TV UK, 15 May

The Day Britain Stopped - except that it didn't, really.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Politics

Terror in Moscow (Channel 4 on Monday) told the story of the siege at a Moscow theatre last October, when Chechen rebels held the audience hostage for days, demanding Russian withdrawal from Chechnya.

The film comprised camcorder footage taken inside the theatre by one of the terrorists and interviews with several of the survivors. This is great stuff for any documentary – there was no need for dodgy reconstructions or wild speculations about what things must have been like. If anything though, Terror in Moscow lacked narrative. There was hardly any background information either on the Chechen conflict or the political situation in Russia itself.

Of course the incident was not short on drama in its own terms, and the excitement of the raid that ended the siege was certainly captured by the film. But there is a lot about the story that was not picked up on. Early on in the siege, a young woman walked from the street across the police lines and into the theatre – this part was even filmed, so we saw her wandering nonchalantly across the car park. Once inside, she urged the hostages to get up and leave. They didn’t and she was shot. Who on Earth was she?

All we were told is that she worked in a nearby shop. Now, maybe nobody has been able to find out more, and I wouldn’t want documentary-makers to make something up, but there is a fantastic film or play to be written about this woman, which might be based only loosely on the actual events at the theatre.

Rather harder claims have been made for The Day Britain Stopped (BBC2 on Tuesday), which set out to expose the weaknesses of Britain’s transport system by portraying a disastrous chain of events culminating in a plane crash over London. This was what you might call a ‘hard’ docudrama – based on extensive research, the story was told entirely in (albeit fictional) news reports, interviews, CCTV and camcorder footage, so that it felt like a real documentary.

Unlike the celebrated ‘soft’ docudramas about Stephen Lawrence, Hillsborough and Bloody Sunday (1), the film didn’t use dramatic conventions to give viewers an emotional connection with the protagonists and force through a political message. Indeed, conflicting ‘messages’ could be read into the film. Some (like Natasha Walter on last week’s Newsnight Review) will see it as an indictment of a society that can’t sit still. Others (like…er, me) will see it as an argument for massive investment in the transport system, including new roads and flight terminals.

The one semi-political sentiment that was unavoidable in the film was the sense of impending doom. All the interviewees insisted ‘it was no secret something was about to kick off’, so you were made to feel incredibly naive for having the confidence to step out of your front door. This is too much, but the same sentiment at least gave the film its best bit of drama, when CCTV showed a poor overworked air traffic controller realising that she’d just caused the plane crash.

It was a bit like when a footballer misses a penalty, except that instead of pats from her team-mates and a sympathetic chant of ‘there’s only one Nicky Evans’ from the crowd, she was taken away by the police. You never get anything like that on You’ve Been Framed.

Following my mean-spirited prediction last week that the BBC’s new political drama State of Play would be as superficial and manipulative as The Project, it turns out to be a gripping romp (Sunday at 9pm). Instead of the cynical moralising I had feared, State of Play uses dramatic conventions excellently in the service of, well, drama. The political premise isn’t clear in the first episode, but it can’t be any dafter than the one in 24, which conveniently follows on BBC2 at 10pm. Hooray!

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)).

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spiked-issue: TV

(1) TV UK, 24 January 2002

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Topics Politics


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