BBC One's Little Drummer Girl manages to cut through some of the usual BBC bias when it comes to Israel and even criticises Britain's role, argues Sofie Mason
Little Drummer Girl is annoying the hell out of me on BBC One. Not like The Night Manager in 2016, the last John le Carré series, whose glossy silliness infuriated me so much I switched off after the first episode and not even reports of Tom Hiddleston’s bum could lure me back. No, the annoyance I feel now is compelling because, 5 episodes in, I want to understand what story it thinks it’s telling us about Israel and Palestine.
After all, the series must have been filmed at least a year ago and therefore well into the furore around Ken Livingstone’s suspension from the Labour Party for his comments on Zionist separatism and now well into the official gagging campaign against any criticism of the state of Israel. And yet, underneath the usual spy thriller genre of terribly clever people outwitting each other in terribly clever ways against the usually perfunctory backdrop of history, something disconcerting is emerging – a beautifully crafted and poetically delivered criticism of Britain’s part in the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.
The series is set in West Germany in 1979. It’s rich in the colours and sounds of the 70s: the Zoom lollies, the bright orange decor, the Mercedes-Benz saloons, the silver Citroens, the yellow cardigans and the leather jackets. Martin Kurtz, an Israeli spy (Michael Shannon at his craggy best) works in a clandestine agency to allow plausible deniability for his superiors while he tracks down Palestinian resistance fighters. As part of an elaborate scheme to discover the whereabouts of Khalil, an alleged Palestinian terrorist, he recruits Charlie (Florence Pugh), a young radical left-wing English actress who is refreshingly unlikeable for a leading lady but challenges Mossad every step of the way.
Joseph/Gabi (Alexander Skarsgard) is Charlie's handler and seeming love interest. Khalil's younger brother Salim (Amir Khoury) is abducted, interrogated, and killed by Kurtz's unit in their attempt to locate Khalil. Joseph then impersonates Salim and travels through Europe with Charlie in order to make Khalil believe that Charlie and Salim are lovers and she can be trusted. When Khalil falls for the trap and contacts Charlie to take her to a Palestinian refugee camp to join the resistance, the Israelis are able to track him down. Game, set and match - or is it? There is still an episode to go and Joseph has done such a persuasive job in coaching Charlie in the politics of the PLO that she may very well change sides. We too as viewers are more likely now to side with the underdogs bombed out of their homes and rearming in the dust-bowls of the Middle East (so under-resourced that they have to borrow 50p for the electricity meter during an otherwise terrifying interrogation) rather than with the comfortably suited Mossad agents with intel everywhere and gadgets at the ready.
Apparently, the series has lost more than 40% of its audience to complaints of finding it baffling. Maybe because it’s disturbingly surreal in showing us how shifting realities can send even spies mad but we’re in a post-truth fake-news world now so that shouldn’t put anyone off. Maybe because it’s about performance – spies who role-play, terrorists who stage manage lethal stunts to grab a headline, the British state that rewrites its part in the ‘disaster’ that was the establishment of the state of Israel – but we live in a world of Trump, for chrissakes, so performance shouldn’t bother us either. Perhaps viewers are switching off because it’s just too close to home - the refugee camps are recruiting grounds for resistance just as they are today and, unlike Bodyguard, there are no heroes and there is no prospect of a happy ending.
Kurtz calls himself “an artist”, and sees the great subterfuge he has designed as a “production” in the “theatre of the real” but his justification for murder to save lives is wearing thin as he is only interested in saving Jewish lives. Charlie is shocked when she hears Salim has been murdered in a fake car crash. Gadi takes her to the memorial for the 11 Israeli athletes murdered when taken hostage by pro-Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Games. “We remember” he says and adds: “Your British government promised Palestine to the Arabs and to the Jews. That’s where all this started.” And has gone on and on, as we know. The Munich attackers reportedly came from refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan and took hostages in the hope of bartering the release of 234 Palestinians jailed in Israel. Mossad responded with the 1973 Israeli raid on PLO bases in Syria and Lebanon and launched Operation Wrath of God to track down and kill any Palestinians suspected of involvement. The tit for tat is going nowhere.
As Tony Cliff wrote in his excellent article in 1998:
“It is one of the most tragic cases in history that an oppressed nation like the Jews, who suffered from the barbarity of the Nazis, have imposed oppression and barbarism on another nation – the Palestinians, a nation which was in no way involved in bringing about the Holocaust.”
Joseph turns to Charlie and quotes the Zionists of the time who defined their mission as “giving to a people without a country a country without people” adding “genocide was already decided”. Before Salim is killed he confides in Kurtz “When I first came to Europe what surprised me the most was that nobody cares.”
I will reserve judgement until the final episode but this drama cares enough to give a better account of the Israeli state than we’ve been allowed to hear for a long time.
Sofie Mason is a political activist, arts campaigner, trade union official and occasionally works for all-female plumbing company Stopcocks.
More articles from this author
- Keeping Faith - review
- Fight back before it's too late - Years and Years review
- A Marxist guide to crime drama
- Better to overthrow the system than try to outsmart it: review of ITV's Cleaning Up
- Luther – Marx’s theory of alienation or biblical redemption?
- EastEnders at Christmas
- The far right can be stopped