TV UK, 14 February

What would the great critic Adolf Eichmann have made of Jon Ronson's The Two Lives of Jonathan King?

Dolan Cummings

Topics Politics

Like most Nazis, Adolf Eichmann has been done to death. If it isn’t a Channel 5 series on Casual Acquaintances of Middle-Ranking Nazis, or a star studded BBC drama (1), it’ll be a 12-hour History Channel special. Perhaps the new digital highbrow channel BBC4 will offer a documentary based on Hannah Arendt’s reports from Eichmann’s trial in Israel.

In the meantime, BBC2 presents the more chirpy I Met Adolf Eichmann (Friday 22 at 9pm). The programme comprises interviews with various people who met the architect of the Final Solution, including German typists who worked under him, one of the Mossad agents who eventually captured him and even a concentration camp survivor Eichmann helped. Veteran viewers will not be surprised to learn that Eichmann was charming and cultured, and didn’t look like a monster at all….

If there was one thing Eichmann wouldn’t stand for, though, it was paedos. During Eichmann’s trial, Arendt reported, ‘the young police officer in charge of his mental and psychological wellbeing handed him Lolita for relaxation. After two days Eichmann returned it, visibly indignant; “Quite an unwholesome book” – “Das ist aber ein sehr unerfreuliches Buch” – he told his guard’. Quite right. But what would the great critic have made of Jon Ronson’s The Two Lives of Jonathan King (Channel 4, Monday 11)?

King is certainly an unerfreulich figure. The disgraced popster reportedly wears pink pyjamas in prison, in an attempt to identify himself with the homosexuals persecuted by the Nazis. This is somewhat disingenuous, of course, since he is in jail ‘for boys’, to use the parlance. Whereas King himself came across in the programme as smugly aloof, his old associate, the former Radio One DJ Chris Denning, was much more willing to argue the toss about the ethics of intergenerational sex. Is there such a big difference between 15 and 16 (which liberal opinion favours as the age of consent for both men and women)?

It isn’t necessarily a wicked question, and Jon Ronson did a good job of drawing out what was really reprehensible about the men’s behaviour without falling back on prejudices about sleazy perverts (and given his main subject, this was some achievement).

Masters of Darkness (Channel 4, Tuesdays at 10pm) is a new series investigating four more spooky villains: Rasputin, Aleister Crowley, the Marquis de Sade and John Dee. Judging from last week’s opener on Rasputin, the series is a peculiar hybrid of documentary and ghost story, putting us straight for example on the fact that the Mad Monk was not really a monk, while attributing him with supernatural powers. One minute historian Orlando Figes is explaining the fraught condition of autocracy in prerevolutionary Russia, and the next some clown is telling us matter-of-factly that Rasputin magically cured the Tsarevich of haemophilia and would have averted the First World War if he hadn’t been in hospital. No distinction is made between history and hocus pocus.

For much of the programme the camera followed an ‘occult historian’ (ie, a wally in a pony tail) around St Petersburg, where he would bump into soft focus reconstructions of Rasputin holding mystical rites and so on. Oh, please. The programme ended with narrator Brian Cox (who ought to know better) telling us that ‘nobody really knows’ whether Rasputin had evil powers. Well, yes, I’m sure we’re all clever enough to make our own judgements without somebody to hold our hands, but why does Channel 4 feel the need to patronise us with all this rubbish in the first place? (2)

Forget that harmlessly ridiculous Pop Idol thing everybody’s going on about. The evil known as dumbing down lurks in less obvious places.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) See TV UK, 24 January

(2) For more errant nonsense, see Masters of Darkness on the Channel 4 website

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Topics Politics


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