Promise I made

I know I write a lot and rave a lot about imported US drama. But we can still do this stuff over here. Peter Kosminsky is the living proof. He’s bold, he’s ambitious, he’s awkward and yet, he is indulged by British broadcasters – specifically Channel 4, it seems, who have thus far commissioned Daybreak Pictures to make The Government Inspector, Britz and The Promise, all of which he wrote and directed. (Kosminsky was trained by the BBC, and the work that established his name was Warriors, on BBC2, so without them etc.) I love it when a terrestrial broadcaster commits to a major new series, especially when it isn’t designed as a star vehicle. Oh, don’t you worry, I’ll be tuning in to ITV’s Monroe on Friday, Peter Bowker’s latest showcase for the skills and charisma of James Nesbitt, but when something like The Promise comes along, heavily marketed by C4 but clearly designed to appeal on the strength of its subject matter alone, it goes straight to the front of the queue.

I’m late writing about The Promise, which finished its four-part run last Sunday, because I have been busy writing my own script – the Radio 4 sitcom which starts its transition from page to broadcast today – and I realise that my own experiences as a writer for TV colour my appreciation of the things that I watch, especially the British-made dramas and comedies. I watch primarily as a viewer, of course, but consciously and subconsciously I’m living out the process, and usually wondering where on earth the writer starts with something as ambitious as The Promise. Like any writer, I aspire. Having written for two long-running soaps, I have benefitted from a sturdy and practical apprenticeship in drama, although I’ve spent the years since EastEnders writing, or co-writing comedy. Similar rules apply, and what I learned on EastEnders never leaves me, but the chasm that gapes between what I’ve achieved and what, say, Peter Bowker or Peter Kosminsky have achieved, leaves me shellshocked. I am in awe of the big British TV writers, past and present. To quote Liz Lemon: I want to go there. (Hey, it’s healthy to aim high.)

The Promise promised the impossible: to distill the eternal Arab-Israeli conflict into a human story for a British audience. (Clearly, it will be seen in other parts of the world, but when your twin protagonists are British, it’s clear where the story is aimed. It makes no bones about this country’s part in the mess, and if you don’t already despise Britain’s imperial past, The Promise should help nail it. Having said that, as noted before, it sent me to my copy of Martin Gilbert’s Israel, to help fill in the backstory. And what a backstory it is.) Having read reviews at all four stages of its broadcast, I get the feeling that some critics had a problem with Kosminsky’s heavy-handedness, but even with luxurious 80-minute episodes – and a 100-minute opener – you have to use the occasional broad stroke, and the author’s decision to use actual newsreel footage from the liberation of Bergen Belsen in Ep1 was one such. This, for me, was justified by the fictional story Kosminsky had chosen to tell – that of disinterested, apolitical English granddaughter Erin (Little Dorrit‘s Claire Foy) travelling to modern-day Israel to stay with a Jewish friend’s wealthy parents while she does her National Service, intercut with the experiences between 1945-48 of her grandfather, Len (Christian Cooke), a British soldier now on his deathbed, whose diary proves Erin’s touchstone with a past with which she had previously had no connection. Len was among the soldiers who liberated Belsen.

Now, the use of this footage, which haunts everyone who sees it, and which I remember vividly from The World At War at Sunday teatime when I was about eight or nine, is narratively justified but still potentially problematic, in that it sets up the Jewish plight 20 years into the British Mandate fairly unequivocally and forces us into a position of empathy and partisanship. However, Kosminsky – Jewish but as far as he’s concerned, first and foremost a Briton – is cleverly using surely the most emotive event of the last century as a way of putting us inside the mind of Len, and by association Erin. Len didn’t watch the newsreel, he was the newsreel.

Because of his experiences, when Len arrives in Palestine, where Jewish refugees are being interned and mistreated by their apparent liberators, his sympathies lie with them. But the British are in the middle, as they always seem to be in leftover chunks of the Empire, and are soon hated by both sides. (And called “Nazis” by the Zionists. Irony alert.) Len falls in love, unknowingly, with a militant Israeli fighter and finds greater sympathy for the Arabs, befriending the family of a tea vendor and eventually changing sides, just as the British are pulling out in 1948. Len is as perplexed by the violence meted out by Jewish settlers – specifically by underground terror group the Irgun – as many were in the postwar period, when Palestine was partitioned to neither side’s satisfaction and the never-ending war began.

Meanwhile, Erin is on an unlikely journey of discovery, drawn into the conflict first by experiencing the suicide bombing of a Jewish cafe and being influenced by a disillusioned Israeli soldier turned peace activist. She falls in love with an Arab and, influenced by her grandfather’s diary, becomes determined to finish what he started. I won’t go into any more plot, in case you haven’t seen The Promise, and wish to. Much of the drama hinges on Erin’s hunger for truth, which couldn’t be more subtly played than the way Claire Foy did it – her Erin was moody, stubborn, naive, headstrong and seemingly fearless/stupid – but you have to take a few of her insane excursions, including one into Gaza, at face value. She’s exploring where we, passive armchair consumers of newsreel, fear to tread. It brings the history and the deadly, lingering resentments and injustices to life.

The series was entirely shot on location – Kosminksy’s first visit to the region – and it benefits at every turn, even when the credibility of the drama is stretched to breaking point. (It’s amazing how many liberties with realism you can take by making your central character a bit of a stroppy idiot, walking into war zones and barging her sweet way into trouble. It was harder to buy into the dramatic conversion of Len, especially after he is held captive for weeks in a hole in the ground, which might break a man.)

Clever to blend contemporary drama with a period piece, and to play the fictional story against non-fictional backdrops, such as the bombing of the King David Hotel in 1946, and the “Sergeants affair” kidnapping in 1947, and of course the aforementioned Bergen Belsen. The Promise was not played for facile demonisation of the Jewish occupiers, or the glorification of the Palestinians – in fact, it strained for balance. You couldn’t help but dislike the rich family Erin was staying with, with their swimming pool and their liberal values, and you couldn’t help but like Haaz Sleiman’s Omar, Erin’s gentle guide, but it was never a case of black hats and white hats.

So, some fine acting, made more real by the locations (let us not forget that Kosminsky is the director, too), and a dizzying piece of writing that, for all its lapses into incredulity, never lapsed into finger-wagging or side-taking. The comment by a pro-Jewish soldier that the Palestinians had lived in Palestine for hundreds of years and it was still a desert, whereas the Zionists had been there for 50 years and had turned parts of it into a fertile, verdant oasis was key – the more I read Gilbert’s relentless doorstop Israel (I’m currently experiencing 1947, having almost caught up with The Promise), the more I understand that the Jews’ claim on what they consider their biblical homeland was, in the late 19th and early 20th century, built on sheer hard work, tilling the recalcitrant soil until it eventually bore fruit, literal and figurative. It’s dangerous to take sides, and I hesitate to revert to leftist stereotype, but if we don’t seek to understand the situation, I don’t believe we are entitled to make judgment upon either side. I am attempting to rectify that. And I have Peter Kosminsky and C4 to thanks. It’s not all My Big Fat Racist Wedding.

As ever, the British failed to successfully manage the situation after Palestine was carved up in 1923 (the fact that the French got neighbouring Syria after WWI is not insignificant), with subsequent administrations pushing and pulling about how many Jews were allowed in, and audaciously pulling up the drawbridge during the Second World War when, you could argue, the Jews needed a safe exile more than ever before. It’s a horrific story, whichever side you come at it from. So bravo to one writer for at least facing up to the job. Much easier to make a police drama about a serial killer.

I’m so 20th century

There are not enough hours in the day, as the band Gomez noted. I am a voracious reader. I am also self-employed. These two truths do not rub along too easily together. I am one of those people – not rare – who always has more than one book on the go, a couple at home, one in my bag for public transport. At the moment I have three books on the go that I wish I had more time to read. I’d like a week off work so that I could concentrate on one and finish it. Then I could add a new one to the carousel and not get enough time to read that. When you are self-employed, you become very conscious of not working. (Word recently gave me two books to read and review, which means reading and working – Nileism by Allan Brown and The Celestial Café by Stuart Murdoch – so I put my leisuretime books on hold and read those.) My other problem is that I tend to pick big, fat books, which take up a lot of space in my bag which might be more usefully employed for a packed lunch.

My three books are, as pictured, Israel by Martin Gilbert (first published in 1998, but revised in 2008), The Kennedys: An American Drama by Peter Collier and David Horowitz (published in 1984), and When The Lights Went Out by Andy Beckett (published in 2009). The first, which I bought and started reading in 2009 after the three-week Gaza War and put aside when it was usurped by something a little easier, is back in circulation because of Peter Kosminsky’s The Promise on C4, which has not just reignited my interest in the troubled region, but underlined how little I know about its history. I aim to rectify that.

The second I bought in 1988 when I was co-writing a daft play about the assassination of JFK called President Kennedy’s Big Night Out. This was in the dark days before the internet, and the quickest way to “research” his shooting was to buy a book that covered it. I only read the assassination chapter at the time, and filed the book away for what turned out to be over 20 years. I plucked it from the bookshelf before Christmas after yet another documentary on TV about the Kennedys. Even though the family tree that’s helpfully supplied ends in 1984, at which point lot of Kennedys now dead were still alive, it’s their rise to prominence that I’m interested in and which is proving fascinating. It’s not just about trivia, but you’ll love this: in 1929 patriarch Joseph Kennedy made so many phonecalls to his lover Gloria Swanson that he had the highest personal phone bill in America for that year.

The third book is the easiest read of the three, although still unwieldy as I have it as a pre-publication advance proof, with a plain orange cover. Over Christmas and New Year, this was the book, and I was getting through its detailed political history of Britain in the 1970s at a rate of knots not seen since I rattled through the complete works of David Peace two years ago. (A rare excursion into fiction, although his novels are so rooted in history, they almost count as non-fiction.) When The Lights Went Out I would recommend to anyone who’s interested in the way we live now, since so much of the pain we’re feeling in 21st century Britain has its origins in what happened between the election of Heath in 1970 and the election Thatcher in 1979. It deserves finishing. I owe it that. I owe Andy Beckett that, for all his thorough research, and all the dying 70s politicians he interviewed in the process. But Sir Martin Gilbert, a historian who has written more books than most of us will read in a lifetime, has barged Beckett off the top of the pile. I will return to Britain in the 70s, of course, but for much of the foreseeable I’ll be at the birth of a nation in Palestine.

So, like some kind of time traveller limited to the 20th century, I’m currently in Britain in the 1970s circa the Social Contract, Palestine in the 1920s circa the Balfour Declaration, and Hyannis Port in the 1940s circa the death of “Young Joe” Kennedy in a disastrous American bombing raid called Operation Aphrodite. Each time I pick up a book, I have to reacclimatise to the era and the climate. What I observe about myself, with no forward planning about what I’m going to read next, is that I am clearly a 20th century man. I have spent the last 15 years educating myself. I was no good at history at school. I’m not sure it was as interesting at O-level in the 70s – my main memory was the Industrial Revolution: canals, looms, the Stockton-Darlington line – and I certainly struggled to engage with it. I failed O-level history. In fact I got a “U” grade, which isn’t a grade, as it stood for ungraded. So, in my thirties I returned to the subject and filled my shelves with history books. I even joined a history book club, which meant one new paperback a month. I read about the Reformation, and about the two World Wars, and about the Russian gulags, and the Vietnam war, and … actually, apart from the Reformation, you can start to spot a theme. I devoted myself to understanding the 20th century. I’m still at it.

History is so much more fun when you plan your own curriculum. I think researching my biography of Billy Bragg in 1997 – using books, as I was pre-dial-up – really concentrated my mind on getting to grips with the century we were then still living through. Not all history books are fun to read. Some are dry. Some, like John Keegan and Eric Hobsbawn, are not. I’ll be honest, Israel is fairly dry – which is apt, I guess, as the very inhospitability of the Arab soil lies at the heart of the Zionists’ story, of the physical struggle and determination to lay down roots in a foreign land they felt was theirs, and the century of trouble that led to – but I will persevere. I notice that Simon Sebag-Montifiore has a new book out called Jerusalem, and he’s a very readable historian, but that doesn’t fit in with my New Year’s Resolution, which I am determined to stick to: only read books I already own.

I will review all three books when I finish them. I can see in a secondary pile Robert Service’s biography of Lenin and a brilliant book about post-Communist Russia called The Oligarchs by David Hoffman, both of which I started and set aside when more pressing reads took over. I will return to those first. Because I already own them.