Who Should We Let In? pulls the rug from beneath its viewers' complacent feet

A gold star for Ian Hislop's BBC2 immigration documentary.

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People talk about context as if it’s a straightforward matter: a thing to be conjured with a click of the fingers. But taking the long view, the better to put contemporary stuff into perspective, is a difficult business, on television as in print.

It’s not that viewers don’t want a history lesson: sometimes they absolutely do. Rather, it’s that it is harder than it seems to connect yesterday and today convincingly. The past, whatever some of our historical novelists might like to believe, really is another country.

The Britain of Who Should We Let In? Ian Hislop on the First Great Immigration Row (22 June, 9pm) certainly seemed to me to be another country, its empire still intact, its class system a suffocating prison. But if we’re talking context, well, here it was; deployed quite brilliantly so as to pull the rug from beneath its viewers’ complacent feet.

I’ve seen few things on television this year more disgusting than Katie Hopkins praising a 1906 account of the so-called Yellow Peril as it manifested itself in Liverpool’s Chinese community. “It’s so contemporary,” she said, smilingly relishing the racial slurs and slanders of an Edwardian hack journalist whose accusations, later exposed by an alarmed Liverpool City Council as complete fabrications, mostly had to do with opium. No wonder that the ever-equanimous Hislop looked, just for a nanosecond, as if he might be about to throw up. I was pretty close to being sick myself.

Hislop’s tale, deftly told, began in Victorian times, when Britain maintained an open-door policy, a welcome that was born both of pride (why wouldn’t foreigners want to come to such a fabulous place?) and of moral leadership (a Times leader of 1853 spoke of “the asylum of nations”).

But then . . . ah yes, here come the politicians, as reliably opportunist as ever. I give you Sir William Evans-Gordon, the Conservative MP for Stepney, who made it his mission to point out to his constituents, and the rest of Britain, that Jews were not to be trusted; and his fellow Tory Mancherjee Bhow­nagree who, despite being Indian-born, insisted loudly to anyone who would listen that immigration ought to be controlled in Bethnal Green North-East, his own seat, as well as everywhere else.

Hislop drew a clear line from the resentment whipped up by this pair in the early 1900s to the attitudes of politicians on both sides in the 21st century (“It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration,” as a flyer distributed by one of his interviewees, Sayeeda Warsi, once put it). Yet he also reminded us that it doesn’t have to be this way. In 1914, after the outbreak of the First World War, Britain warmly received a quarter of a million Belgian refugees.

Yes, a few of their hosts eventually began to grumble about their house guests: “garlic, blah, won’t even open a window, blah”. But in the main, the arrangement worked perfectly well until the end of the war, when, incidentally, most of these Belgians returned home to feast on their stinky food in peace.

As Hislop put it in a final, rather daring speech to camera, perhaps we should treat the arguments about immigration the same way we seem to regard immigrants themselves: with extreme scepticism and not a little ruthlessness.

The Keepers is a Netflix documentary series about the brutal murder of a Catholic nun, Sister Catherine Cesnik, in 1969. It’s a mystery, an attempt to discover who killed this beloved Baltimore Catholic high-school teacher. Leading the investigation are our unlikely heroines Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Fitzgerald Schaub, former students of Sister Cathy’s who have become, late in life, a pair of Nancy Drews. It is also, like Making a Murderer before it, a damning indictment of a certain kind of white, male power.

But what makes it special – akin to a richly imagined novel – is the way it portrays a particular society at a particular time. How unnerving it is to see grainy photographs of smiling young women with backcombed hair and groovy jeans, and to know that while others were thinking of sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, their world continued to be ruled by priests and rosary beards. If I had a Kitemark, this one, haunting and highly addictive, would be stamped with it, pronto.

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 appears in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM