The BBC lacks the ambition to go the whole way

BBC2's Iraq War reviewed.

The Iraq War (BBC2) is brought to us from Brian Lapping and Norma Percy, who made The Second Russian Revolution (1991), The Death of Yugoslavia (1995), Israel and the Arabs (2005) and numerous other acclaimed documentary series on contemporary history. They are, without doubt, among the jewels in the BBC’s crown.

There was much to admire about Wednesday’s opening episode. It was like going back to a bygone age. A narrator rather than a celebrity presenter. No Paxman, no Marr, no Dan Snow. Just Alex Jennings reading a clear, thoughtful script written and re-written by the production team, just like serious history and current affairs programmes used to be made. Superb archive research by Declan Smith, the doyen of film researchers for over 20 years, including footage from Iraq I for one had never seen before. Interviews with many of the key players: Blair, Straw and Campbell, Colin Powell, Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney, important figures from US intelligence and from Iraq. The narrative line was clear and full of drama.  The sense of pressure on all the decision makers was palpable. You could feel the clock ticking as Blair asked for more time to win over Parliament, at the same time as Powell wanted to double-check his sources, at the same time as the US military told the White House to make a decision before summer came.

A lot of information was packed into just under sixty minutes. None of this comes cheap and the series has been made with ten foreign organizations plus support from the MEDIA programme of the EU. My guess is that this is code for saying that the BBC put in too little but will preen themselves when The Iraq War wins the awards and acclaim it deserves. The devil, as always, is in the detail. In TV programmes it’s usually to be found in the end credits.

Norma Percy and her Executive Producers, Brian Lapping and Paul Mitchell, hit on a winning formula almost twenty-five years ago and like the Burns Brothers in America and Adam Curtis here, they have stuck with it.  In their case, it consists of chasing the key players and intercutting their testimony with great archive film and simple specially-shot footage which is relevant but not distracting. It’s high politics plus. Talk to the decision-makers about who said what and to whom. That’s it.

It’s churlish to be critical but several curious points arose (or should have but didn’t). First, critics of the war will argue that Blair and Cheney, in particular, were given a soft ride. What about "the sexed-up dossier"? Why were the politicians and their advisers (at Westminster, in Congress and at the UN) so easily fooled by the security services and who set their agenda? One strange line stood out in the commentary: "Western intelligence agencies had gathered thousands [sic] of reports, using both human and electronic sources, and most of them pointed to the same conclusion [ie that Saddam had WMD]." "Thousands" of sources is a fascinating phrase. What were they? Could we have an example? Who produced them? Much of the evidence discussed had a Keystone Cops feel. Did these other sources? "Most of them pointed to the same conclusion". How many is "most"? Indeed, how many is ‘thousands’?

The second point is the elephant in the room. Except just once when we got a tantalising mention. But only once. An Iraqi general was interviewed and described an insane speech by Saddam about how the Iraqi army would destroy the American forces and then go on to Palestine and liberate Jerusalem. This was the only time in the whole programme that we got a sense of how mad Saddam was, how completely out of touch with reality. The British and Americans had no illusions about this and where this could lead – had led - with weapons of mass destruction against Iranians and Kurds.  

But the really interesting point is about liberating Jerusalem. It is the only reference to Israel in the whole programme. But surely Israel was crucial to the Iraq War as it is to anything that happens in the area from Egypt to Iran. Israeli intelligence must have had something to say about WMD but no Israeli was interviewed in the programme.  Whether or not Blair (or anyone else) ever thought Saddam’s missiles could hit London, we know from the First Gulf War that they could probably hit Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. How did that influence the discussions about attacking Iraq? Apparently, no one was asked. Once one big thing is missed out you start to wonder what else was never asked.

As always this was a London/Washington view of the world. One French minister, a few Kurds, a few Iraqis. No Israelis. No Russians either. Did they have no say? No threat of a UN veto? Why not? How about Arab politicians? Nothing interesting to say? 

This is hardly nitpicking. But I dare say Lapping and Percy didn’t start out wanting to fit everything into three hours. The BBC should have put their money where their mouth is and paid up. Are they a world-class broadcaster or not? The BBC should be proud of making these programmes, but they should be ashamed of lacking the ambition to go the whole way. A few executives’ expenses would have made up the shortfall. Let’s not even mention the £100m IT disaster.

Photograph: Getty Images
BBC/Chris Christodoulou
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Proms 2016: Violinist Ray Chen was the star of a varied show

The orchestra soaked up his energy in Bruch's first violin concerto to end on a triumphal note. 

Music matters, but so does its execution. This was the lesson of a BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus programme which combined both a premiere of a composition and a young violinist’s first performance at the Proms. 

The concert, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, opened with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy The Tempest, a lesser-known sibling to his Romeo and Juliet overture. The orchestra got off to a fidgety start, with some delayed entries, but fell into line in time for the frenetic chromatic runs that drive the piece. The end, a muted pizzicato, was suitably dramatic. 

Another nature-inspired piece followed – Anthony Payne’s composition for chorus and orchestra, Of Land, Sea and Sky. Payne drew on his memory of watching of white horses appearing to run across water, as well as other visual illusions. At the world premiere, the piece began promisingly. The chorus rolled back and forth slowly over scurrying strings with an eerie singing of “horses”. But the piece seemed to sink in the middle, and not even the curiosity of spoken word verse was enough to get the sinister mood back. 

No doubt much of the audience were drawn to this programme by the promise of Bruch violin concerto no. 1, but it was Ray Chen’s playing that proved to be most magnetic. The young Taiwanese-Australian soloist steered clear of melodrama in favour of a clean and animated sound. More subtle was his attention to the orchestra. The performance moved from furious cadenza to swelling sound, as if all players shared the same chain of thought. Between movements, someone coughed. I hated them. 

Ray Chen in performance. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Chen’s playing had many audience members on their feet, and only an encore appeased them. It was his first time at the Proms, but he'll be back. 

The orchestra seemed to retain some of his energy for Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region. Composed between 1904 and 1906, this is a setting of lines by the US poet Walt Whitman on death, and the idea of rebirth.

The orchestra and chorus blended beautifully in the delicate, dark opening. By the end, this had transformed into a triumphal arc of sound, in keeping with the joyful optimism of Whitman’s final verse: “We float/In Time and Space.” 

This movement from hesitancy to confident march seemed in many ways to capture the spirit of the concert. The programme had something for everyone. But it was Chen’s commanding performance that defined it.