‘An Honourable Woman’: an argument in two parts on how to judge a political drama

Diane Langford is angered by a BBC2 drama that purports to reflect the political realities in the Arab/Israeli conflict, yet in its “even-handedness” inescapably misrepresents the issues. But perhaps we are being told: don’t take all this plot stuff too seriously – I am writing drama, not history or current affairs. 

David Elstein
1 September 2014

Part one

Political thrillers are a staple of the TV drama repertoire. Spies and parliamentary scandals are second only to police procedurals in the frequency of their appearance in the schedules. It is quite rare, though, for a dramatist – however skilled – to provide an entirely plausible scenario in this tricky category: which is why film and TV versions of Le Carré (whose experience of the secret services underpins his fiction) are judged some of the most successful in the genre.

Hugo Blick’s ambitious An Honourable Woman (he wrote, directed and produced all eight hours) was a heady mix of spies, high politics, wealthy philanthropists and the Arab/Israeli conflict. For Diane Langford, Blick’s claim to have steered an even course through the rights and wrongs of that conflict rang no truer than the familiar trope of, “if they stop firing rockets, we’ll stop firing shells” that we are used to hearing from Israel and its supporters – as if resistance to a relentless 8-year campaign of economic warfare against the inhabitants of Gaza (“we’re putting them on a diet”) had no moral basis. In the latest cease-fire agreement, as in the 2012 version that was never fully implemented, this point is grudgingly conceded.

In the first scene of the drama’s first episode, a widowed Israeli arms dealer, Eli Stein, is stabbed to death with a pair of serving tongs by a Palestinian waiter in a plush London hotel restaurant, his spurting blood (along with that of the waiter, shot down by security guards) spattering over his two young children, 10-year-old Ephra and his 8-year-old sister, Nessa. Thereafter, another 18 characters are killed on screen (not to mention the 75 blown up by a bomb exploding in Hebron): half the perpetrators are Palestinian, and just one (a Jewish extremist killing an Israeli whistle-blower, seemingly on orders from the US) is an Israeli.

Remarkably, Israel emerges from this murky tale with only a minor misdemeanour to its discredit. Enraged that the adult Ephra (now in charge of the idealistic Stein Foundation, and committed to development of the Palestinian economy) has allowed an American well-wisher to channel $1.5m through the Foundation’s books to secure the release of a kidnapped Israeli soldier, it threatens to block his activities in Israel unless he agrees to certain demands. One is to allow Israel to attach a wiretap to the broadband infrastructure the Stein Foundation is financing on the West Bank. The other – we are led to believe – is to favour Israeli soldiers over Israeli Arabs in offering places for the computer science courses at the Foundation’s Kidma University (a red herring that leads to the death of the Israeli academic who exposes the scam, but which is thereafter ignored in the gathering complexity of the plot).

It is actually rather puzzling that Israel – which released over 1,000 Hamas prisoners, including many convicted of murder, in exchange for just one kidnapped soldier in 2011 – should be shown to have such deep objections (ostensibly, on the grounds that “we do not negotiate with terrorists”) to Ephra’s humanitarian gesture, let alone that the kidnappers would release such a prize for such a modest reward. But let that rest.

Soon afterwards, Ephra’s sister, Nessa, travels to the West Bank (captioned, interestingly, as “West Bank – Palestinian Territories”: let’s see if the co-commissioning Sundance Channel in the US retain that wording) to visit one of the Stein Foundation projects. She is met there by a Palestinian translator, Atika, assigned by her brother (we later discover that Ephra is also her lover, despite being married with two children). Nessa, whilst studying the Foundation’s accounts on her flight to Israel, unwittingly discovers the “cover entry” for the $1.5 million and innocently asks to see the non-existent European Languages Block it was meant to have financed. Her brother tries to warn her off inquiring further, but she refuses to be “compromised”, and Atika suggests she knows someone in Gaza who might have the answer (at this stage we do not know that Atika – whose relationship with Nessa develops into an understated love affair – is part of the Palestinian kidnap outfit).

Incredibly, the two women manage to drive from the West Bank to Gaza: an impossible journey for almost any non-Israeli, let alone a Palestinian. There, they too are kidnapped by the same outfit (who shoot their own driver, as a nifty way of misleading Nessa – and the viewers). Nessa is then raped and impregnated by the son of the group’s leader on his father’s orders (it transpires he also ordered the murder of Nessa’s father 29 years earlier, and plans to become the other grandfather of Eli Stein’s grandson, for unspecified reasons). Much later, when she admits her complicity in the kidnap, Atika tells Nessa that she had not expected the rape to happen: she deliberately pours burning oil on the face of the rapist after he has finished with Nessa.

Nessa is away for 11 months, ostensibly “travelling” as her brother tells everyone: the absence of phone calls, emails, messages, letters or any communication seemingly arouses no concern from her friends, her family, her sister-in-law or her nieces. But let that rest, too. As for the baby, in order to allow Nessa to continue with her mission untainted by any suggestion that her actions are motivated by hate of her rapist or love of her half-Arab child, Kasim, Atika volunteers to claim motherhood, asserting to Ephra that the father was not him, but the driver murdered in the kidnap (a story that predictably falls apart when MI6 discover a photo of the dead – female – driver at the scene of the crime: not that it seems to matter).   

These dubious triggers for the rest of the plot actually sit inside an even more implausible scenario that embraces the whole eight years in which the story unfolds. It transpires that the US donor of the $1.5 million is a leading light in AIPAC – the American Israel Public Affairs Committee – and his action is well known at State Department level. Moreover, a top British MI6 operative based in Washington (Monica Chatwin) has joined a long-range US plan to – yes! – manipulate events so as to push through the recognition of a Palestinian state. To this end, she blackmails Ephra into handing over leadership of the Stein Foundation to Nessa (why? – can these schemes really be planned eight years ahead, when US presidential elections are every four years?). This is in exchange for Monica arranging Nessa’s release by an Israeli helicopter crew, under cover of an Israeli incursion into rocket-launching Gaza. For whatever reason, Israel also decides to keep silent about the entire affair.

And so the main plot starts, eight years later. A further stage of the broadband venture is due to be announced. The Israeli incumbent – a close Stein family friend – is ruled out, thanks to false information supplied by Monica Chatwin to Nessa’s personal security man, Bloom. A Palestinian contractor is selected, but he is immediately murdered by the Americans, after they monitor a phone call in which he uses the phrase “she has agreed”: much later, we discover that the “she” is not Nessa, but the US Secretary of State, who has decided, in great secrecy, to find an excuse to remove the US veto next time Palestine applies for UN membership. This is, of course, entirely ludicrous, as no US politician seeking office (ie, excluding Jimmy Carter) would dream of so gratuitously offending Israel and its US supporters.

Some journalists have congratulated Blick for his prescience in imagining a Gaza-centric drama just as another round of fierce fighting was about to take place. In fact, as Homeland discovered when it built its third series around a CIA quest to shift Iranian foreign policy, only to find it had shifted of its own accord in the months between filming and transmission, Blick could only have been embarrassed when, in real life, Israeli intransigence and Obama’s hopeless helplessness left Gaza to its fate (Obama did pronounce the Israeli assault “disproportionate”, but was then quick to demand the unconditional “release” of a non-kidnapped soldier by Hamas, suggesting a bizarre equivalence).

In pursuit of this deeply implausible objective, Blick has Monica Chatwin (unbeknownst to her MI6 colleagues) help the Palestinian group (an armed but unacknowledged wing of Fatah, styling itself the Al Karabeh Brigade) organise Nessa’s child’s kidnap, in order to pressure Nessa into appointing a new Palestinian contractor to the broadband project, apparently so as to provide cover for a bomb outrage in the Hebron location of the official ribbon-cutting, to be performed by Nessa. After the explosion, with Nessa missing, presumed dead (she has, in fact, been rescued and is back in the hands of Al Karabeh, along with Kasim), the US announces its decision to withdraw the veto in response to Israel’s apparent inability to control Jewish extremists (in this case, a shadowy organisation seemingly run by one man in Holland, possessing a battery of mobile phones, for receiving and passing on orders: needless to say, as soon as he has claimed responsibility for the bomb, on instruction from Chatwin, he is in turn bumped off, as she covers her tracks).

In fact, although Israel seems to turn a blind eye to a good deal of casual violence by Jewish settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank, it does not tolerate armed groups which might prove a threat to the state monopoly of force. When a group of Jewish extremists set booby-traps to kill Palestinian mayors on the West Bank, and also plotted to blow up the Al-Aqsa mosque, they were tracked down, prosecuted and imprisoned. The assassin of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was sentenced to life imprisonment. Most recently the men who seized an Arab teenager, and burnt him to death in apparent retaliation for the killing of three Jewish students, were quickly arrested. There are many reasons – objectively – why the US might give up on Israel as a “partner for peace”, and nod through Palestinian membership of the UN, but failure to control Jewish extremists is simply not a credible one.

Meanwhile, to suggest that the US would arrange, in cahoots with a rogue MI6 officer, for several murders and kidnaps, and a ghastly bomb atrocity falsely attributed to non-existent Jewish extremists, simply beggars belief. Chatwin arranges for Nessa’s rapist to come to England, to tidy up the loose ends of his own son’s kidnapping: four more killings, including Nessa’s own security man (oddly, Nessa seems not to be concerned by his unexplained disappearance). She then arranges for him to kill Ephra (why?), lured away from his secure home for a vigorous bout of sex with Atika. Ephra’s widow – turning up unexpectedly – promptly shoots the rapist (don’t ask!), but that is not enough to deter the dastardly Americans from going ahead with the Hebron bomb that day.

Atika, of course, promptly re-surfaces in Hebron to persuade the leader of Al Karabeh to release Nessa and Kasim, and eventually kills the rapist’s father, once she realises the release he has approved will sent Nessa and her child to likely death. She finally catches up with them, and sacrifices herself to save them from a US assassin, who shoots her but then is liquidated by a missile strike she calls down from a British drone hovering over the Hebron hills – all this without the Israelis or the Americans apparently able to intervene: I said, don’t ask! Her final words to her American killer – which must really have puzzled Diane Langford – were: “get off my land!”

By now, of course, it is time for Chatwin herself to be despatched, in a purported suicide by hanging, just as a news reporter is telling us in voice over that the US removal of its veto will now be countered by an opposite move from Russia and China. The grinning mouth of the news anchor – in huge close-up – comments: “it makes you wonder why they bother”. This turns out to be Blick himself, his unmistakeable grinning mouth reprising his brief acting role 25 years ago as the young Joker in Tim Burton’s original Batman movie.

So perhaps we are being told: don’t take all this plot stuff too seriously – I am a writing drama, not history or current affairs. However elaborate (or incoherent) the plot, it is just a device for me to explore characters and images. To give him credit, this he does with great skill and stylishness, a big step up from his “The Shadow Line” of two years ago, where a self-conscious and airless virtuosity put too much distance between the subject and the viewer.

Here, a rich cast of characters is offered a highly naturalistic (if politically super-charged) setting, allowing an outstanding cast to do credit to an intelligent and literate script. Blick allows himself not a single wasted or boring shot, and polishes each with the care of a committed artist. Surprisingly – as I assume her casting was a function of co-production arrangements to suit the Sundance Channel, part of the AMC group, which also co-commissioned William Boyd’s “Restless” last year – Maggie Gyllenhall is wholly persuasive as the Anglo-Israeli baroness, Nessa Stein, and outshines even Lubna Azamal, Janet McTeer, Eve Best, Katherine Parkinson, Lindsay Duncan and Genevieve O’Reilly on the remarkably effective female side of the cast.

Amongst the male cast, Stephen Rea gives his best performance for at least a decade, and it was sad to see its lugubrious authority slightly undermined by a rare carelessness in his character’s final scene, where Blick has him tell his ex-wife that he is retiring from MI6 in pursuit of a “chancellorship” at an Oxford college: actually, the position of master of St Peter’s, where former BBC high-flyer Mark Damazer is currently ensconced.

Otherwise, this is very grown-up stuff, with Palestinians speaking Arabic to each other, and Israelis (for the most part) Hebrew, often for lengthy sequences. Blick also finds time to show our two leading characters using tradecraft to escape their close watchers, even when the meetings they were going to actually required no such subterfuge. Likewise, the Israeli whistleblower is shown stumbling onto the Israeli listening post milking the wiretap, where he admires the sophisticated hardware without realising that this is rather more important than the favouring of Israeli soldiers for his computer courses. Another little in-joke is the casting of Blick’s son, Atticus, in the silent role of the released Israeli soldier.

So I think Diane Langford’s concern is misplaced, especially as she fails to note either the blatant anti-Americanism or even the disturbing theme of Nessa seeking out violent sexual encounters as a seeming reaction to her rape in Gaza. The sheer panache of Blick’s achievement in The Honourable Woman deserves our respect, along with his courage in allowing the BBC to post online the first three scripts and a bunch of hokey “artifacts” from the series (purported documents and descriptions of fictional organisations). The scripts are quite advanced drafts, with many deleted scenes, and yet the finished episodes were evidently changed further in shooting and editing, with scenes being moved and shortened, always for the better. We also learn that the title sequence as described – perhaps it was always only a placeholder – was overtaken by a montage of some of the most striking shots from the actual production, including many from the final episode: clearly a late arrival on the scene.

Part two

The BBC has enjoyed a good run with its drama series this year. My favourite piece was the BBC Wales co-production with S4C entitled Hinterland, shot in English and Welsh (the Welsh being subtitled for the non-Welsh-speaking audience), and set in and around Aberystwyth (or “Aber”, as it is called throughout). Having once commissioned a dual-language drama entitled A Mind To Kill, with the same script shot separately in both English and Welsh, I was suitably impressed by this brave and ready switching back and forth by a bi-lingual cast.

Hinterland (“I Gwyll” – The Dusk – in Welsh) was bleak and beautiful. The seaside promenade, the mountains behind, the valleys and forests provided dramatic settings for four feature-length tales of loss: loss of innocence, of childhood, of land, of family. Even the central character – a detective played by Richard Harrington – is depressed: living in a caravan, having evidently lost contact with his wife and children. As the series develops, his gloom deepens: he is determined to put wrongs right, and retrieve losses where he can. In the fourth episode, he even embarks on an affair with the mother of a murdered teenager, indirectly leading to her own death. When first shown by the BBC in Wales (after S4C had shown a purely Welsh version), it took its rightful place on BBC1. Later, when BBC Network television took its run, it was shown on BBC4 (admittedly, the home of subtitled drama – but suggesting a loss of nerve). Series 2 next year deserves better.

Line of Duty followed on from the previous series of that title, which could not overcome its misjudged central casting. The second series, also written by Jed Mercurio, was widely and rightly praised, not least for a remarkably downbeat performance from the usually glamorous Keeley Hawes, and for Mercurio’s sure writing touch (though even he conceded that he tried to pack one plot twist too many into the final episodes).

Happy Valley was also much praised. Written by Sally Wainwright and starring Sarah Lancashire, it expertly judged its naturalistic setting and dialogue in its opening episodes, before lurching uneasily into melodrama, whilst inexplicably ignoring a crucial sub-plot: did the ex-con who fathered the child of Lancashire’s dead daughter rape her – so triggering her suicide – or not, as he firmly asserted? We were invited to see the climax of the drama – our heroine stomping viciously on the ex-con’s head after disarming him – as just rewards, not only for his having stomped on her head, having previously committed a kidnap, rape and murder, but for a rape that may never have happened. As she gazes out over the “happy valley” for the closing credits, we wonder whether it is not just her, but her creator, who has lost control of the narrative.

With Line of Duty and Happy Valley, as with The Honourable Woman and last year’s The Fall and Dancing On The Edge, one writer took responsibility for all the episodes. In the case of The Honourable Woman, as with Stephen Poliakoff’s Dancing On The Edge and apparently with Allan Cubitt’s forthcoming second series of The Fall, the writer has also assumed the directing role. That the BBC is willing to take the risks associated with such an approach says much for their faith in auteur theory: but apart from The Lost Prince (a lesser-risk one-off piece) none of Poliakoff’s solo offerings has ever matched the tautness of his 1980 drama, Caught On A Train, directed by Peter Duffell. Even Dennis Potter’s work deteriorated notably once he took over directing his own scripts. Two heads are usually better than one.

And three heads are usually better than two. As luck would have it, in the same week that The Honourable Woman reached its finale, the third episode of the second series of Masters of Sex on More 4 – entitled Fight – demonstrated how close to perfection the one-hour drama form can aspire to be. In its first year, this series – broadly based on the research and personal relationships of William Masters and Virginia Johnson in the late 1950s – had struggled to find a tone the right side of comic salaciousness. Even so, its lead actress, Lizzy Caplan, had fought her way into the hotly-contested lead actress category at the Emmy awards, and – based on his developing interpretation of the tight-lipped Masters – British actor Michael Sheen could win a nomination next year.

This episode should push writer Amy Lippmann and show-runner Michelle Ashford into the awards bracket, too. Masters and Johnson are meeting for their regular assignation in a local hotel, where he has created a fictional account for them as a married couple. He is in denial about their relationship, believing it is still “research into sexual behaviour”, not “an affair” (he is married, Virginia Johnson is divorced). We see her trying to persuade her young daughter not to take the “fairytale princess” in the stories she reads as a real role model. He has been trying to persuade the father of a new-born child with ambiguous sex organs to wait before taking any drastic surgical action (blood tests strongly suggest the child is a boy, but premature surgery will almost certainly eliminate the male sex organs).

When she arrives at the hotel room, Johnson finds Masters absorbed in a televised title fight – the famous encounter between ageing champion light-heavyweight Archie Moore and a challenger 14 years younger, who knocks him to the canvas four times in the first three rounds. Masters is rooting for the “old mongoose”, and Johnson learns for the first time from him about his brutal father and how Masters had to learn to soak up punishment without flinching to establish – in his own mind – his manhood. Fired up by the fight, and by his frustrations at the hospital, he pins Johnson to the wall and has forcible sex with her (she wryly murmurs, in research mode, “male affect: anger”).

She orders room service steaks (“how does ‘Dr Holden’ like his done?” – “just tell the chef to walk the cow through a warm room”). The waiter asks if they want to order room service breakfast: no, they leave too early (actually, in less than 45 minutes, as the fight is still not over when Masters departs). Johnson challenges Masters’ version of masculinity: she does not want her son to learn to box. They have sex again. Then he offers to teach her boxing moves: with one of her feeble swings, she catches his hair in a ring on her finger – he winces. She tells a story from her own teenage years. They each imagine who the ‘Holdens’ are. He offers to pleasure her: she declines, and pleasures herself as he watches. As he leaves, he asks how she will write up tonight. She responds: “two acts of intercourse, one of masturbation, role-playing throughout”. Back at the hospital, Masters discovers the baby’s ambiguity has been resolved surgically: she is now a girl. As Johnson walks through the hotel lobby, she pauses to watch the climax of the fight. Then the screen goes black, and the credits roll, so we only hear the commentary as Moore knocks out his opponent, in the eleventh round. The “old mongoose” has prevailed.

The episode was unobtrusively directed by British veteran Michael Apted (now 73, it is over 50 years since he started a lifetime of work on the Granada “Up” series, and has also directed 25 feature films, including a Bond movie). His influence on Masters of Sex obviously extends beyond the many episodes he has directed, and now that the series has found its feet, it promises to be – in boxing parlance – a real contender.

Hugo Blick should take a look. His is a real talent, but it may find its most effective expression in collaboration with others. The real brilliance of the likes of Matthew (Mad Men) Weiner, Vince (Breaking Bad) Gilligan, David (The Sopranos) Chase, Ann (Ray Donovan) Biderman and Steve (L A Law) Bochco is not their writing, directing or producing, but their ability to harness the skills of a range of talents so as to deliver something larger than each could have delivered single-handed. Auteur theory can take you only so far.

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