Friday 23 February 2018

Television Review: Despite the backlash, there was no glorifying terror in chilling drama

In the line of fire: The State on Channel 4 managed the very tricky subject of the murderous Islamic State campaign adroitly
In the line of fire: The State on Channel 4 managed the very tricky subject of the murderous Islamic State campaign adroitly

John Boland

'Pure poison" fumed the Daily Mail about this week's four-part IS-recruitment drama, The State - which was enough reason to approach the Channel 4 series with an open mind.

The paper also slated the series for "glorifying" the murderous Islamic State campaign in the immediate aftermath of the Barcelona atrocities and while it's true the timing was unfortunate, that's not the fault of the drama itself.

As for the charge of glorifying IS in the manner of "a Nazi recruiting film", that's like saying that The Handmaid's Tale, recently shown on Channel 4, was a misogynist's manual on how to treat women.

In the event, Peter Kosminsky (who tackled the Israel-Palestine debacle in The Promise and also directed the superb BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall) managed his very tricky subject adroitly, and his decision to focus on four young British recruits to the IS cause gave the film real impact.

Indeed, it was by investing them with some sympathy (another source of tabloid criticism) that he was able to fully convey the ghastliness of the cause to which they'd signed up.

For the women that meant instant enslavement to male repression, and you wondered how educated London doctor Shakira (a superb Ony Uhiara) could have been silly enough to think otherwise - and indeed daft enough to bring her young son with her on this suicidal trip to Syria.

That stretched credulity and there were other false moments, too, but generally Kosminsky's touch was assured and you watched in dread as the raw recruits became intimately acquainted with beheadings and other barbarities and as they risked their lives for their hosts' savage fundamentalism.

Certainly there was no glorification to be found in this frightening drama.

Unease rather than fright marked much of the first instalment of From Russia to Iran: Crossing the Wild Frontier (Channel 4), in which former British army officer Levison Wood made the arduous and perilous 2,600-mile journey through the Caucasus mountains and into such dangerous territories as Chechnya and Dagestan.

An engaging explorer, he was fortunate to have the equally personable Rasheed as his experienced if more circumspect guide as they stopped at hostile border posts and were shadowed by furtive men in bad suits.

But Wood won over many of the locals with his affable enthusiasm, and even a suspicious policeman softened his attitude to the duo and offered them spartan lodgings for the night.

This was an eye-opening glimpse into a part of the world I knew nothing about and I'll certainly be watching the rest of the series.

Not as compelling, Dangerous Borders: A Journey Across India and Pakistan (BBC2) was part of the BBC season marking the 70th anniversary of partition and featured two English-born presenters of Indian origin.

Adnan Sarwar, whose family are Muslims, stayed on the Pakistan side of the 2,000-mile border, while Babita Sharma, who's of Hindu descent, remained on the Indian side, and the film kept criss-crossing between the two.

In a programme that was too soft for its own good, neither of them had an awful lot to disclose that I hadn't already learned from two excellent BBC documentaries last week and that I also learned this week from India's Partition: The Forgotten Story (BBC2), in which Gurinder Chadha (director of Bend it Like Beckham) tried to tease out the truth about the calamitous 1947 severance of India and Pakistan.

Was her Indian-born mother right in maintaining that Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims had been getting on amiably until the British carved the country up? Or had there been such deep-rooted enmities that division was unavoidable? Again, the film told me little that hadn't already been covered in the earlier documentaries.

Given its title, Storyville: Silk Road (BBC4) seemed to be concerned with the same region of the world, though its subtitle, 'Drugs, Death and the Dark Web', suggested otherwise, and indeed we weren't in Karachi anymore, Toto.

This was the story of young American college graduate Ross Ulbricht, who set up a global internet network for the sale of illegal drugs - an Amazon for acid-heads - and who evaded detection until an enterprising FBI agent finally tracked him down.

Ulbricht had seen himself as some kind of libertarian crusader, eluding the reach both of governments and of murderous drug cartels, but when he himself sanctioned the killing of a troublesome internet middleman, his outlaw image as ghostly CEO of a black market drug ring went up in smoke. The documentary brilliantly evoked the hallucinatory nature of its subject while telling an engrossing story.

Inspector Montalbano was a guilty pleasure when BBC4 first screened it a few years back. The storylines were mostly too meandering for their own good and some of the regular characters were no more than caricatures, but the Sicilian setting was a delight and Luca Zingaretti was a thoroughly engaging hero, gruff but kindly, and amiably feckless in his love life.

Now he's back for a new season and suddenly the charm has evaporated, not helped by the fact that different performers have taken on some of the old roles. But it's Montalbano himself (still played by Zingaretti) who now seems boringly sexist, and rather charmless, too. Ah well.

What else? Oh yes, there was The Rose of Tralee (RTÉ1), now in its 58th year of parochial pageantry and with its young contestants still robed and coiffed as if the 21st Century had never happened. But they seemed to be having a good time and Dáithí was in his element.

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