“Something is coming.” As baleful shibboleths go it’s not quite Games of Thrones, and yet the phrase slithers through the first in a nine-part drama marking the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution, distributing poison.
Murk is written into every moment of Fall of the Shah (30 January, 1.30pm) – especially when narrator Diana Rigg thin-lippedly reduces certain characters to bullet-points. (“Raptor face. For human rights. In Europe, at least.”) But most of this compulsive opening episode introduces us to President Jimmy Carter (Nathan Osgood), travelling to meet the Shah on Air Force One, idealistic and jetlagged, woozily dreaming of fish. “I would like to pray,” he tells an adviser (never a good sign in modern drama).
Meanwhile, the Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (Bijan Daneshmand), awaits his arrival in Tehran’s White Palace, talking languidly of skiing in the north, wine and the whims of expats. The air is full of the cries of peacocks, everything overpoweringly charming… bar the sound of a student protestor being tortured. By now the tone is so ominous and stratified you think: finally, I will come to understand the whole of the Middle East. Someone nods, “Humans are like one body… made of dust.” (Which is quintessential playwright Steve Waters, who has also written about the Gang of Four and the Occupy movement and likes nothing more than Woyzeck-ish flourishes – lines inspired by Georg Büchner’s, “Everyone’s an abyss, you get dizzy if you look down.”)
When the president and Shah finally meet, they sit by a crackling fire eating saddle of lamb. It strikes you that Carter might not know exactly where Tehran is, since he accepts as truth the Shah’s comment that previously the country was “nothing, a wilderness of tribes”.
It’s a patently outrageous claim. (Jimmy, this is Iran, the cradle of civilisation!) But it’s clever of Waters to mess with the persistent misconception that the Shah and his particular dynasty stretched back a thousand years. In fact, the puffed-up Pahlavi dynasty was started in just 1925 by a brigadier general in the Persian Cossack Brigade. I’m drooling for episode two.
Fall of the Shah
BBC World Service
This article appears in the 30 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Epic fail