Please, stay in your seat. I know we’re all tired of Brexit; that after hours we would rather think about more or less anything else. But honestly, if you didn’t see it – if you were washing your hair, or doing the full Marie Kondo on your knicker drawer – the first episode of Inside Europe: Ten Years of Turmoil (9pm, 28 January) was as gripping as any political television I’ve ever seen. Take several very bitchy talking heads. Then add a dollop of rank stupidity and a spoonful of unashamed self-aggrandisement. Finally, throw in a good pinch of feeble wisdom after the fact… Et voilà, I give you a tightly plotted, occasionally somewhat melodramatic soap opera, the climactic scene of which features David Cameron exiting his famous terraced house for the last time, looking more than ever like Queen Victoria, minus the doily on her head. (Spoiler alert: DC will not be returning for series two.)
Directed by Tim Stirzaker and Tania Rakhmanova, and produced by the great Norma Percy, Inside Europe isn’t only about Brexit; the second episode, for instance, focuses on the financial crisis of 2007-08 and its effect on Greece. But the first part, quite rightly, was entirely devoted to Cameron’s fateful decision to hold an in-out referendum, and to the many missteps he and his acolytes took in the months before and afterwards. I won’t rehearse the political side of things here, that’s not my job – though as I watched, I was struck all over again by how he allowed himself to be held to ransom by such a small minority of his party, and I still wonder that more people didn’t call him out on it at the time. (As Nick Clegg said, once he started banging on about EU reform, it was like “being in a cage with a demented gorilla”.)
No, let us instead concentrate on the performances of its stars – and performance is absolutely the word; at the RSC you don’t get turns as sly and mannered as these. It is hard to choose a favourite moment. Was it when Donald Tusk spoke of how, on warning Cameron that his referendum would lead him to “lose everything”, he saw “fear in his eyes”? Or was it when George Osborne, describing a discussion between various cabinet ministers, noted that: “Theresa May didn’t say anything much, which was par for the course in those meetings”? Actually, no, it was neither of these.
What really had me thanking my lucky stars for my front-row seat – pass the popcorn – was the bit when Craig Oliver, the former director of communications at Downing Street, chatted away about the last pre-referendum EU summit in February 2016. In the room where the British delegation was hanging out, Cameron told Angela Merkel that unless the member states could give him what he was asking for (an emergency break to benefits for EU migrants to the UK, among other things), he would face a “barrage” of criticism at home. Merkel wasn’t sure what the word barrage meant, so Cameron helped her out. “Blitzkrieg!” he shouted, like some stupid schoolboy, circa 1954, looking up from his weekly comic.
Post-Christmas and pre-spring, the TV schedules are elsewhere rather quiet. Still, I have found something to transport me utterly in the form of Shtisel, an Israeli drama that began in 2013 and that is now available in its subtitled entirety on Netflix. It’s really great: charming, funny, sad and brilliantly acted. But it’s also unusual and fascinating. It’s about an Orthodox Jewish family in Jerusalem, one that lives by strict Haredi rules (though not as strict as those of some of their neighbours). However, its members are depicted not as representatives of any larger political or even religious struggle (as they mostly are in Israeli movies), but as regular people who are just trying to get by, whether falling unexpectedly in love, grieving for their matriarch or adapting to life in an old people’s home.
I adore the performance of Michael Aloni, who plays Akiva Shtisel, a slightly lost young man who hopes to be, like his father, a rabbi. When he adjusts his payot (long sideburns) in the moment before he speaks to a woman for whom he has the hots, your heart swells like kugel in the pan.
Inside Europe: Ten Years of Turmoil
This article appears in the 30 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Epic fail