The Salisbury Poisonings – a review

It was well done. I will not pretend to have enjoyed it greatly, though I would have been worried if I had. It was tightly produced and meant well, but so soon after the events it had no drama, because we all remember what happened.

Realising this, the writer pitched it as a human drama, and that is all it could be given its constraints. The Salisbury Poisonings was the BBC’s most promoted drama of the week and must have swallowed a sizable budget for what is essentially a series of internalised tensions, not even inter-personal ones.

The series is primarily not about the poisonings at all, but about the personal struggle of Tracy Daszkiewicz, Wiltshire’s public health supremo, feeling all the responsibility that could come from slipping up just once, and over-reacting perhaps or using her influence to stop others underreacting. That is for the viewer to decide. In addition we have other individuals and households, each with their own dramas, arising from the same events but barely interacting with any linked plot. That is hardly a fair complaint though: this is the reality of how we live and this is a series about real, named people and real, horrible, deathly events and so they interact and fail to interact just as we normal people do, and as they actually did at the time.

Therein lies a difficulty: the familiarity pops the tension that a miniseries like this needs. Had it been fiction, then the scene where Dawn’s boyfriend picks a perfume bottle up from a bin (when the cross-narrative makes clear what it contains) could have been a moment of tense drama, with her future hovering between happiness and death, the audience screaming at the screen ‘Don’t do it!’; but as we know what happened, as a moment of tension it fell flat: sometimes background music is not enough. It is a pity that moment did not quite work, because it really was the moment Dawn’s life was doomed, in silence because reality has no sound-track or looming thunder.

Perhaps it is as well that Saul Dibb had this show.  Another approach, with a different writer, would have been to create an actual drama, to run it like a Frederick Forsyth piece; semi-fictionalised, following the Russians from the moment the order was given in Moscow, plotting, infiltration, execution, exfiltration (and generally spitting on the memories of those actually affected by romanticising the villains). Actually, I cannot imagine Frederick Forsyth writing about a plot so stupidly executed. Had the killers done the job properly, with a tiny dab on the neck and disappearing in the night with evidence, their target (who, mercifully, is still alive) would have passed away alone and his death put down to natural causes. Instead, we got a drama in real life which engulfed the whole of one of Britain’s most beautiful cities.

Within those limits then, it was done well – plotted, scripted, acted. The piece only really showed its depth in the third and last episode, as much of the first and second episodes were filled with the search and decontamination panic, which swallowed too much screen time, serving though to show how much trouble was caused by a tiny smear of fluid on a door handle – in the third episode, with all that done with, the piece could concentrating on the effect on people: Dawn killed and Charlie nearly so, Sergeant Bailey recovered in body but not in mind, and Tracy Daszkiewicz again with the unbearable weight of responsibility upon her and the families torn.

Those involved, both those portrayed and many others, were facing something unwonted and horrible, stepping out of the bland, box-ticking ordinariness of their bureaucratic offices: they were facing the Russian military machine, and they prevailed.

It was only two years ago and these were not paper people conjured from a script. The point was made at the very end when the dramatization was finished and to face the audience they brought the actual individuals portrayed so we could see they and their sufferings were real. If there was no traditional drama it is because that sort of drama is not real life, but they are.

Question Time is meant to annoy everyone

Late this evening, but Thursday night is Question Time night. Locked down, distanced and audienceless it looks peculiar. It is also peculiar in not turning instantly into a shouting match.

We have Chris Philp, a junior government minister; Andy Burnham (by remote link from Lancashire); Camilla Tominey of the Torygraph; James Graham, the playwright; and Stephen Kinnock’s wife (introduced as the former Prime Minister of Denmark). Long discussion ensued about schools and coronavirus, contact tracing and coronavirus, Denmark and coronavirus. I miss the politics.

I miss the audience and their wild reactions because it part of the entertainment industry – the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd. I miss those Corbynites too. They went apoplectic at anything, because they genuinely hated anyone who was not them. It sounds too much like a generalisation that Conservatives think Labour are deluded while Labourites think Conservatives are evil – it is true though. It is mad, but it gives a dynamic to the drama.

This week the debate is too subtle and we wait for Fiona Bruce to provide the provocation. She does it so pleasantly, and brutally, as a smiling assassin.

It’s almost pleasant to watch (if you ignore the fact that they are discussing a deadly pandemic. The old format was infuriating – I had to turn away often, to walk into another room, to gnash my teeth and bite my tongue so as not to shout at the screen. QT was revoltingly biased – one Conservative or Brexiteer baited by four malicious opponents, like tying a fox to a gate and letting hounds torment it. It is against everything I believe. Everyone I have heard discuss BBC’s Question Time agrees it is unacceptably biased against right-thinking people: Labour supporters and Conservative supporters are convinced it is weighted against them.

Wind back a little though: it must be that it must be like this. It must challenge and probe, and dig in the gaps in reasoning and policy. What is more, it must generate new thoughts. Opinions and trains of thought which go unchallenged in a safe-space bubble will ossify and self-justify themselves in their flaws. Every so often a loathed opponent will make a telling point, or give the lie to a preconception that overturns a conclusion built on false premise. It is needed.

They have had figures from Theatreland before, but mainly actors and subsidy-junkies. To have an entrepreneur playwright / producer on has been a valued perspective but some insight was missing. There is much talk of how badly the cultural industry has been hit by the lockdown, but it goes beyond the theatre: the audiences for the theatres fill the restaurants and cafés, and they come from across the nation and beyond to fill all the shops and venues of the town – the decline of the theatre strikes at all the West End’s commercial life.

Until there is shouting again there is less life in Question Time but we can hope that within a month or two it will be just as infuriating as it ever was.

A less preachy BBC: praise be

I read that a new David Attenborough series is coming to the Beeb, which is always a great event: Green Planet. The name may strike dread into the hearts of those used to throwing bricks at the screen whenever another lecture on climate change is delivered, but it is a description of the subject, plant-life (just as Blue Planet was about the seas, not the worldwide success of Thatcherism).

We should still worry. Sir David’s more recent outing in Our Planet was one big lecture on how naughty we all are, with facts skewed and altered to fit the narrative of climate change being behind everything. (It isn’t; only some things.) That series was sponsored by a campaigning organisation and was so blatant that even the BBC rejected it. That sort of thing does not enhance the reputation of the broadcaster, nor the narrator.

This time we are promised a production that is more positive and less preachy. That will be a welcome change.

Mankind does tread upon the face of the Earth with giant boots, ill-regarding what is underfoot. An occasional reminder is welcome and it may help more of us in a solipsistic, screen-dominated society to appreciate what is there and to wish to care for it. However being told that all plastic bags are evil because one ended up in the stomach of a cute porpoise is untruthful and economically damaging (unless you actually throw your bags in the sea, in which case you deserve all those curses).

We can look beneath our big feet and appreciate the wonders of nature and that may be the better way to start mending it. Even in the concrete jungle there are persistent weeds breaking through the tarmac and through any flaw in the concrete, and that is a reminder of how limited is man’s dominion over the Earth in the face of nature. I think how hard it is to get a particular plant to grow in a particular spot in my garden, and then I see a burst of herb-Robert growing out exuberantly between the salt-scoured stones of a harbour wall in the Arctic Ocean and realise that nature is stronger and stranger than we could imagine.

The positive message we are promised in Green Planet is an active one: not just ‘look how beautiful’ but ‘this is what you can do personally’. That is only a bit preachy, but in an encouraging way. When the message is ‘write to politicians as they are all to blame’ or ‘every light left on drowns a polar bear’ that is displacement activity and discrediting science, but a personal positive with a to-do list that will actually have an improving effect, however small; that it exactly what the BBC should be doing.

It is the positive and practical message which Prince William has adopted in framing his ‘EarthShot Prize’, and that goes beyond the headline-grabber of ‘global warming’ to wider issues that are more important.

Yes, do show us the clumsy tread of mankind: we can see how the perennial floods in Bengal are worsened by the loss of forests upstream, or how the Communists poisoned the Aral Sea and turned Ethiopia into desert, and yes, we can see that corrupt practices in some countries leaves plastic waste dumped in the Pacific Ocean, but there is nothing realistically we can do but pray. We can however plant plants, and bee-friendly plants. Anyone can then get out in the country and learn to use their feet while they take in the glories of creation. That way you stop relying so much on electricity and heating and plastic comfort, and to tread more lightsome upon the face of the Earth.

Maybe that normalisation of a natural life will inspire those creative entrepreneurs who are popping up with greater frequency to find that less wasteful techniques are more profitable, as did the later Victorian mill-owners when they used fuel more efficiently and found that workers are more productive when not being poisoned and wool sells better when not smeared with soot.

If it is as we are promised, I can have high hopes for Green Planet. Seeing and understanding nature is the best way to appreciate it, and starting to become part of nature and to nurture it is a very positive message. Getting yet another lecture about how global warming is responsible for everything from shrinking fish stocks to Liverpool losing the cup makes me want to go out and batter a seal cub.

See also

Books

Our Planet Matters to Auntie

The BBC’s year-long project, ‘Our Planet Matters’ could be a great thing if it is a wide approach, and of the essence of the BBC’s educational mission.  It may just become a narrow propaganda piece.

The announced project is “a year-long series of special programming and coverage on climate change” with “a raft of news services and shows”. There is a false note there: real environmental issues worldwide cover a wide range of challenges, and of these climate change is the most minor. It is real, but nowhere near as important as pollution or the loss of habitats, for example.

The BBC has the resources to drag in all the wisdom of the world and create an unequalled examination of the many, complex issues within the field, but it mostly chooses a narrow, simplistic approach, for it is still at heart a part of the entertainment industry.

We respect the BBC because it can do wonders, and has David Attenborough; they can draw upon brilliant men and women; but it is part of the entertainment industry and the decisions and editing are made by those who are at a level with the Victorian music-hall.

I want Auntie to do its environment series and do it well.  This blog has carried articles on environment issues before and will do so again. Technology has reached a stage when the world can and should step into new ways of doing things that tread more lightly on the earth. In a timely way, Prince William no less has created the ‘Earthshot Prize’ to encourage solutions to the world’s pressing problems, and declared the coming years a decade of action to repair the Earth.  Excellent; and so we should.

What Prince William recognises in the framing of his prize is that ‘environment’ is a broad heading within which there are many practical issues crucial to our time: pollution of the air, land and oceans; lack of fresh water; biodiversity; and climate change. That is all good. For all that though, when I saw that announcement of a year-long BBC series, I knew that they will get it completely wrong. The press release says just “climate change”. Maybe that is just the PR people writing and ‘Our Planet Matters’ will look at the wider field, but I am not hopeful, by past experience.

The environment has been an issue since 1989 when Margaret Thatcher addressed the United Nations:

Of all the challenges faced by the world community in those four years, one has grown clearer than any other in both urgency and importance—I refer to the threat to our global environment. I shall take the opportunity of addressing the general assembly to speak on that subject alone.

Mrs Thatcher began a global movement, and she was not alone. The greatest philosopher of our age, Sir Roger Scruton, whose passing we mourned this week, wrote at length on issues of protecting the environment, and he realised that it is a very conservative concern:

It needs to be pressed as a conservative issue. It comes across in the mouths of radicals and socialists though, whose ideas would destroy the very things they are claiming to support. The conservative voice for the Earth came first and must be heard loudly. I am not confident of its breaking through he walls of New Broadcasting House, but Conservatives should not make the mistake of dismissing the whole field: just the unscientific mistakes that will be propagated.

Back to the BBC’s year of programming, it has started badly by linking the Australian bush-fires to global warming. They are two completely separate issues, and the worst fires are in the coolest parts of the continent.  That was lazy. They need to do better if this project is to fulfil its educational brief.  The fires are an environment issue, in a broad field, but it is not connected with global warming.

However, global warning is the posterboy of the green movement and everything seem reductible to it, to the exclusion of all else; well, that and waste plastic, which is actually more important.

(I recall in the 1980s the two big environmental scares were depletion of the ozone layer above the poles, and heavy-metal pollution from vehicles, which are both real, and completely unrelated. You still got people protesting to remove lead from petrol ‘to protect the ozone layer’.)

Start by asking who will want to push themselves forward to talk about environment issues to all the living-rooms of the nation.  Frightening isn’t it?

Even if it is a year on climate change, the next concern is what conclusions they imply. As has been recited in many other places, the simplistic solutions suggested by the extreme-green movement would lead to mass starvation and worse environmental degradation, and even if the venting of carbon dioxide into the air ceased at once, it would take two hundred years to bring the levels down. Will the BBC accept some subtlety into their broadcasting? We will see, but I am not hopeful.

The BBC started broadcasting in colour in 1967, but it only broadcasts opinions that are black and white.

See also

Books

The War of the Worlds on the BBC – a review

A long-delayed review of the BBC’s War of the Worlds (now that election things are past), and I find myself in a muddle for comment.

There is a snarling, lefty theme in two places which grates horribly and is not in the original, but for that later – as a whole the theme and presentation are ambitious and exuding a pervading cloud of inevitable, hopeless doom, just as in the book.

Peter Harness’s three-part adaptation of H G Wells’s work was broadcast by the BBC in November, and is still available on the iPlayer, and in the shops on DVD for Christmas.  It was greeted at the time of broadcast with some howls of rage from reviewers in advance – anonymous shall be the reviewer who said “it’s all woke in Woking” and others accused it of political correctness gone mad (or words to that effect).  It was certainly different, and with modern preconceptions filling in the gaps, but the main problem screaming out of the box is this: It is not H. G. Wells.

The scene is set in Edwardian Britain, in suburban Surrey and then in London; so far so much like Wells (though Wells wrote in 1898 and hinted at its being set at that moment): the series references the brief war scare of 1904. It begins just as the book does, in a picture-perfect suburban village: Wells’s narrator lived in Maybury, a village now engulfed in Woking, and here it begins, and on Horsell Common where the first cylinder lands (or in this retelling, a sphere). Like the book, the series counterpoints the confident civilisation of the period with sudden destruction to show how fragile the show of empire is.

A major contrast between the book and this series is that the Martian invasion is brief in the book and civilisation begins to pick itself up again afterwards, but in the series the whole world is affected and for many years after. Its postscript world, smothered in the red weed is one in which all civilisation has broken down, in which it resembles more that a later book by Wells, The War in the Air. That book looked at how flimsy an apparently well established society can be when once broken (and don’t we now know it when we look at what was Syria). The War in the Air is more realistically Hobbesian in its picture of a destroyed society than Harness portrays for us here.

In context, Wells was writing in the midst of a fashion for ‘invasion literature’, which is a whole different subject. He even opened his novel with a riff off the book that started the trend, The Battle of Dorking. Today though we have other concerns for our own culture’s fragility.

Wells constructed his book as a personal account, by a journalist or writer describing first-hand his experience of the Martian invasion.  It is wholly centred on the (unnamed) narrator, except for some chapters describing in the same tone the adventures of his (equally unnamed) brother. All other characters come in and out of the action as observed actors, not principals. Even the scene of action is limited: the narrator barely strays from Surrey; his brother journeys from London and Essex, and it is strongly suggested that the Martians go no further either. All the action is over the course of a month or so. That keeps even a world-changing event as an intimate personal experience. Conventional wisdom though is that this does not make for good television so Harness chose another route allowing for dialogue and grand, wasted vista.

In Peter Harness’s retelling of the story the narrator is  named George (Wells’s middle name) and he is modelled on Wells himself and his not-quite-wife and named Amy after Wells’s second wife (though I keep wanting to call her Demelza: she is played by Eleanor Tomlinson and in an identical manner to her portrayal of Demelza in Poldark), and she takes the main role. In the original book, the narrator and his wife are unnamed, though there is a ‘George’ mentioned: the lost husband and last hope of a delirious lady on the road, and in bits, that little narrative reappears here, expanded and applied to the main characters.

It makes it a little puzzling to find bits of the book here and there; snatches of monologue / dialogue from the book, characters becoming other characters, and one character definitively slain by the first heat-ray in both productions turning up alive at the end of this one. It is well done as a work on its own, but what kept getting at me throughout is that it is not H. G. Wells.

It is a hard book to render into a different medium, but many have turned their hands to it. Orson Wells famously panicked America with a radio adaptation in 1938 at the ‘eve of war’; Jeff Wayne wrote a techno-rock musical version, which works well; more recently, in 2005, Stephen Spielberg pulled a blinder with his film version that was far more faithful to the book, and better for it, but then Spielberg is a genius. He got over the monologue problem but having the narrator (played by Tom Cruise) leading his daughter to a hoped-for safety.

Back to the BBC drama though.

Is it woke in Woking?

Well, not as such. Any new BBC modern adaptation will be under suspicion for that, but most of the scene comes out well. The writer tries to be more Wellsian than Wells in setting the scene, for Wells in his ideas was a political radical – anyone who could be thrown out of the Fabian Society for extremism is going it some, and travelling in Soviet Russia, praising in the midst of the terror famine while bunking up with Gorkiy’s mistress is not exactly a shy Tory. He does not let this out in the War of the Worlds though: its strength is in its conventionalism. It was written in his high period, before he lost that magic: as Chesterton said of the later work: “Mr. Wells is a born storyteller who has sold his birthright for a pot of message“.

The opening domestic scenes are not radical: Amy being a capable lady with ambitions to study equally with men, though not in the book, would be nothing unusual for the literature of the late Victorian / Edwardian period nor anything unusual in real provincial society. One trope of retro literature is the ambitious woman held back by a disapproving husband, but that does a disservice to the menfolk of the age, who were more likely to support their wives’ ambitions, and did so, and young, Tory husbands led the way. No, that aspect is not radical nor left-wing.

It does depart from the book – the wife there is a cypher. She is a prime motivation for the narrator’s actions but is not a fully coloured-in character, as to colour her in would change the personal structure of the narrative.

The lefty bit is none of this; it is the class-warfare. No-one is authority is anything but a caricature: the unseen proprietor of the newspaper which employs George, ‘His Lordship’, is portrayed as a cruel patrician, and the Minister who employs his brother is a pompous, out of touch, elderly fool straight out of central left-wing casting. (The actual Minster of War in 1904 was a rather vigorous, 49-year old H. O. Arnold-Forster, who was a writer, Mr Harness might note.)

(On screen, the Minster’s dying concern, portrayed as mad militarism, is how to get hold of one of the Martian tripods as a war-fighting machine. That is in the book as the idea of the thoroughly working-class artilleryman.)

Then at the end comes a swipe at religion, with a preacher trying to drag people to the Dark Ages, but again that is no more than a lefty idea. The alleged split between science and religion is largely the invention of Thomas Huxley, of whom H. G. Wells was a student – Huxley gets a mention in The Island of Doctor Moreau, and in later years his son, Aldous, caused Wells to despair at being surpassed as a writer. This religion as anti-science idea is nowhere in the book though. It is an unnecessary dig.

I might forgive the writer for falling for clichés, but surely he could have tried harder. The story overwhelms such failings though and though it is not H. G. Wells, the overarching theme from the book is here too: as it shows mankind’s differences swept away as a new master race descends, and is ultimately defeated by the humblest of God’s creations (and that line at least did get in).

Books