A Death Row Tale; making a storyteller.

Making A Murderer.

Making A Murderer.

Of the many, many depressing things about the deeply disturbing Making A Murderer, the most troubling is the idea that not one but two juries of twelve men and women good and true managed to find Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey guilty.

As is the procedure with every jury, their duty was explained to them both plainly and repeatedly. They needed to be sure of the defendant’s guilt beyond all reasonable doubt.

To see him so obviously framed, couldn't help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land where justice is a game" Bob Dylan, Hurricane.

“To see him so obviously framed,
couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land
where justice is a game.”
Bob Dylan, Hurricane.

And yet, these juries were able to hear how two men of significantly lower than average intelligence were able to violently murder a woman in their own home, before chopping her up and burning her in their back yard, without leaving a shred of evidence or a single drop of blood behind in the house as evidence, without having any doubt whatsoever as to their guilt.

I’m ignoring obviously the ludicrously placed car key that magically turns up in the middle of the floor in Steven’s bedroom, in an area that had already been searched six times.

Michael Peterson, astonishingly, behind bars.

Michael Peterson, astonishingly, behind bars.

That a jury could hear the evidence in the Avery and Dassey trial, Making a Murderer, in the Michael Peterson case, The Staircase, in the Adnan Syed case, Serial season 1, and in the Tim Cole case, from Paul Kix’s recent New Yorker piece ‘Recognition’, and not see in front of them a mountain of doubt forming before their very eyes is quite simply hard to credit.

Which is not to say that they were all necessarily innocent, just that there was some doubt as to their guilt. That anyone could have heard any of those trials and not come away with at least a few, reasonable doubts almost defies belief.

The most charitable thing that can be said, and I’m clutching at straws here, is that it is no longer reasonable to expect ordinary people to be able to ignore the media circus that inevitably springs up around the more lurid cases. And that the sort of uninformed, gutter, tabloid journalism that that produces is impossible for a jury to steer clear of in this age of twenty-four hour “news” coverage.

Adnan Syed, whose story is told in Serial.

Adnan Syed, whose story is told in Serial.

Perhaps it is time to dispense with the jury system when it comes to murder trials. At least then, all we would have to deal with is the gross ineptitude of the judicial system, and the blind prejudices of some of its practitioners determined to profit by it.

So it was with a heavy heart that I sat down to watch A Death Row Tale: The Fear of 13. After watching Making A Murderer, The Staircase, and listening to Serial, all of which are captivating if incredibly depressing, and Serial season 2 by the bye, is every bit as good as season 1 though in a somewhat different way, the prospect of witnessing yet another unimaginable miscarriage of justice really didn’t appeal to me.

I’ll not give any of the details of Nick Yarris’ extraordinary story away, except to say that eventually, and mercifully, it has a happy ending.

Masterful storyteller David Yarris.

Masterful storyteller Nick Yarris.

I’m almost embarrassed to have to confess that this is yet another Storyville documentary that I’m recommending (reviewed earlier here). But then I remember all those over-produced, idea-free franchise films, all those pedestrianly produced television programmes and all those needlessly published books that get foisted on us every week, and I remind myself that the likes of Storyville need to be celebrated loudly from the tops of every and all available rooftops.

But the last word has to go to Nick Yarris. It was incredibly brave of film maker David Sington to make a film made up almost entirely of one man sitting in a chair and talking to us. But then again, what a man.

When Nick Yarris went to gaol at the age of 22, he arrived there as an anti-social drug addict who was barely able to read and write. And yet, through nothing than his his own force of will, he re-made himself as a thoughtful, educated and deeply intelligent man, who would eventually be transformed into a dazzlingly brilliant storyteller. And what a tale he has to tell.

You can see the trailer for A Death Row Tale here, for Making a Murderer here, and The Staircase here.

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Storyville and this golden age of documentary film making.

Muscle Shoals.

Muscle Shoals.

The BBC4 documentary strand Storyville isn’t part of what is clearly a golden age of documentary film making, it’s the principle driving force responsible for bringing this age into being.

Since kicking off in 2007-08, Storyville has helped fund over one hundred documentaries, each one even more impressive than the last.

In the 2013-14 season there was The Gatekeepers where we heard from the last six heads of the Israeli secret service, the Shin Bet, reviewed earlier here. Plus the mythic Muscle Shoals: The Greatest Recording studio in the World, reviewed earlier here, and the fascinating Google and the World Brain on Google’s attempt to digitize the world’s books, and what that might mean for the rest of us. And then there was the absolutely riveting The House I Live In, on America’s doomed war on drugs, and the way that their whole penal system has become little more than an elaborate excuse for institutionalised racism, reviewed earlier here.

The remarkable Rodriguez.

The remarkable Rodriguez.

Then in 2014-15 there was Mugabe and the Democrats, the surprisingly moving Particle Fever: The Hunt for the Higgs Boson, and the majestic Searching For Sugar Man about the genuinely extraordinary singer Rodriguez, reviewed earlier here.

Here, very briefly, are four from the current 2015-16 season:

Cartel Land.

Cartel Land.

Cartel Land brings vividly to life quite how unimaginable life in Mexico has become. When his three neighbours are beheaded by one of the local drug cartels, the local doctor Jose Mireles decides it’s time to take the law into his own hands. So he and a few of his similarly desperate neighbours take up arms and set up the autodefensas.

And within a few weeks, he and his civic minded vigilantes are moving through the state, convincing citizens from village to village to join them, take up arms, and defend themselves against the marauding cartels.

Without wishing in any way to spoil the story, what happens next is all too predictable. It is staggering to witness quite how corrupt Mexico has become, at every conceivable level, from top to bottom. And quite how impossible it seems to be to free yourself from it. And although on the surface this isn’t a depressing film, the more you think about it, and you will think about it, the more dispiriting a place the world seems to have become.

A sobre Amos Oz listens to his younger self.

A sober Amos Oz listens to his younger self.

The six-day war: Censored Voices is very much a companion piece to The Gatekeepers above. When the celebrated novelist Amos Oz came back to the Kibbutz where he lived for so much of his life after fighting in the 6 day war, he and his fellow soldiers were so conflicted by what they had just been a part of, that they each recorded a series of interviews with one another so that they could air and explore that unease.

The basic question they asked themselves was, how can what was supposed to have been a defensive war result in the mass deportation of tens of thousands of people from their land?

Nearly half a century later, we watch as the elderly men listen to what their thoughts had been barely ten days after what many people at the time were celebrating as Israel’s finest hour.

The remarkable Brenda Myers-Powell.

The remarkable Brenda Myers-Powell.

FBI Undercover seems like an innocuous enough tale. We follow one of the many very ordinary, and completely unqualified people recruited by the FBI after September 11th to root out terrorism. And then we follow the Muslim man he has been sent to trap. And suddenly, without anything actually happening, a young man’s life has been completely ruined.

If you’ve ever wondered how Daesh manages to attract its recruits, this will go some way to help explaining it.

And finally, Dreamcatcher: Surviving Chicago’s Streets follows a reformed prostitute as she walks the streets of Chicago bringing life-saving succour to her former colleagues. Which sounds hopelessly earnest and horribly dull, but is in fact incredibly moving. Brenda Myers-Powell is quite simply a living saint.

So often documentaries feel like something you ought to watch rather than something you’d like to watch. In reality, all of the above are unmissable. And if you can’t access the BBC iPlayer, get yourself a VPN.

It will take about 10 minutes to set up, but once it’s done you’re set. I use SaturnVPN. It’ll cost you no more than about $20 a year. It’s like Netflix for the intellectually curious. It’s the best investment you’ll make all year.

You can see the trailer for The Six-day War:Censored Voices here.

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Brian Epstein’s Brief but Dazzling Life with The Beatles.

Brian Epstein with the Beatles.

Brian Epstein with the Beatles.

When I saw that the documentary on Brian Epstein on BBC4 was in two parts, lasting over 3 hours, my heart sank. What more could there possibly be to learn about the Beatles? Happily, I was gloriously wrong.

In 1963, a Brian Epstein act was on the number one spot in the UK charts for 37 of the 52 weeks. Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J Kramer, Cilla Black, and of course the Beatles. And yet just three years later it all began to unravel.

Texas, God bless America.

Texas, God bless America.

During their tumultuous 1966 tour The Beatles received a spate of serious death threats in Japan, had their records burnt in the Philippines and had to deal in the American south with John’s bigger than Jesus remarks.

They decided to quit touring and concentrate instead on the recording studio. For Epstein, this was a disaster. Without in any way planning it, the Beatles suddenly stopped turning to their business manager for their every decision , and came instead to rely increasingly on their producer George Martin.

Much more damning from a personal perspective was the growing realization that Epstein had made a complete mess of the merchandising deals he had worked out on their behalf after The Beatles had so spectacularly broken America. Business was his purpose in life and deals were supposed to have been his currency.

And then there was his private life. Inevitably, the elegant, suave and extremely erudite gay music impresario had that taste for danger that British establishment figures seem inexorably drawn to. And he’d gone and gotten himself a bit of American rough. All too predictably, he was humiliated by him.

Epstein reposes at home.

Epstein reposes at home.

By 1967, the lonely, gay, Jewish multi-millionaire discovered that for all his apparent success, he was as much of an outsider then as he’d ever been. And that spring he attempted suicide. A few months later, on the bank holiday August weekend, he tried again. This time, there was nobody around to rescue him.

This is the sort of programme that the BBC does so fantastically well. Originally broadcast in 1998 as part of their justly famed Arena strand, it melded first hand interviews with archive footage to produce a cultural snap shot of a moment in time. And the extraordinary impact one man had on it. Keep your eye out for it.

You can see a clip here.

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BBC4’s “The Walshes” is Mesmerically Unfunny, But Don’t Worry, it’s British.

Irelands' Richard Harris...

Ireland’s Richard Harris…

For many years the best and brightest from Ireland enjoyed dual citizenship in Britain. So, after his performance in say This Sporting Life, or A Man Called Horse, Richard Harris was referred to in the press there as “British”.

But when the following week he was arrested after yet another drunken brawl in a seedy pub, he was described by the same august organs as Irish.

Decades were spent gnashing teeth and crying into innumerable pints cursing perfidious Albion for its cultural rape and pillage.

But times have changed. Money, Sky Sports and Ryanair have all contributed to a change in our attitude to our friends across the way. And we’ve mostly managed to shed the chip that had weighed so heavily on our shoulders.

Indeed, recently we’ve been returning the compliment. So Daniel Day Lewis is plainly Irish. And The Walshes, like Mrs. Brown’s Boys before it, is clearly British. It has nothing to do with us. Seriously.

The Walshes, as the fella said, shit on a stick without the stick.

The Walshes, as the fella said; shit on a stick without the stick.

On the face of it, it’s made up of exactly the same ingredients as Father Ted. Stock characters in contrived scenarios behaving in an all too predictable way. One cliché after another.  But the characters – and therefore the performances – in Father Ted were all really appealing. And it was this that made their situations comic. None of the characters in The Walshes are remotely attractive, and many of them are vaguely unpleasant.

There was a split second, after a scene in which the da sits chuckling at an episode of Mrs. Brown’s Boys, when I wondered if I’d got it all wrong. Maybe it’s meant to be this unfunny. Perhaps this is the most brilliantly subversive sitcom ever made. And they’ve ruthlessly wrung anything that could in any way be considered comic, never mind an actual joke, from every single scene, to brilliantly deconstruct the very notion of what we understand by the term “sitcom”.

The plainly Irish Daniel D in the underrated The Age Of Innocence.

The plainly Irish Daniel D in the underrated The Age Of Innocence.

But there’s no getting away from how visibly pleased everyone involved is with what they’ve created, and how funny they all seem to find it. You can almost hear the guffaws emanating from the set. Which is to put it mildly baffling.

Still, not to worry. Like I say, it has nothing to with us. BBC production. It’s British through and through.

Unless of course… It’s all part of a brilliantly executed post modern joke. What do you think?

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Hew Strachan’s “The 1st World War” on BBC4 is Unmissable.

Hew Strachan's 1st. World War on BBC4.

Hew Strachan’s 1st. World War on BBC4.

The 1st. World War is a ten part series that was first broadcast on Channel 4 in 2003 and in currently being reshown on BBC4. Produced and narrated by Jonathan Lewis and based on Hew Strachan’s universally admired 2001 book, this is quite simply the definitive series on the war.

On the one hand, and unlike so many contemporary programmes, it’s based entirely around one man’s views on the topic. So instead of bolstering its polemic with the views of various other academics, or worse, feigning impartiality by presenting a so say balanced view, what you have instead is a good old fashioned, God’s eye view that fans of John Grierson and the BBC of old will be familiar with.

The balance of power in Europe in 1914.

The balance of power in Europe in 1914.

And on the other, it tells its clear and wonderfully concise narrative through a combination of the letters that the individual soldiers sent back home to England, Germany, Russia, Japan and Africa, with rare archive footage, and easy to follow graphics that walk us through the peaks and troughs of the various campaigns.

So episode 3 for instance (last week’s episode) explained how what had begun as a regional power struggle quickly escalated into a global war.

Germany had encouraged its ally Austria to take revenge on Serbia for the assassination of its Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June of 1914. Serbia was allied with Russia, and Russia had signed a treaty with the French. When then the Germans attacked France via Belgium, they gave Britain the excuse it needed to weigh in, as the British were the guarantors on Belgian neutrality.

The Battle of the Falklands in December 1914 where the British finally caught up with the brilliant Maxamilian von Spee.

The Battle of the Falklands in December 1914 where the British finally caught up with the brilliant Maxamilian von Spee.

Thus Britain, France and Russia were drawn up against Germany and the Austro Hungarian Empire, and inevitably the Ottoman Empire to the East was soon involved. So  Germany decided to distract the British, French and Russians by threatening their interests in the far flung reaches of the globe in the hope of diverting their resources from the Western front. And a succession of campaigns were conducted by rogue German military mavericks in China, the Americas and on the coasts of Africa. In this way, a European conflict became a genuinely global one.

Impressively, the programme managed to maintain a delicate balance between telling a gripping story of the struggle for power between competing global empires, and the effect that that struggle had on the lives of ordinary Africans and Asians who were thoughtlessly used as their fodder.

Maxamilian con Spee and his two sons eventually went down with their crew at the Battle of the Falklands.

Von Spee and his two sons eventually went down with their crew at the Battle of the Falklands.

This obviously is entirely dependent on the reliability of your guide. Happily, Strachan is as authoritative a pair of eyes as you could wish for. The book which the series is based on was originally commissioned by the Oxford University Press and is the first part of what is planned as a trilogy. You can read Robert McCrum’s review of it in the Observer here, which was just one of a slew of stellar reviews it got.

The book on which the series is based.

The book on which the series is based.

Refreshingly, and in stark contrast to either Sir Max Hastings or Niall Ferguson, both of whom had programmes on the BBC last week, and both of whom wear their biases as a badge of pride, whatever Strachan’s personal prejudices are on the War, he keeps them firmly in check. And what he produces instead is the definitive overview of the events that shaped the 20th century.

The 1st World War is a combination of all the very best that the medium of television is capable of. And don’t worry if you’ve missed the first few episodes. Each individual programme is themed and is designed to stand alone. You can catch up with it on Tuesdays on BBC4.

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