The best and worst of British television: Benefits Britain; Fightback Britain; Unbuilt Britain

Rachel Cooke on a weird and horrible week of television on the BBC and Channel 4.

Benefits Britain; Fightback Britain; Unbuilt Britain
Channel 4; BBC1; BBC4

A weird and horrible week on television, the late-summer schedules dominated by a couple of new series so belligerently populist they might have been dreamed up in the offices of the Daily Mail (and, true to form, just hours before one of them was broadcast, the Mail splashed on it).

On Channel 4, we had Benefits Britain 1949 (12 August, 9pm), in which three current social-security claimants were required to travel back in time and “adjust”. Dear God. It goes without saying that this is a revolting idea for a documentary series and I don’t intend here to spell out the various intricacies of its stupidity and nastiness (naturally, this was the Mail’s favourite). But it was also miserably predictable, giving us two “decent” claimants (Craig, who uses a wheelchair, and Melvyn, a widowed pensioner) and one who seemed not so “decent” (Karen, a rude, shouty creature who is on incapacity benefit).

Meanwhile, on BBC1, there scuttled along an even more gruesome prospect in the form of Fightback Britain (12 August, 8.30pm), a series about how “you, the public” are “taking a stand against the bad guys”. What do you mean, you’re not taking a stand? Haven’t we all from time to time felt moved to instal a night-vision camera in our garden, in order to catch a local knicker thief as he jumps over the fence in search of laundry-fresh undies?

The knicker thief was the “funny” item at the end of a half-hour show that was otherwise dominated by stories of plucky derringdo (two lorry drivers who managed to stop a third from driving drunkenly the wrong way down a motorway) and advice about how to make your mobile phone thief-proof (in essence, get a tracking app on it). By the time it came on, I was bored to sobs – Fightback Britain’s presenters, Julia Bradbury and Adrian Simpson, have all the charisma of a couple of estate agents hell-bent on selling a particularly damp one-bedroom flat – so I can’t recall where exactly this incident happened. Suffice to say, the local police were not inclined to put a crack team of detectives on the case.

“Bring your washing in at night,” they told the victim, Leanne – which seemed fair enough to me, especially as by this point she was having to borrow knickers from her neighbours. Leanne, however, was having none of it. It’s just so convenient, putting out your washing last thing before you go to bed. Why would a girl want to do anything else?

When the film ended – thanks to CCTV, the thief was duly nabbed by Leanne’s husband, the waistband of his jeans apparently bulging with the very finest that BHS had to offer – Bradbury said earnestly to camera: “Remember, you can only film on your own property.” As if viewers everywhere were about to train CCTV on their neighbours’ rotary washing lines! And then it got worse. Turning to Simpson, she then uttered, presumably in a desperate attempt at chemistry, these dread words: “And I don’t think you need to worry about anyone stealing your pants, lovely.”

Lovely? To his credit, Simpson didn’t respond in kind (“Yes, Jules, my pants are rather skanky, aren’t they? Though I do wonder how exactly you know that. Ha ha ha.”). But nor, alas, did he look as though he wanted to throw up (presenting gigs don’t grow on trees, you know). See? I told you it was gruesome.

To soothe myself after this onslaught of ghastliness, I dived into Dreaming the Impossible: Unbuilt Britain on BBC4, which was like following a Big Mac with an ice-cold fresh peach. Oh, the relief. Presented by an architectural historian called Olivia Horsfall Turner, who has a delicately old-fashioned manner – she reminds me of Lucy in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – these documentaries are about fantastical building projects that never quite got off the ground. The first film (12 August, 9pm) took in Joseph Paxton’s proposed Great Victorian Way in London, a huge glass arcade that would have followed roughly the same route as the Circle Line of the Underground, had it not been superseded by the more pressing need to build proper sewers; and Geoffrey Jellicoe’s “Motopia”, a 1,000-acre Sixties new town in which glass corridors would have separated cars from people.

It’s all amazingly interesting: the drawings and the dreams, the zeal and the bathos. How wonderful to find that Paxton’s chief inspiration in life seems to have been a particularly exotic kind of water lily and that the greenhouse he designed for the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth was so vast and hot that it was known as the “Great Stove”. But the series speaks to the times, too. In our overcrowded cities, the problems these projects were intended to tackle continue unabated, while in the eyes of the architects who would solve them, the gleam is every bit as unnerving now as it must have been then.

Julia Bradbury and Adrian Simpson, who present Fightback Britain. Photograph: BBC Pictures.

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 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

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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