The day Maggie won the 1980s

Television - Andrew Billen is glad we had to wait 22 years for a film on the Iranian embassy siege

The 1980 Iranian embassy siege in London ended after five days with the men in black blowing the place to bits. And they were the good guys. The prime minister told the Commons that they "made us, on all sides of the House, feel proud to be British". And this, indeed, was the triumphalist national consensus by the time the next morning's papers were printed.

To watch the drama live on television - as everyone seemed to be doing, because it interrupted the climax of a snooker tournament - was, however, a very different experience. You heard explosions. You saw black smoke. Hostages crawled out and dived back in. Kate Adie, although she made her name as the duty BBC reporter outside, spoke very little commentary, for she knew very little. ITN's correspondent - Anthony Carthew, if memory serves - was in no doubt that he was witnessing a tragedy. Even when it emerged that only one of the 26 hostages had been killed, the fact that five out of six of the terrorists had been shot dead was enough, for the liberal broadcasting establishment, to maintain a sombre tone throughout the evening - embarrassed that it had shown such slaughter live.

In retrospect, the gap between the night's TV news coverage and the following day's headlines marked the end of one era and the beginning of another. On 4 May 1980, we might have been a cowed nation, but we believed in the rule of law, negotiation, twinkly-eyed war heroes played by Kenneth More and that it would be un-British to arm our police. After 5 May, our heroes (SAS), like our enemies (IRA), carried guns, wore balaclavas and were known by acronyms. Who dared won. Who dared read the Sun. Bring on the sinking of the Belgrano and deaths on the Rock.

Peter Taylor's quite excellent documentary, SAS - Embassy Siege (9pm, 25 July, BBC2) did not speculate on the above lines. It did not have to, for the facts spoke louder. It was a riveting 90 minutes, paced like a thriller with a thriller's conventions of split screens, scudding cloud formations and choral music, and generously illustrated by archive footage, tape recordings of the telephone negotiations and sparing use of fleeting dramatic reconstructions. At its heart lay a series of brilliantly detailed yet emotionally charged interviews. It is greatly to Taylor's credit and the BBC's that they waited for three SAS storm troopers to agree to be interviewed before they made this film. To hear from their own lips, even 22 years later, that they were deliberate killers was far more damning than having journalists merely accuse them of being so after 22 months.

The eyewitnesses lined up on two sides. On the one, old Britain was represented by the police who tried to negotiate a peaceful end to the siege. PC Trevor Lock, on door duty the day the embassy was attacked, was armed but reluctant to use his weapon, and dealt with tensions within as if they were "a domestic in Dagenham". To him, "sorting out" meant everyone getting out safely, "including the guys with the guns". The chief police negotiator, Max Vernon, although trained in tactics, was of the same breed. During his final conversations with the chief gunman, Salim, after the SAS had been handed control, he heard a childish chant of "I know you are going to die" echo in his head, but when Salim and his cohorts died, Vernon felt he had failed and was horrified. "It's coming back now," he said, and from the anguish on his face, it all clearly was.

The SAS snipers - Tom, Robin and Mac (a Yosser Hughes lookalike) - were another thing altogether, hounds straining at the leash. Robin said: "We didn't want them to surrender. We wanted them to stay in there, so we could go and hit them. It was what we lived for, what we trained for and what we wanted to do."

In their final briefing, it was let slip that Mrs Thatcher personally did not want any terrorists coming out of Princes Gate. She almost got her wish. One fled down the escape route worked out for the hostages and got as far as the bottom of the stairs before being gunned down. He was carrying a grenade, but two others in the telex room were not obviously armed and were still killed (verdict: "Justifiable homicide"). Denis Thatcher's only gripe, at the debriefing afterwards, was that they "let one of the bastards live".

His wife probably won the elections of the 1980s that evening, and it simply took the media a decade to catch on. One of the hostages was Chris Cramer, then a BBC producer, now president of CNN International, who "worked up" a stomach complaint and was allowed by the terrorists to leave early. He despaired as he watched the outcome: "This is not civilised behaviour . . . I understood why it happened, but I couldn't support it emotionally." His lament, however, was qualified by a recognition of his own cowardice. "At least, I know I am a coward," he said. (I don't think I have ever heard anyone say that seriously on television before.) Schematically, Cramer represented a leftist media establishment that has never subsequently ceased to worry that, at its heart, it is cowardly, guilty in that it despises men like Mac, yet relies upon them to protect its skins.

Terrorism did not die that night, but the left's self-hatred was born.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times