Outrageous fortune

Inspired drama gives a Shakespearean dimension to a tale of Iraq's first family

<strong>House of

A few weeks ago, I complained about how loopy the schedules become over the summer, as embarrassed commissioning editors disappear to Tuscany hoping that, in their absence, no one will notice what dregs they've spent their budgets on. I stand by this. BBC1's Bonekickers is now so completely bonkers, it is surely on the verge of growing a cult ironic following. Someone should turn it into a stage musical, fast.

On the other hand, if my theory is true, how to explain the screening of House of Saddam this month of all months (Wednesdays, 9pm, until 20 August)? What a waste. It's brilliant. Honestly. If you're the kind of person who misses the lavish miniseries that we all watched in the 1980s - A Woman of Substance, The Thorn Birds - but are also, for your sins, a Newsnight regular with a special interest in the Middle East, then this is the show for you. I watched the first part in a daze of fascination. Then I went off to try to explain it to my husband, which was tricky because, on paper, it sounds bizarre, and not a little horrid.

"It's like Dynasty!" I said. He looked at me with some distaste. "But with real oil." Uh oh. He was an Easter Island statue, his face frozen with disapproval. "But then, try and imagine that crossed with a truly great, teeming, sprawling Arab film or novel like, say, The Yacoubian Building . . ."

No change. I tried a different tack. "It's about the banality of evil and all that. Saddam's off shooting his best friend at point-blank range, and meanwhile his wife is a quivering cloud of Charlie perfume whose main worry is what she's going to say to the friend's widow." Was that a flicker of interest I now saw on my beloved's impassive face? I do hope so. This is not a series to be watched alone; you need someone to exchange glances with as you drink it in.

It's superbly acted and written. The mesmerising performance of Igal Naor, the Israeli actor who plays Saddam, deserves a special mention: it's easily as good as Forest Whitaker's Oscar-winning turn as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland - and its production values are shinier than Sajida Hussein's lips. Being meticulously researched, it's educational, too: a crash course in the history of late-20th-century Iraq. Somehow the series co-writers, Alex Holmes and Stephen Butchard, have captured the strange complicity of life in Saddam's palaces - his court's glamour, gloss and myth-building, its high-octane paranoia, and its horrifying, murderous lunacy - without ever losing sight of the tragedy of the Iraqi people.

Episode one began in 1979, when Saddam, backstage at his daughter's birthday party, told his predecessor, President al-Bakr, that he was bagging his job. There was something positively Shakespearean about the trail of blood that followed, as Saddam sought to ensure the security of his ascension: the public outing of so-called "traitors"; the murder of his best friend, Adnan Hamdani, a task Saddam carried out in person, believing it would make him stronger in the eyes of his enemies. And, just as in Shakespeare, this was punctuated by some horrible comedy, in this case, a family camping trip in the desert close to Tikrit, the dictator's birthplace.

Sajida (Shohreh Aghdashloo), Saddam's Gucci-loving wife, stood in the Bedouin tent where she would be spending her mini-break and wondered aloud why the family could not go to Paris instead. Meanwhile, in the dust outside, Saddam was teaching his son Uday to shoot. Uday, being a spoilt little rich boy, was wearing slacks and slip-ons rather than fatigues and a keffiyeh.

It's unsettling, drama like this. You find yourself rooting for a monster like Saddam's half-brother Barzan, a highly skilled torturer, but one whom the dictator sought to humiliate as reparation for the sins of his father, Saddam's abusive stepfather. Yet this is also the point: your ambivalence as you watch reminds you not only that the west held Saddam's hand for so long, but of the danger that lies in believing - as our leaders are apt to encourage us to believe - one regime to be less bad than another.

This is fantastic television. Someone can board that last-minute flight to Pisa with their head held very high.

Pick of the week

Summer Heights High
2 August, from 9.20pm, BBC3
Repeat for Chris Lilley's mock-doc, in which he plays three roles.

The Genius of Charles Darwin
4 August, 8pm, Channel 4
Richard Dawkins on the life and work of his hero.

The Secret Millionaire
5 August, 9pm, Channel 4
James Benamor looks for a project worthy of his business wealth.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 04 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, China: The patriot games