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.