Christian Cooke (front left) as Squaddie Len in Channel 4's The Promise
The Promise turned out not to be all that promising after all. It has been hailed widely in the UK as dramatic, informative, and unbiased — serious prime-time TV at its very best. On all these counts I beg to differ.
There is no question that the brief that the creators set themselves in this controversial mini-series (transmitted on Channel 4 in four parts, February 6-27, 2011) is ambitious and the production values are high. But the series radically misrepresents the past. Unfortunately the writer and director Peter Kosminsky will have persuaded many UK viewers that they now have the key to understanding the Israel/Palestine conflict and the history of Britain's involvement. I fear that he will merely have reinforced many viewers' complacent indifference to the Zionist cause, the moral claim that underlines the foundation of the state of Israel.
For some UK viewers the story of Tommies sent to police the British Mandate in post-war Palestine will be news. Kosminsky challenges viewers to accept that the legacy of the Mandate is not an issue that Brits can shrug off. He wrote recently in The Guardian: "In Palestine, as in so many other examples of our rapid retreat from empire, we left chaos, political confusion, bloodshed and war. It turns out that it is our problem, at least in part, and we should take some responsibility for it."
The story concerns an English teenager Erin spending her gap year in Israel. She becomes passionately involved in retracing (by means of an old diary) her grandfather Len's experiences as a paratrooper posted to Palestine from 1945 to 1948. The historic strand of the plot (set in the 1940s) is considerably more engaging than the action set in 2005. Some of the parallels and contrasts between the past and near-present are heavy-handed: Jewish terrorism by the Irgun back then is set against suicide bombing now; British squaddies blowing up the homes of bombers then, Israelis doing the same now. Kosminsky's article indicates that he was surprised to discover that the Israelis learned this tactic from the Brits. I have known it for as long as I can remember.
Many of the shortcomings of The Promise originate with and are shared by Erin, the know-nothing English teen at the centre of the drama. Claire Foy as Erin plays exactly the same headstrong, selfish, sexy, troublesome young woman that she played as Lady Persephone in the recent Upstairs Downstairs. In The Promise her blank, blue-eyed expression increasingly settles into an indignant sulk. (Foy was easily cast into the shade by Perdita Weeks who played her friend, a much more nuanced and interesting performance.) Why should the writer have chosen to place so vacuous a character as Erin at the centre of so complex and sensitive a drama? What are the advantages of a cipher? We shall see.
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