On a cold night in Rotterdam, the familiarity of Dutch "Take Me Out" is comforting

Television might be considered "low" culture by some, but the universality of certain formats - such as <em>Take Me Out</em>'s formalised dating rituals - is a wonderful thing.

 

Earlier this week, I was in the Netherlands on a flying visit for work. Commitments duly met, I retired to my hotel room (which featured an overwhelming and unsettling smell of bleach, triggering my CSI spidey-sense) and turned on the television. I once read a piece in the now defunct Jane magazine in which the writer said she always visited a nail salon whenever in a new, unknown city to get a taste of local life. I have adopted this philosophy enthusiastically, but modified it to include using the public transport system and watching local television. From this fleeting visit, I can give you two bits of information in these realms: one, trams are excellent, and should be adopted in far more places in the UK; and two, the Dutch have no problem with topless ladies after a certain hour.

I speak no Dutch; despite being a Yoruba speaker by virtue of Nigerian roots, I am peculiarly British in all matters of language i.e. talking a bit louder in English and gesturing like a mad thing. Television being a visual medium is a great leveller, therefore, and I took full advantage of this. And so it came to pass that at 1:30am in a sterile hotel room in an unknown city, I settled in to watch an episode of Take Me Out, in Dutch. Are you a fan of Take Me Out? It’s cracking good telly, I can tell you that. It is a magnifying glass, further exposing the love and sex lives of a large swathe of young heterosexual people in Britain. It’s hosted by Peter Kay’s old pal Paddy McGuinness, who spouts inane catchphrases (“let the winkle see the picker!”, “let the treasure see the chest!” etc.) that make the audience – surely the easiest in the UK today – splutter and laugh wildly. And now we’ve exported the format, like we did with Strictly Come Dancing (sold to over 30 countries so far, and by far the BBC’s greatest export), but not Big Brother (technically, that was Dutch to begin with, fact fans). 

Dutch TMO works on the same principle as its forebear. Thirty or so women stand in the studio and wait for a man to come down the "love lift" (this is not a euphemism, sadly). He selects the music he descends to – one guy in this epispode chose Kanye West and Jay-Z’s "No Church In The Wild", which to my mind, is not exactly conducive to romantic inclinations. But what do I know – the young man was rewarded with a sun and ski date with a beautiful woman. How he got there remained largely the same as the UK version: he stood before the women, they did an instant judgement and those who found him wanting switched off their lights.

Then there was "banter" from the Dutch Paddy: in this case he was younger, fitter-looking, and objectively speaking, more handsome. He also exuded that vaguely oily charm that certain men just can’t help. I watched him, smiling and sliming his way around the women, asking why they had turned off their lights and my lips formed into a moue of disapproval, a cat’s bum of a mouth. At one point, he reached a very tall woman who had switched off and asked why she had; the words "giant woman" leapt out in English at me. The audience roared, the woman laughed. But even in Dutch, it was easy to read “look at this jocular douchebag” in her eyes. It all felt very familiar: the host mugging to camera, the tiny dresses made of stretchy fabric, the over-animated facial expressions, the willingness to be made a gentle fool of, the sheer terror in some of the men’s eyes... And it was subtly different too: the women waited until the end of segments to turn off their lights, like a polite university admissions panel. The paired off couple got to pick the destination of their date from a handful of options, like old school Cilla used to do on Blind Date. And the send-off music for the dateless man was Blue and Elton John’s "Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word", on which I have two thoughts: Blue was robbed at Eurovision 2011, and this is a much less cruel song than our own "All By Myself" (Celine Dion's 1996 edition). 

From the information in this piece, you may draw your conclusions about my life. I am obsessed with telly, and strangely unashamed of writing as much. But I found it oddly comforting that I could switch on and despite a distinct and unbreachable language barrier find something to watch and engage with. Globalisation is often talked about in terms of commerce and business, and only sometimes culture. It seems to me that culture, especially the "low" status of television is producing a very different kind of TV viewer. You could argue it’s no great thing that we have the same old shows everywhere in the world, but that would be to ignore the inevitable. Human beings live in tribes, and we tend to like the same things. But thankfully, there are also enough of us to keep things diverse and interesting. For me, brushing my teeth in the small hours of cold night in Rotterdam, it was a pleasure to see if not a familiar face, then a familiar format.

 

The "Take Me Out" format has now been exported to other countries, including the Netherlands.

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge