In the good old days, when Hackney still had a proper swimming pool, I used to do lengths every morning with an old boy called Bob. And, because I recognised him as a man of a particular generation, I used to prod him in the changing room afterwards to tell me his war stories.
But Bob only ever told me one and it was rather depressing. He’d served in Palestine and one day his convoy had been ambushed by Irgun or Stern gang terrorists. Among those terrorists he and his fellow soldiers had shot while defending themselves was a young pregnant woman. ‘They called us the Baby Killers, after that.’
What a terrible time to have been called up. There are your slightly older mates having all covered themselves in glory in the great heroic war to defeat the Nazi menace. And there you are, six months too late, dispatched to Palestine, there to be decapitated by wire strung across the road, or kidnapped and hanged, or blown up in the King David hotel by committed guerilla fighters who know every trick in the book because, damn it, it was your special forces who trained them. And when you get home, traumatised, no one wants to know, because though all you’ve done is your duty you’ve been tarred as pariahs. Even today, shockingly, there is no memorial in Britain to the servicemen who died there.
It’s partly to amend this historical injustice that Peter Kosminsky (creator of the acclaimed Bosnia drama Warriors) was inspired to make the new, lavish four-parter The Promise (Channel 4, Sunday) about an English girl (Claire Foy) who goes to modern Israel to retrace her grandfather’s footsteps and to witness for herself the legacy of the British Mandate. Presumably — it being Channel 4 — it will all somehow turn out to be our fault.
So far, though, The Promise is looking very, ahem, promising. I’ve read complaints about how schematic it is, with all the points of view dutifully represented by various stock characters: the angry, anti-Zionist leftie; his liberal Jewish dad; the Palestinian freedom fighter whose efforts to embrace peace are daily confounded by the UDF soldiers at the barrier dividing his place of work from his home; the outsider whose outsiderness puts her in the perfect position to say, ‘I don’t understand’ — and then have it all explained; etc.
Well, duh. If you’re going to get the kind of money you need for six hours of location drama set in Israel, then obviously you’re going to have to shoehorn in all the big ishoos in a not always subtle way. What matters more, surely, is whether or not the drama has been stifled in the process. (Well, I’m gripped: but then it does have Claire Foy and guns.) And, also, how intensely bloody annoying and leftie the end product is.
On the latter, I think I’m going to reserve judgment until I’ve read some cleverly argued article by someone I respect who can tell me what to think. At first I did get quite annoyed that the sexy young male lead in the modern-day scenes (as opposed to the British Mandate ones) was indulged with lots of passionate speeches that sounded like Seumas Milne transcripts from the Guardian. But then — spoiler alert, spoiler alert — right at the end, he went into a bar and got blown up by a Palestinian suicide bomber. Which slightly undermined his case about the peaceable instincts of the Palestinians. Or so I thought, anyway.
What I’m definitely 100 per cent sure about is that Episodes (BBC2, Monday) is pure comedy gold. It has lots of doubters — among them, one presumes, that north London public school trendy leftie who’s the new director of programmes at the BBC and thinks all comedies should henceforth be working-class and gritty in deference to these grim recessionary times — but that’s only because it’s subtle and they didn’t watch enough episodes.
This is the one which stars Matt LeBlanc (Joey from Friends), perfectly cast as himself in a comedy about the travails of a husband-and-wife scriptwriting team (Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig) who have come to Hollywood to remake the award-winning sitcom that enjoyed so much success in Britain.
The funniest part are the Americans, especially the shark-eyed producer Merc (John Pankow), who bought the sitcom sight unseen and now thinks certain changes are needed for a US audience. The original starred Richard Griffiths as a fusty prep school headmaster; so clearly what it needs instead is Matt LeBlanc, and maybe he should be a hockey coach, and maybe the show should be renamed Pucks, and maybe the librarian should be a really hot blonde…
If you want to catch just one episode, make it the one where Matt LeBlanc is revealed to be hung like a python. It’s funny, not least because it’s (probably) true.