuracies like that!)

* Sorry, I stole this headline from Shazia Mizra, the Muslim stand-up. It struck me as apt in the circumstances, but I don’t wish to make light of the subject.

Bah bah bah ba-baaah ba-ba-da-ba-baaahh!


Welcome to my world. Yesterday afternoon, I went up to Broadcasting House to record a column (ie. authored piece that you read out) for the estimable Front Row on Radio 4. It compared the opening night of Channel 4 with the schedule of this week, in a light-hearted way. (They don’t usually ask me on for a non-light-hearted view – they have plenty of others for that type of thing.) It was fun to do, as it began with me musing on the fact that TV channels no longer have fanfares, as they all did when I was growing up. I was going to ask producer Laura to drop in clips of the fanfares for Thames, LWT, Anglia and early C4, which are all reassuringly available on YouTube, but we decided it would be more amusing if I sang them, as you might in a pub during a conversation about theme tunes. So I did. With the column recorded, I came home. Then, about an hour and a half later, I had a concerned call from Laura, who was mid-edit: it turns out I had erroneously sung the Thames theme for Anglia. Hey, you try remembering channel idents on the spot, in a BBC studio. They get mixed up. So, I travelled all the way back into Central London just to sing the Anglia TV ident. We found a studio, we set up, I put on my headphones, sang, “Bah bah bah ba-baaah ba-ba-da-ba-baaahh!” and then came home again. What professionalism, you’re thinking.

Anyway, it was worth it, I think, to lower the tone of Radio 4 for a few minutes on a Thursday evening. You can, if you wish, listen to the column (it’s the last item on the show, as my items always are!) and to Kirsty Lang back-announcing it with a jaunty laugh in her voice, possibly put on, possibly not. I don’t care! Look for Thursday night’s Front Row here.

(Of course, C4 dropped its fanfare in 1996 and went all esoteric. Nowadays you get an ambient “bed” over which the announcer can rabbit on, and the logo is constructed, mid-air, out of haystacks or bits of council estate.)


And if anybody needs to see or hear the old Anglia fanfare, here it is:

Ordinary rendition


Torture is as the forefront of my mind. I’m reading Naomi Klein’s compelling and wide-ranging The Shock Doctrine, as I’ve mentioned, which I wish was lighter so I could take it out with me on the train – although my “train book” at the moment is Fiasco by Thomas E Ricks, the most detailed book I’ve read about the Iraq war, which contains a whole section on Abu Ghraib. Last night I caught up with HBO’s powerful The Ghosts Of Abu Ghraib, an account of the atrocities that went on at Saddam’s old prison and put 12 soldiers in prison, or else they were demoted. This was a clear, unsensational, narration-free documentary, which spoke to a number of soldiers charged with abuse, who tried to describe why they did it. I also saw Rendition on Friday, the first Hollywood blockbuster to directly address America’s renamed habit of removing terrorist suspects to other countries, there to interrogate them in what is now a government-sponsored manner. (The definition of “torture” was rewritten after September 11 so that only endangerment of life or acts that might lead to organ failure are now deemed torture: all manner of degradation, psychological tricks and abuse were sanctioned under the signature of Donald Rumsield, about whom I recently read the simply relentless but essential book Rumsfeld: An American Disaster by Andrew Cockburn. One such is making a prisoner stand for four hours at a time, to which Rumsfeld made a footnote: “I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is there a four hour limit on standing?”, missing the point in a way that either suggests pure evil or weapons-grade idiocy, neither of which is very comforting.) And, to add to my current torture-a-thon, last night’s Spooks saw Harry cross that particular line, in order to save London from half a million plague fatalities.

In Ghosts, we saw clips of Dr Stanley Milgram’s film Obedience, which blew my mind, even though I’d read about the experiments he conducted in 1961. In brief (and I’ve lifted some of this from Wikipedia to save my typing shoulder, but it tallies with what I already know): the role of the “experimentor” in these tests done at Yale was played by a stern, impassive biology teacher dressed in a technician’s coat, and the “victim” was played by an accountant trained to act for the role. The participant and the victim (supposedly another volunteer, but in reality a “confederate” of the experimentor) were told by the experimentor that they would be participating in an experiment helping his study of memory and learning in different situations. The “teacher” and the “learner” (apparently chosen by slips of paper, but both slips said “teacher” to guarantee that the real participant would assume this role) were separated into different rooms where they could communicate but not see each other. (Read on, if you don’t know the tests. It’s astonishing.)

The “teacher” was given a 45-volt electric shock from an electro-shock generator as a sample of the shock that the “learner” would supposedly receive during the experiment. The “teacher” was then made to give word tests to the “learner” – if the answer was incorrect, the teacher would administer a shock to the learner, with the voltage increasing for each wrong answer. In reality, there were no shocks. The “learner” just acted a response, increasingly severe as the voltage increased. If you see the footage, you’ll see that the acting was good, and as the screams increase, it’s totally macabre. After a number of increases, the actor would bang on the wall and protest about a heart condition. At this point, many people indicated their desire to stop the experiment. But most continued after being assured that they would not be held responsible. If the subject still wished to stop after all four successive verbal encouragements from the man in the white coat, the experiment was halted.

In Milgram’s first set of experiments, 65% (26 out of 40) of participants administered the experiment’s final 450-volt shock, though many were very uncomfortable doing so; at some point, every participant paused and questioned the experiment; some said they would refund the money they were being paid. No participant steadfastly refused to administer shocks before the 300-volt level, despite the screams.

There was, understandably, a lot of ethical criticism of the tests. (Probably from people who wouldn’t mind if it was monkeys or mice.) Clearly, this was a very stressful position to put even volunteers into – I’m surprised Balls Of Steel haven’t revived it (maybe they have, I only watched it once). The implication was not necessarily that 65% of people would willingly torture, but that they would if they were told to do so by a figure of authority. I wonder if, 46 years on, people would be more, or less likely to comply? Certainly the soldiers on Ghosts, male and female, as we know, blamed their behaviour on the stress of being at war, the need to let off steam, peer pressure, boredom and ignorance. Even though it was later established that 90% of Iraqis being held were innocent, these night-shift military police treated the prisoners as if they were guilty and this abuse, much of it involving nudity and a strangely homoerotic manipulation of bodies, was either punishment for something, or a way of preparing them for interrogation. One soldier, Sabrina Harman, said that she stuck her thumbs in the air and smiled for the camera in the incriminating photos of her with a dead body, and with naked prisoners in a big pile, because that’s what she does in photos. She got six months.

I am haunted by the world I live in. So let’s stop arguing about the merits of a sitcom for a moment. Anybody else see any of these films or progammes? Anybody else reading Klein, or the other books? Is it just me who’s obsessed by all this?