Russia on the BBC, Part 1: Putin Vs The West

Putin Vs The West, 2023.

Nor­ma Per­cy makes the sorts of doc­u­men­tary series which shouldn’t work but some­how do. And, after the equal­ly reveal­ing Iran and the West, from 2009, and The Iraq War, from 2013, she this month presents us with Putin Vs The West, screened recent­ly on the BBC. And which is yet anoth­er extra­or­di­nary win­dow on to today’s geopo­lit­i­cal landscape.

What she does is to per­suade many, and often most, of the prin­ci­pal play­ers to sit down and talk to her about some of world’s most con­tentious trou­ble spots. And the remark­able fact is, that as soon as senior diplo­mats, civ­il ser­vants and even for­mer world lead­ers vacate their posi­tions of pow­er, they’re more than hap­py to spill the beans about the con­fi­den­tial and high lev­el con­ver­sa­tions they were only recent­ly privy to. 

Iran and the West, 2009.

Far from being bound by any sense of omer­ta, they’re all too ready to tell tales out of school. They are, it turns out, no bet­ter than the rest of us. And it makes for riv­et­ing viewing. 

The most reveal­ing of Putin Vs The West’s three remark­able episodes was the sec­ond, detail­ing the plight of Syr­ia in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring. One of the first to react to the chaos that then erupt­ed was Gaddafi, who turned on the peo­ple of Libya with a vicious­ness that even they were unac­cus­tomed to. 

So the West went to Rus­sia hop­ing to per­suade them not to veto the sanc­tions they want­ed to impose on him, assum­ing that their request would be denied. But at that time, in March 2011, Medvedev was pres­i­dent and, to their sur­prise, he enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly sup­port­ed the idea of sanc­tions. So long, of course, as there were no talk of regime change. Absolute­ly not, the West assured him.

So Rus­sia abstained in the UN vote, but with­out impos­ing its veto. And the sanc­tions were passed. 

The Iraq War, 2013

But Putin, who then held the junior post of prime min­ster, pub­licly chas­tised Medvedev for hav­ing fool­ish­ly tak­en the West at its word, and for not recog­nis­ing the ‘cru­sade’ the West was on to destroy them. And sure enough, two months lat­er the West declared that actu­al­ly, the only thing that would save Libya was in fact regime change. 

Medvedev was furi­ous, and Putin used the West’s betray­al of him as the cen­tral plat­form in his bid for re-elec­tion, which, the fol­low­ing year, he won in a landslide.

A year lat­er, in 2013, John Ker­ry trav­elled to Moscow in the hope of repair­ing rela­tions between East and West, so that they could join forces to do some­thing about Assad and the hell he’d been unleash­ing on the peo­ple of Syria. 

Haven’t you learnt any­thing about your ruinous efforts at regime change, they replied. Look at what hap­pened after your dis­as­trous inter­ven­tions in Libya, and in Afghanistan and Iraq before that. 

But when evi­dence sur­faced that sum­mer that Assad had begun using chem­i­cal weapons, Obama’s famous red line had been defin­i­tive­ly crossed. And Oba­ma joined forces with Hol­lande and Cameron, the French pre­mier and British PM, deter­mined to inter­vene in Syr­ia with air strikes. 

But when Cameron put mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion to the vote in Par­lia­ment, he lost. And sim­i­lar­ly, Oba­ma learnt that he would very like­ly lose a sim­i­lar vote in con­gress. So when Putin, very much to everyone’s sur­prise, offered his word that he would under­take to force Assad to sur­ren­der his chem­i­cal weapons, if the West promised to refrain from tak­ing mil­i­tary action, Oba­ma, to everyone’s amaze­ment, agreed. 

Which, obvi­ous­ly, was an extreme­ly good thing and was absolute­ly the right deci­sion. But the way it was reached was, to put it mild­ly, murky. And, polit­i­cal­ly speak­ing, it was a dis­as­ter. The West had blinked. Red lines were, clear­ly, mean­ing­less, and the West was mired in dis­uni­ty – Hol­lande felt par­tic­u­lar­ly left out in the cold. 

The Black Sea.

A year lat­er, in 2014, Isis took over swathes of Syr­ia. And the fol­low­ing year, two days after address­ing the UN assem­bly, and to everyone’s com­plete aston­ish­ment, Putin sent his air force in to bomb Syr­ia, under the guise of attack­ing Isis – which of course was exact­ly the same excuse that the West was using for doing the same thing else­where. And for the first time in decades, Russ­ian troops were deployed on for­eign soil. 

The West’s response? It decid­ed to do noth­ing. Which, again, was absolute­ly the right response. But the mes­sage that it sent out to Putin couldn’t have been clear­er. The West was weak, divid­ed and spent, and Rus­sia was back on the world stage. And in a part of the world that was vital to its strate­gic interests. 

To the north, it had gone into east­ern Ukraine in 2014, with the cru­cial access that gives it to the warm water ports in the Black Sea – and in response to which, again, the West had done noth­ing. And to the south, it now had a pres­ence in the Mediterranean.

None of which, to be absolute­ly clear, in any way excus­es what Putin has so unfor­giv­ably inflict­ed on the peo­ple of Ukraine. But it does help explain his actions, and put them in context. 

We’ve very quick to mar­vel at how blind­ly peo­ple in places like Rus­sia accept the pro­pa­gan­da they’re fed. But we rarely stop to ques­tion the pic­ture we’re being giv­en. Putin is not the insane, unpre­dictable, car­toon vil­lain we’re con­tin­u­al­ly pre­sent­ed with. He’s pur­su­ing a clear polit­i­cal strat­e­gy that has its roots in the re-uni­fi­ca­tion of Germany. 

Thir­ty years ago, the West promised Rus­sia that that re-uni­fi­ca­tion would cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly not result in any expan­sion of NATO into the east of Europe. Since when, 14 of the 15 coun­tries to the east of Ger­many have all joined NATO. All but one; Ukraine.

What this film demon­strates so well is that Russia’s attempt­ed inva­sion of Ukraine is every bit as com­pli­cat­ed as the rea­sons behind the sec­ond world war, which so many peo­ple like to com­pare it to. And is no more black and white than that was. 

Paint­ing Putin as an irra­tional lunatic is lazy and lets us off the hook. Because it fails to acknowl­edge the arro­gance that we’ve dis­played towards Rus­sia since the breakup of the Sovi­et Union. And it con­ve­nient­ly ignores the chaos we’ve inflict­ed on numer­ous oth­er coun­tries over that same time.

None of which, final­ly, should in any way be read as any kind of sup­port for those two insuf­fer­able clowns that we Irish have sent over to the Euro­pean parliament. 

And none of which will do any­thing to ease the suf­fer­ing of the poor peo­ple of Ukraine.

Watch the trail­er for Putin Vs The West here:

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Waldemar Januszczak and the curse of the Sistine Chapel

Wal­damar Januszczak.

The finest writ­ers on art, at least in the Eng­lish lan­guage, are Peter Schjel­dahl and Walde­mar Januszczak. And they strad­dle the Atlantic like two colos­sal light hous­es, the for­mer from some­where in Williams­burg where he files his celes­tial copy for the New York­er, the lat­ter from his muse in Chelsea where he writes a week­ly col­umn for the Cul­ture sec­tion of the Sun­day Times.

If you haven’t seen this already, treat yourself.

Januszczak has gone on to forge an almost flaw­less career as a doc­u­men­tary film and series mak­er where he focus­es prin­ci­pal­ly on late 19th cen­tu­ry Paris. But he’s equal­ly adept and com­fort­able on the Renais­sance and every­thing in between. All of those move­ments that led from there to the birth of Mod­ernism as it burst forth from Paris at the turn of the 20th century.

He is both deeply knowl­edge­able and con­sis­tent­ly illu­mi­nat­ing on every­thing from Picas­so – on whom he teamed up with the peer­less john Richard­son — Gau­guin, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec, to the Baroque, sculp­ture and the birth of Impres­sion­ism, reviewed by me ear­li­er here. But that ‘flaw­less’ is stained by that ‘almost’ cour­tesy of an albeit under­stand­able fix­a­tion with the Sis­tine Chapel.

In 2011, he made his one and only dud, The Michelan­ge­lo Code: Secrets of the Sis­tine Chapel, which was recent­ly screened again on the excel­lent Sky Arts. All of its parts are as engag­ing and enlight­en­ing as you’d have hoped and expect­ed. All of that research into the Medici popes, the Fran­cis­cans and his metic­u­lous read­ing of the bible and the scrip­tures was well worth the con­sid­er­able effort it obvi­ous­ly cost him.

But none of it adds up to any­thing. There’s no there, there. He plain­ly sees some sort of con­nec­tion between the Branch David­i­ans and that mad­ness at Waco, Texas, and the chapel’s ceil­ing. But if any­one can tell me after watch­ing it what that con­nec­tion is, I’ll send you on a bar of choco­late and a can of fizzy pop.

He’s won­der­ful com­pa­ny and a glo­ri­ous guide, and I am more than hap­py to have sat through the thing for the sec­ond time. But for the life of me, I’ve still no idea what any of it was actu­al­ly about.

If you’re unfa­mil­iar with Januszczak, then you should search out some of his arti­cles, any of them. His crit­i­cism is absolute­ly bul­let proof. And if you can, watch any of his doc­u­men­taries. But you should prob­a­bly treat The Michelan­ge­lo Code as some­thing of a bonus track, a delet­ed scene. Strict­ly for afi­ciona­dos only.

You can see the tail­er for the Michelan­ge­lo Code here.

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I May Destroy You, the new HBO/BBC series

I May Destroy You

In the Mac­Tag­gart lec­ture she gave at the 2018 Edin­burgh TV Fes­ti­val, Michaela Coel, the star of Chan­nel 4’s sun­ny sit­com Chew­ing Gum, told a stunned audi­ence that she’d been sex­u­al­ly assault­ed. She’d been out on the tear try­ing to avoid a writ­ing dead­line, and the fol­low­ing morn­ing she began get­ting sin­is­ter flach­backs. It’s just such a night that her daz­zling­ly impres­sive 12 part dram­e­dy series I May Destroy You cir­cles around.

Coel plays Ara­bel­la, a thir­ty some­thing doyenne of the Twit­terati who is expect­ed to build upon the suc­cess of her sur­prise best sell­er Chron­i­cles of a Fed-up Mil­len­ni­al by deliv­er­ing its sequel to her agent and publisher. 

And, faced with a 9am dead­line she does what any respectable writer would, and heads out on the town. The fol­low­ing morn­ing, as the haze of the night before begins to slow­ly clear, she starts to get flash­backs of being raped.

Over the rest of the series, she and her clos­est two friends, aspi­rant actress, Ter­ry and their gay part­ner in crime, Kwame, slow­ly piece togeth­er the events of the night. 

But the ‘event’ of that night is as much the back­drop as it is the focus for the sto­ries that the series fol­lows. As the char­ac­ters exper­i­ment with drugs and sex, work and play in search of what they assume will be revealed as their true iden­ti­ties in a world where iden­ti­ties, cer­tain­ties and all man­ner of lines have been seen to dis­ap­pear ‘neath per­pet­u­al­ly shift­ing sands.

What’s so exhil­a­rat­ing about the series is the way in which Coel steers, and fre­quent­ly veers between com­e­dy, pathos, iron­ic detach­ment, gen­uine pain and back again. And often, all in the course of the same, sin­gle scene.

We flash­back to Arabella’s Ital­ian boyfriend, and the trip she and Ter­ry make to Ostia, on the out­skirts of Rome. To her child­hood, and her estranged and ide­alised father. And to an event at school that is looked back upon in a very dif­fer­nt light. And all the while, every­thing is slow­ly but sure­ly help­ing to cre­ate a pic­ture of exact­ly what it was that hap­pened that night.

The writ­ing is flaw­less, both struc­tural­ly and dia­logue-wise, it’s impec­ca­bly put togeth­er and all the per­for­mances are note per­fect. Most impres­sive­ly, not to say unusu­al­ly of all, Coel man­ages to deliv­er on the season’s finale, which I’ll obvi­ous­ly not spoil by say­ing any­thing about here.

I May Destroy you is that rare thing. A series that com­fort­ably lives up to and deliv­ers on all of the entire­ly jus­ti­fi­able hype.

You can see the trail­er to I May Destroy You here.

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Towering Gabriel Byrne can’t save BBC’s “Quirke”.

Gabriel Byrne as Quirke.

Gabriel Byrne as Quirke.

The must see tele­vi­sion of the last decade or so, The Sopra­nos, The Wire, Mad Men, Break­ing Bad, Dead­wood, Board­walk Empire, or for that mat­ter Buffy, Friends, The Simp­sons, South Park, Curb Your Enthu­si­asm, Girls and Louie — even Let­ter­man, ear­ly Conan or The Today Show  — all have one thing in com­mon; their writing.

On the one hand it was their abil­i­ty to draw you in with pre­cise­ly delin­eat­ed sto­ry­lines that stretched across entire series and beyond. And on the oth­er, it was the care and craft that was invest­ed into each and every one of their episodes.

So it’s huge­ly dis­ap­point­ing that instead of pri­ori­tis­ing the scripts for their col­lab­o­ra­tions on Quirke, RTE and the BBC invest­ed all their time and effort on its sets and cos­tumes. The first of the three fea­ture length episodes had too much plot, the sec­ond not enough. The whole thing could be summed up by that adver­tis­ing slo­gan from a few years ago;

we won’t make a dra­ma out of a crisis”.

A series of inci­dents hap­pened one after the oth­er, with­out ever amount­ing to dra­ma. Some of them Quirke man­aged to piece togeth­er, oth­ers he all too eas­i­ly chanced upon.

The epony­mous pro­tag­o­nist – whose name was repeat­ed end­less­ly in much the same way that old school sales­men begin every sin­gle indi­vid­ual sen­tence by repeat­ing your name at its begin­ning – was played by Gabriel Byrne, who was by far and away the most impres­sive thing about Quirke. If any­thing, his tow­er­ing per­for­mance some­what imbal­ances every­body else’s.

Jeremy Piven as Ari Gold in Entourage;  happier times.

Jere­my Piv­en as Ari Gold in Entourage; hap­pi­er times.

But it was the clunk­i­ness of the plot­ting and the pre­dictable man­ner in which each of the scenes unfold­ed that real­ly bogged the whole thing down. It looked great, but to absolute­ly no end.

Per­haps I was expect­ing too much. After all, the man they got to write it, Andrew Davies, is the BBC’s go to man for san­i­tized and secure­ly safe ver­sions of Jane Austen, And the chap ITV turned to for its replace­ment for Down­town Abbey, with the mon­u­men­tal­ly dull Mr Sel­f­ridge star­ring poor old Jere­my Piv­en, who deserves so much more. Next up, Davis is apply­ing his mid­dle brow met­rics to War And Peace. Oh dear.

And the source mate­r­i­al is just John Banville in mufti. I sup­pose real­ly it was exact­ly the sort of thing one ought to have expect­ed to find at half past nine on RTE1 of a Sun­day eve. Not to much The Sopra­nos,  more the Onedin Line.

Quirke was lit­tle more than a slight­ly dark­er Down­town with a bit  more swear­ing and whiskey with an E.

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Weather Forecasts, and What We Now Know in the BBC’s Superb “Orbit: Earth’s Extraordinary Journey”.

Orbit: Earth's extraordinary journeyLast autumn, Kate Hum­ble pre­sent­ed a one-off pro­gramme on BBC2 called Will It Snow? The ques­tion it asked was, is it pos­si­ble to make long-range weath­er fore­casts? And the answer was an emphat­ic No.

Weath­er pat­terns are sub­ject to what chaos the­o­ry dubbed the but­ter­fly effect. A but­ter­fly beats its wings off the coast of Tokyo and six months lat­er there’s a hur­ri­cane in Florida.

The prob­lem is, every time you try to make a set of pre­dic­tions you need to fac­tor in about a dozen vari­ables. If any one of those vari­ables behaves slight­ly dif­fer­ent­ly than expect­ed, then that will have a knock-on effect on half a dozen oth­er variables.

And each of those will affect half a dozen oth­er vari­ables, each. Any num­ber of which will even­tu­al­ly come back to rad­i­cal­ly affect many of those orig­i­nal vari­ables a few weeks or months later.

Any mid to long-range pre­dic­tions there­fore will have been ren­dered com­plete­ly use­less. And that’s assum­ing there’s only a slight vari­a­tion in one of the orig­i­nal twelve. Invari­ably, there are innu­mer­able small vari­a­tions across the board.

So whilst it is pos­si­ble to make accu­rate pre­dic­tions over a four or five day peri­od, because you can allow for those slight vari­a­tions, over any­thing more than a few weeks those small changes will come to have huge and com­plete­ly unpre­dictable ramifications.

This top­ic was treat­ed in a much more mea­sured way when Hum­ble teamed up with Helen Czer­s­ki for their three part series, Orbit: Earth­’s Extra­or­di­nary Jour­ney. Dur­ing which, they fol­lowed our plan­et as it made one of its annu­al orbits around the Sun.

Using var­i­ous exot­ic loca­tions across the globe to illus­trate the dif­fer­ent phe­nom­e­na they were explor­ing, they com­bined exact­ly the right mix of glossy, trav­el­ogue loca­tions and fas­ci­nat­ing, sober sci­en­tif­ic explanations.

We learnt and were shown how the Earth­’s tilt is respon­si­ble for the annu­al sea­sons, and dis­cov­ered how it, the tilt, is one of three ele­ments that deter­mine when and why our plan­et expe­ri­ences spo­radic Ice Ages. Cru­cial­ly, they kept the sci­ence acces­si­ble with­out in any way becom­ing patronizing.

For not with­stand­ing our inabil­i­ty to ever be in a posi­tion to make long-range weath­er fore­casts, for the first time in our his­to­ry we can pro­vide a sci­en­tif­ic expla­na­tion for a huge range of the weath­er phe­nom­e­na that gov­ern life on this planet.

Though the Earth­’s tilt has long been guessed at, it is only now that we under­stand defin­i­tive­ly that it has a 41,000 year cycle, dur­ing which it moves from an angle of 24.5 degrees to 22 and back again, and that cur­rent­ly it’s at 23.5°. Like­wise, whilst tor­na­does and mon­soons have long since been mar­veled at, today we can pro­vide a sci­en­tif­ic expla­na­tion as to how and why they take place. And although we’re nev­er going to able to say exact­ly when and where they are going to hap­pen, dis­cov­er­ing what we can and can’t pre­dict is the most valu­able gift of all that sci­ence had giv­en us.

Once again, the BBC took us on a guid­ed tour of what we now know, and how it is that we know it. It’s an area they’ve become increas­ing­ly impres­sive in, and there’s a dis­tinct sense that, as far as sci­en­tif­ic pro­grammes on tele­vi­sion are con­cerned, we’re liv­ing in some­thing of a gold­en era.

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