The Lobby (Episode 4: The Takedown): exposing a brazen suggestion to get rid of a politician

Clayton Swisher, “The Lobby (Episode 4: The Takedown)” (Al Jazeera, 2017)

In the last episode of Qatar TV station Al Jazeera’s series on Israeli infiltration of British politics and in particular the British Labour Party, Al Jazeera’s undercover reporter Robin is being urged by Shai Masot, senior political officer with the Israeli embassy to form a new activist lobby group called the Young Labour Friends of Israel. Viewers can assume, from information in previous episodes, that Masot will assist Robin financially and direct him to people who will advise Robin on what to do and on details of the pro-Israeli agenda the YLFI will be adopting – as long as Robin and the rest of the organisation he will be chairing stay mum on any connections the YLFI will have with the Israeli embassy. Indeed, Masot goes to considerable length to explain to Robin that he (Masot) cannot be seen to be linked to the new organisation in any way – because such a connection violates British law.

From here on, we hear no more of the YLFI or of Robin’s activities for or with that organisation but the episode picks up where Episode 3 left off in pursuing what happens to Jean Fitzpatrick after her unpleasant encounter with Joan Ryan who reports her to senior Labour Party officials for making “anti-Semitic” statements. Fitzpatrick is subjected to an investigation which eventually clears her name but not before causing her considerable distress.

The rest of Episode 4 focuses on Robin’s meetings with British public servant Maria Strizzolo and Shai Masot. Strizzolo, an aide to MP Robert Halfon, happily admits that the Israeli embassy tries to influence and direct British political culture by insinuating itself with party whips who keep order and discipline within their respective parties and alert MPs to attend parliamentary sessions when debating and voting on legislation is taking place. Robin also attends a meeting held by the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the largest pro-Israeli political lobby organisation in Washington DC, in London. AIPAC’s aim is to encourage and ensure that the UK’s policy on Israeli affairs matches that of the US. What is most alarming though is that at one of Robin’s meetings with Masot, Masot proposes setting up a front company to fight the Boycott-Divest-Sanction (BDS) movement and to “take down” British politicians known for supporting the rights of Palestinians. Masot mentions the name of one particular politician whom he would like to see gone.

That the Israeli embassy would employ people who not only seek to influence and direct British politics but also try to get rid of politicians and members of political parties is astonishingly brazen and makes Israel a major threat to British national security. When this episode aired in Britain, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn complained in an open letter to the Prime Minister and urged her to open an inquiry into the incident. The Israeli ambassador to the UK apologised for Masot’s remark. Masot himself resigned from the embassy and was recalled to Israel. Strizzolo also resigned from the UK civil service. That Theresa May’s government took no further action against Israeli embassy staff or Israel – yet is happy to throw out Russian embassy staff over a poisoning incident involving a Russian traitor spy and his innocent daughter for which it has no proof of Moscow’s culpability – demonstrates its stupidity and incompetence.

At this point, viewers learn nothing more about Robin or the group he was supposed to have set up. Being the final episode, “The Takedown” might reasonably be supposed to clear up most loose ends of what had been begun in earlier episodes. Googling for information on the Young Labour Friends of Israel, I found nothing so that particular abomination presumably stays stillborn.

The entire series has been informative, even if on a fairly superficial and somewhat confusing level. It does not claim to be the definitive summary of how Israel seeks to influence and mould British politics and political culture to its liking. Doubtless there may be other ways the Israeli government tries to inveigle its way into Westminster. At the very least, a scalp has been claimed – but this does not mean the Israelis will not be deterred from what they are doing.

The Lobby (Episode 3: An Anti-Semite Trope): how small-minded cult-like behaviour threatens democracy and citizens’ rights to free speech

Clayton Swisher, “The Lobby (Episode 3: An Anti-Semite Trope)” (Al Jazeera, 2017)

In this third episode of the four-part series focusing on the Israeli government’s infiltration of political parties and grassroots political movements in Britain, the emphasis shifts away from Al Jazeera’s undercover reporter Robin (who is posing as a pro-Israeli activist ingratiating himself with activists in the pro-Israeli lobby) and to UK Labour Party member Jean Fitzpatrick who is attending the UK Labour Party conference in Liverpool. She strikes up a conversation with people at a Labour Friends of Israel booth at the conference and asks two LFI representatives on how Israel will implement a two-state solution that will suit both Israel and the Palestinians. The representatives either avoid the question or spout tired old rubbish about how the security situation in Israel must improve before work can begin on the two-state solution or how Israel has the issue in hand and is proceeding slowly but steadily. No answer satisfies Fitzpatrick so she repeatedly presses the issue. At last one LFI booth representative (and British Labour Party politician) Joan Ryan cuts off Fitzpatrick and refuses to debate any more with her. Fitzpatrick drifts away and Ryan decides to report their exchange to LFI and other associated pro-Israeli flacks as “anti-Semitic”. One things leads to another and yet another, and it’s not long before Fitzpatrick discovers she is under investigation from her own party for supposedly “anti-Semitic” behaviour at an information stall at the Labour Party conference.

The way in which an argument (about whether the Israeli government is dragging its heels over developing a two-state solution that helps all parties involved in the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestinians) is deliberately exaggerated and blown up into an insidious and ridiculous “anti-Semitic” rant would be deserving only of egg-throwing derision and scorn were it not real. The reactions of Ryan and her fellow pro-Israeli activists (including the Israeli embassy’s senior political officer Shai Masot) can only be described as stupid, deranged and cruel. Fitzpatrick had not expressed a personal opinion about Jewish people or individuals and her initial question had concerned only the Israeli government’s deliberate delay in carrying out the two-state solution. The fact that Ryan could exaggerate aspects of her exchange with Fitzpatrick, twist those aspects into a fairy-tale and then expect her fellow LFI members and others who support her to accept her lies uncritically and without demanding proof shows the depth of deranged idiocy and the narrow-minded and uninformed viewpoints of her intended audience. Ryan and her pals in LFI and other pro-Israel groups repeatedly turn over her exchange with Jean Fitzpatrick among themselves and in their own minds to the point where the reality and actual subject matter of that exchange disappear in their feverish imaginings, to be replaced by their own small-minded fantasies about how Jewish people are continually being harassed and hounded out of whichever communities they live in, in countries where by and large Jewish people and communities rarely suffer discrimination at present.

Robin attends and records other events at the conference but few have the fire of Fitzpatrick and Ryan’s debate. As usual the oily Shai Masot works his crowd by appearing to offer support or money, or bringing together people from different pro-Israeli organisations. In further interviews, Fitzpatrick expresses concern that her encounter with Ryan is endangering her party membership and her fear that other consequences that might threaten her personal affairs may also follow.

This episode demonstrates the real menace that Israeli penetration of political and grassroots activist organisations and movements poses to democracy (or whatever is left of it in Britain) and to ordinary Britons’ right to free speech. Distressingly, when Al Jazeera later asks Joan Ryan about her argument with Fitzpatrick, Ryan continues to assert that any form of “anti-Semitism”, which in her mind covers any criticism or opinion that suggests the Israeli government is less than squeaky-clean angelic in whatever it does, is unacceptable and she will continue to speak out against it at the risk of inviting other people’s judgements on her intelligence. Ryan’s behaviour and the way in which other pro-Israeli activists collude and encourage that behaviour, and exaggerate incidents, building them into something outrageous and entirely untrue, suggest a cult-like mind-set cut off from reality and reason.

The Lobby (Episode 2: The Training Session): undercover investigation reveals fanaticism and sociopathy

Clayton Swisher, “The Lobby (Episode 2: The Training Session)” (Al Jazeera, 2017)

Continuing on from Episode 1 “Young Friends of Israel”, in this episode Al Jazeera’s undercover investigator Robin discovers more about how far the Israeli government seeks to influence and mould British political policy to favour its own policies with regard to how it treats Palestinians in the territories it occupies and its ambitions and agenda in the Middle East, through the Israeli embassy’s meddling in the affairs of the Labour Party (UK) and in particular the youth organisations and other movements connected to it. Here, the focus is on the party conference held in Liverpool and the activities the Israeli embassy (through its senior political officer) engages in with various activists already embedded in organisations like Labour Friends of Israel and We Believe In Israel to lobby Labour Party attendees. Having already ingratiated himself with these activists, Robin is tasked with setting up a new youth movement, the Young Labour Friends of Israel (what an imaginative name), attached to the Labour Party and to liaise with other pro-Israeli activists to help promote the movement.

The narrative tends to jump and chop around, making viewing hard to follow, and Robin’s task in forming the new group is mentioned no further. Enough other things happen during this episode that are sure to stun viewers harder than cows being hit and shocked in abattoirs. One pro-Israeli activist admits to accepting help and funding from the Israeli embassy and then goes on to say that his organisation goes to great lengths to distance itself from Israel to appear “independent”. In another part of the film, several people discuss a plan to form a new group in the UK that will link up with the main pro-Israeli lobby group in the US, the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee aka AIPAC. Much of the film is taken up with a training session at the Labour Party conference which is more or less dominated by pro-Israeli activists lecturing the audience on anti-Semitism: a few attendees are shocked at what they hear and protest that opposition to Israeli government policy and actions and elements of current Zionist ideology does not constitute anti-Semitism. One of these attendees is Jackie Walker, vice-chair of Momentum, and herself of mixed Jewish and black ancestry, who is later interviewed at length in the film.

A truly disturbing moment in the film comes when pro-Israeli activist Ella Rose, director of the Jewish Labour Movement, is rumbled by Electronic Intifada for having held a job with the Israeli Embassy; for this, she is criticised by Jackie Walker on social media (for presumably not having revealed her full work background before applying for the post). Rose’s reaction to Walker’s criticism is to threaten the diminutive Momentum vice-chair with violence. Walker’s shocked response to Rose’s vindictive threat can only be imagined.

The deliberate secrecy and duplicity with which the Israeli embassy representative and his pro-Israeli activist pals plan to infiltrate the Labour Party conference with their propaganda and money (amounting to one million pounds), the evasiveness of the various organisations when later questioned by Al Jazeera over their connections with the Israeli embassy, and the thuggish and hostile response of Ella Rose over her exposure by Electronic Intifada reveal the sociopathic and fanatical mindset these people share and the danger they pose to the Labour Party and British politics generally. Unfortunately, the actions of these pro-Israeli activists and the government that feeds and funds them make this documentary necessary for the rest of us to watch, to remind ourselves of the extremes they may well be prepared to go to, to succeed in their quest.

The Lobby (Episode 1: Young Friends of Israel): how Israel infiltrates youth groups and organisations in Britain

Clayton Swisher, “The Lobby (Episode 1: Young Friends of Israel)” (Al Jazeera, 2017)

In recent years, a movement known as the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) movement has grown – especially among young people – to protest the Israeli government’s inhumane treatment of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. To counter the BDS movement’s popularity in the United Kingdom, the Israeli government has resorted to penetrating university student unions, grassroots activist movements, think-tanks and youth groups allied to major political parties with propaganda, money and offers of trips to Israel. This first episode of a four-part series focused on the pro-Israeli lobby in the UK follows an undercover reporter, known as Robin, who ingratiates himself with activists in several of these groups and the contacts they have with the Israeli embassy in London.

For a 25-minute documentary, running at a brisk pace, this film is very dense with information on various groups, several of which are connected directly or indirectly to the British Labour Party – the film does not follow equivalent groups affiliated with the Conservative Party which already has a pro-Israeli platform – and in which a number of activists are working with a contact from the Israeli embassy to present a more benevolent and favourable view of Israel and its policies, and to push back “anti-Semitism”, as they define it. Astonishingly, most of these activists know one another and the Israeli embassy contact very well, and have also done some work at the Israeli embassy. Robin is encouraged not only to set up a pro-Israeli group but also to accept a job at the Israeli embassy, which is also interested in recruiting him. This perhaps suggests that these activists form a very small, cliquish network, and their work is likely to be cut out for them trying to convince others to join them. Unfortunately, due perhaps to Robin’s need to keep the real nature of his investigations secret, he does not ask these people how successful they have been so far.

One disturbing aspect of the film comes when two vice-presidents of the National Union of Students (NUS) talk to Robin about getting rid of President Malia Bouattia for supporting the BDS movement and criticising Israeli behaviour towards the Palestinians. One of the vice-presidents is revealed as having accepted a free trip to Israel through the Union of Jewish Students, which itself has received money from the Israeli embassy.

This film sheds a light on how Israel attempts through underhanded ways to influence political discourse on issues affecting not just its own politics but on the politics of other Middle Eastern states. It is worth following to get an overview of how far it will go to advance its own interests by infiltrating student organisations in universities and branches of political parties aimed at encouraging young people to enter politics.

The Wicker Man: a satire on religious bigotry and fanaticism, in whichever religion these are found

Robin Hardy “The Wicker Man” (1973) In spite of a small budget and the set-backs it suffered during filming and the post-production process, this short movie quickly achieved cult status and has become a much-loved British classic in satirising religious fanaticism and control. Police sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), a devout Christian, comes to the Scottish West Highland island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. He is astonished to find vegetation and fruits not native to the island growing in apparent abundance. He is even more horrified to discover that the islanders practise nature-based rituals and customs with clear sexual undertones that offend his Christian religious sensibilities. In his investigation of the girl’s disappearance, Howie comes to learn more about the island’s religious rituals and in particular its May Day ceremony, which the islanders are about to celebrate very soon. He also learns something of the island’s history from Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) who tells him that the adoption of pagan religious elements and rituals was a brainwave of his Victorian-era ancestor to motivate the local people to work at growing food in the island’s volcanic soils under temperate year-round weather influenced by the Gulf Stream. Howie soon becomes convinced that the girl is not dead and that the islanders have hidden her and plan to sacrifice her during May Day celebrations. He infiltrates the May Day parade dressed as a foolish clown figure and gives himself away to the islanders when he spies the girl on a hillside apparently dressed up as a sacrificial lamb and tries to save her. Too late he realises that the girl was part of an entrapment scheme, the result of which seals his own fate … As a religious bigot, unable to appreciate the folkways of what turns out to be a very different culture in spite of the islanders wearing Western dress and leading a way of life not very different from other rural Scottish villages of their time, Howie should have been a very unlikable man who deserves what’s coming to him. Woodward’s excellent performance as the police officer grappling with his beliefs, his conscience and his uncertainty, however manages to elicit some audience sympathy for his fate. Increasingly confused by the islanders’ antics, the tricks they play on him (including sabotaging his seaplane) and their indifference to his orders and pleas, Howie resorts to spouting religious dogma in such a way that one wonders if his own faith is wavering and his courage is failing him. In this, for all his faults Howie becomes as much a victim of his own faith as he will be of other people’s beliefs. No less inflexible is Lord Summerisle, whose own fanaticism soon becomes apparent beneath the urbane exterior. Lee delivers a performance that ranges from friendly warmth and sophistication to cold, grim religious zeal in leading a group of people who initially seem New Age hippie-ish in their ideas and beliefs but turn out to be rigidly superstitious and lacking in genuine spirituality and compassion. The supporting cast ranges from good to mediocre; Britt Ekland as the innkeeper’s comely daughter should never have been advised to give up her day job, whatever it was in the early 1970s. The cinematography captures perfectly the strange atmosphere surrounding the lush vegetation on farmland, the wild green plains and the mighty waves lashing the rocky coastlines. The pacing can be a bit slow for a police action thriller and perhaps some of the folk songs featured in the film could have been pruned back or even left out once viewers accept the pagan character of Summerisle. The film’s horror, at once astounding and horrifying, is revealed close to its end; but plenty of dread and unsettling strangeness was cultivated throughout the film, leading up to its unforgettable climax. Significantly Howie warns Lord Summerisle that if the island’s crops fail again as they did the previous year – because they really are not suited to the island’s physical environment – then the Lord himself may be subjected to the same fate as Howie. Here is a lesson in having humility and accepting that your own religious system has its limitations and cannot be applied to all possible situations. There are many ambiguities in the film due to its tight budget and corresponding tight production schedule. The pacing can be a bit slow, at least until the film’s climax. Apart from these details, the film does well in slowly revealing the full Gothic horror behind what would have been a normal police procedural drama.

Equus: a psychodrama of outstanding performances and troubling philosophical questions about individuality and creativity

Sidney Lumet, “Equus” (1977)

He never won an individual Academy Award for Best Movie or Best Director but surely Sidney Lumet is one of the greatest film directors – in particular of films focusing on anti-hero characters battling with obsessions or guilt, or finding themselves at odds with social expectations and the pressure to conform, with the result that they end up cut off from their true aspirations and become hollow robots – ever to grace this undeserving planet. Unafraid to tackle issues of social justice, and using a classic realistic style of telling his story, Lumet attracted fine actors and drew strong, complex performances from them. His film adaptation of Peter Schaffer’s play “Equus”, for which Schaffer himself modified his play, is an excellent example of Lumet’s oeuvre: an excellent cast featuring Richard Burton, Peter Firth and Joan Plowright among others; themes of religious obsession and of a man wrestling with his conscience over remolding young mentally disturbed and troubled people into robots like himself acceptable to society; and a straightforward realist approach that forces audiences to confront the issues raised by the original play about psychoanalysis and its uses.

Child psychiatrist / psychoanalyst Martin Dysart (Burton) has reached a crisis of burnout, disillusionment and uncertainty after a long career treating adolescent and young adult patients with mental health issues and disturbances. A new patient, Alan Strang (Firth), is referred to him, Strang having entered the mental health facility where Dysart works after committing a bizarre crime. Initially Alan resists Dysart’s probing questioning but after the two agree on a bartering system where Dysart must respond to a question from Alan when Alan answers his question, Alan begins to open up about his family background: his mother Dora (Plowright), a fanatical fundamentalist Christian believer, and his father (Colin Blakely), a determined atheist, have improbably combined to impose a highly restrictive and repressive family life, complete with a rigid religious tradition heavy on ritual, upon their only son. Imagination, fun and laughter, and genuine love, freely and unconditionally given, are absent from the boy’s life and in their place are religious obsession bordering on the fanatical and a fear of sexuality combined with hypocrisy and furtive voyeurism on the father’s part.

A childhood incident directs Alan’s focus of worship of the divine and channels the creative and sexual urges he is forced by his parents to suppress into idealising horses. A young woman Jill (Jenny Agutter) helps him get a job as a stable-hand caring for six horses but the constant physical contact with the animals brings out Alan’s obsessions which he acts upon. Jill is attracted to Alan and attempts to have sexual intercourse with him but Alan’s failure brings intense anguish which results in extreme violence to his beloved animals.

Alan’s opening up unexpectedly forces Dysart to admit to his own sterile personal life and confront the paradox in his own life, in which to deal with young people’s mental health issues and return them to normal (dysfunctional) society he must destroy their natural creative urge and zest for living. After hearing Alan’s admission of his crime, Dysart once again faces what he most dreads doing: to “heal” Alan and return him to his dysfunctional family, he must rob the boy of that which gives him his individuality, creative being and reason for living and turn the boy into an emotionally hollow robot … just like himself.

Both Burton and Firth give impassioned and intense performances as the doctor who envies Alan for his vitality and the troubled boy himself, beset by obsessions he barely understands. Through these two actors and their dialogue, the issues of how an individual must suppress his/her creative being, to the point of suffocating it altogether, in order to fit into and function within a rigid, repressive society. Plowright and Blakely acquit themselves well as the parents who confuse their son and set him on the path of idealising and worshipping the Dionysian (chaotic) elements within and without him. Agutter has very little to do but makes her character real enough.

While Lumet is a straight-out realist director, and a number of scenes in the film may be over-dramatised and horrific for most audiences, his direction allows the narrative to flow fairly easily and Burton’s monologues, in which he envies Alan as the personification of that which is dead within him and agonises over the treatment that he must give to Alan that will kill the boy inwardly and turn him into an “adult”, sit easily with the action in the film. The dream-like scenes in which Alan rides naked on his favourite horse can be confrontational and intense but they are done fairly tastefully; less so the scenes in which Alan mutilates the horses in his care, which (to me) show far too much and don’t seem very realistic.

The film raises important questions about human freedom and individuality, and how the individual yearning for freedom, creative being and fulfilling one’s potential can be accommodated in a society that prizes conformity and fears the passion and intensity required to achieve full freedom and creativity. Religious obsession, and how it combines with sexual suppression and directs it into channels that fling both religiosity and sexuality into people’s faces in the most confronting ways – Plowright as the fanatical mother fails to make the connection between the way she has brought up her son and his obsession with horses – is dealt with less successfully and Alan’s self-flagellation may come across to audiences as rather bizarre and theatrical, rather than as something to be pitied. While perhaps Lumet’s realist approach does not suit “Equus” very well – it originated as a stylised play after all – it does a great job delineating its psychological themes and portraying one of the most important philosophical questions about how far individuality and freedom can thrive in society.

Money laundering, political corruption, stolen billions and a secret mafia in “The Spider’s Web: Britain’s Second Empire”

Michael Oswald, “The Spider’s Web: Britain’s Second Empire” (2017)

A very important and necessary documentary, in light of ongoing financial crises in many countries, supposedly necessitating austerity programs and privatisations of state-owned companies and corporations that have the effect of impoverishing the vast majority of people in those countries while leading to capital flight and the enrichment of elites, both local and foreign, “The Spider’s Web …” takes as its premise the notion that the British empire never really died; instead the empire transformed itself from a physical entity with a network of colonies covering the planet into an empire in the abstract: a financial empire whose network is flows of money and whose colonies are tax havens cum secrecy jurisdictions. At the heart of this second empire, as it was of the first, is the City of London, a political institution founded by the Romans and thus much older than the English people themselves, and which controls the British Parliament through having a seat there and the City Remembrancer who is the channel of communication between the City of London and the British government.

The documentary whisks viewers through a brief description of the City of London and how it controlled the British empire in the past and strove to recreate the empire through the financial industry. Particular attention is paid to the creation of secrecy jurisdictions in various offshore places like the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean Sea, the Channel Islands and other parts of the world. Other financial tools, strategies and institutions, such as trusts and the establishment of the London Eurodollar market, initially founded as quite innocent phenomena in themselves, eventually ended up being abused in the interest of evading tax and money-laundering. (Strangely the documentary does not mention the use of profit shifting among subsidiaries of a company in different taxation jurisdictions as a tax evasion ruse.) Oswald and the people he interviews – these include John Christensen, a former Deloittes’ accountant and current head of the Tax Justice Network, author Nicholas Shaxson who wrote “Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men who stole the World”, economist Michael Hudson and European Parliament member Eva Joly – demonstrate how this second British empire exercises its malignant influences: by enabling corrupt politicians and others to hide vast amounts of money representing stolen wealth in accounts with overseas banks, while the people they govern flounder in debt and poverty; and by shifting wealth away from the economy of making and distributing goods (and services directly associated with that economy) to the economy of money flows, divorced from the real economy. Thus as the financial economy in a country becomes important, the other economy where goods are manufactured and sold to end users ends up being drained of its wealth by the financial economy parasite.

The documentary diverts into other secondary issues such as the power and influence of the major global accounting firms (Deloittes, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Ernst & Young, KPMG) in enabling the British Empire Mk II to run smoothly, the phenomenon of Private Finance Initiative whereby private firms are contracted by government to carry out state projects, and the peculiar insular culture of Jersey, one of the Channel Islands, which enforces conformity and secrecy on people working in banks in that tax haven and punishes whistle-blowers like Jersey councillor Stuart Syvret severely through constant lawsuits.

Made on the proverbial shoe-string budget (of 4,000 pounds sterling), the documentary by necessity has a minimal bare-bones style of presentation with voice-over narration and interviews doing all the work of providing facts and figures. For this reason, the documentary could work well as a radio or online sound broadcast. On the other hand, some animation that helps to illustrate the nature of such items as the PFI or trusts might have been helpful. Historical archive footage is used to good effect and is paralleled by the quaint and slightly risible parades and traditions that take place in the City of London. The documentary does tend to meander, at least until close to the end, and structuring it according to the topics discussed might have helped to keep it tighter and more coherent.

Even so, with its technical flaws, this film is concise, elegantly made and never boring; indeed, the story it has to tell is more riveting than any spy thriller Ian Fleming hammered out on his trusty typewriter while living in the Caribbean. It really deserves to be more widely seen and known: its argument that the British empire never actually went away but recreated itself through the global financial industry, ending up with a more extensive reach across the planet and greater riches than the physical empire ever did, is quietly and matter-of-factly persuasive.

Evil under the Sun: a minor crime caper classic portraying a self-contained, self-absorbed world of the rich at play

Guy Hamilton, “Evil under the Sun” (1981)

Even when he’s holidaying in an apparently perfect little Mediterranean paradise where the sky is always celestial blue and the sea is turquoise serene, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov) is followed by murder most brutal and intriguing. In this 1981 adaptation of the 1940 Agatha Christie novel, the setting moves from Devon in England to the exotic Adriatic locale of Tyrania where the former mistress of the King of Tyrania, Daphne Castle (Maggie Smith), runs a hotel that accepts English guests on a picturesque little island. Here, Poirot has been invited by millionaire Horace Blatt (Colin Blakely) to stay for a while after the detective examined a diamond returned to Blakely by his former girlfriend, actress / singer Arlena Marshall (Diana Rigg) and declared it a fake; Blakely knows that Arlena is coming to the island with her husband Kenneth (Denis Quilley) and his daughter Linda (Emily Hone) and he wants Poirot close by when he confronts Arlena with the fake. Also arriving on the island is a young couple, Patrick Redfern (Nicolas Clay) and his meek, downtrodden wife Christine (Jane Birkin): they have come at the personal invitation of Arlena. Other guests present who also know Arlena are the Gardeners (James Mason and Sylvia Miles) who were nearly financially ruined when Arlena walked out of a play they were producing; and Rex Brewster (Roddy McDowall) who is writing a tell-all biography of the actress. Once everyone has arrived, Arlena proceeds to annoy them all by flirting outrageously with Patrick, abusing her stepdaughter, arguing with Horace over the diamond and threatening Rex if he continues to write the biography. The rivalry between Arlena and Daphne, dormant since their days together as dancers and actresses in a chorus line, revs up with both women trading spiteful looks and venomous barbs even as they entertain guests in an impromptu performance of the Cole Porter song “You’re the Top”.

It’s no surprise to viewers then that a couple of days after the Marshalls’ arrival at the resort that Arlena turns up very dead on the beach yet all the guests and the hotel staff have water-tight alibis. Daphne appeals to Poirot to solve the murder quickly with the minimum of fuss and inconvenience before news gets out beyond the island. Poirot accepts the challenge and goes about interviewing everyone, noting down the details of what they say, piecing the clues together and coming up with an astonishing explanation that not only solves the mystery of who murdered Arlena but also resolves an earlier unsolved mystery of the murder of a woman killed in Yorkshire.

The film is noted for its light-hearted tone, its ensemble cast who represent some of the finest British actors of their time (and who also appear to have enjoyed working together and over-acting their parts) and the attention given to recreating the pre-Second World War holiday world of rich and privileged British tourists in their costumes, their pastimes and the popular music of the era. Its highlight is the scene in which Maggie Smith and Diana Rigg hoof it up with their rendition of “You’re the Top”, all the while shooting each other evil looks and Smith flinging her scarf “accidentally” all over Rigg in a smooth action that must have been done in one perfect take. Alas, that such encounters between the two actresses are few and far between, and once Rigg is out of the film at its halfway point, some of the early electricity fades away.

The intriguing part about “Evil …” is its obsession with maintaining order and an image of the English as an imperturbable, stiff upper-lipped folk: the reality is that emotion, greed, selfishness and desire for vengeance leading to tragedy are never far below the cool and calm surface sheen. Poirot plays his part in shoring up that false image though one has the impression he sees through that mask; it is only his own personal desire for orderliness and holding back the forces of chaos and irrationality that pushes him to uphold that image again and again and again. Thanks to him, wrongs are set right and for a brief time order reigns again – but Poirot well knows that reign will be temporary and he will have to battle evil again. The change in setting from England to a secluded and self-contained holiday resort on a fictional Mediterranean island (the film was made in Majorca, in Spain), cut off from the rest of the world, highlights the contrast between the glamorous surface appearance of rich people at play and the subterranean tensions within them.

For this reason as well as the others mentioned above – in particular, the recreation of a world now lost, and which the British are attempting to restore,  in their culture and through their propaganda, and failing badly – “Evil under the Sun” is to be regarded as a minor crime caper classic.

Salisbury! A Day in Skripal City: a snapshot of a city in shock and uncertainty

Graham Phillips, “Salisbury! A Day in Skripal City” (July 2018)

In late July, British journalist / film-maker Graham Phillips spent time in Salisbury in southern England to speak to local people on their opinions of the ongoing police investigation into the purported poisoning of the Russian-born British spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Julia Skripal by Novichok nerve agent at a park in the middle of the city. As of this time of writing (early August 2018), the whereabouts of the Skripals remain unknown after their release from Salisbury District Hospital in May. Since then a couple, Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess, have also been poisoned, apparently by Novichok which Rowley found in a well-packaged perfume bottle left at a park in Amesbury, a small city not far from both Salisbury and the Porton Down military defence laboratory, a place notorious for various experiments involving the use of VX nerve gas during the 1950s. Sturgess died in hospital and her body was cremated just recently. Despite constant assertions by the British government and news media that Novichok was the toxin involved in both poisoning events and that Russia has to be responsible for sending or allowing this toxin to be used in Salisbury and Amesbury, the British authorities have not offered any evidence or established a clear chain of custody linking the poisonings to either the Russian government or Russian crime gangs.

In this video and also in this one on his Salisbury trip, Phillips travels by train from London to the city (noting the sizable train fare of 35 pounds) and walks through the streets to the local branch of Zizzi’s Restaurant, a restaurant franchise network with outlets throughout the UK and in some cities overseas. Zizzi’s in Salisbury is one of a number of places Sergei and Julia Skripal visited in the city in the crucial hours of Sunday 4 March 2018 before they were found unconscious and convulsing on a park bench in the shopping mall. The two are known to have ordered seafood risotto meals at Zizzi’s and to have fussed noisily when the dishes were late in coming out to their table.

Phillips sees that Zizzi’s is still closed with hoardings placed in front and guarded by two security guards. He hovers close by and starts talking to pedestrians. Most people refuse to talk about what they know (or don’t know) about the Skripals and only two gentlemen aged 50+ years offer what they know of the couple and the poisoning. Interestingly both doubt the official British government and news media versions of what happened, perhaps because in the weeks following the incident, the story of how the Skripals were poisoned and how the Novichok reached Britain kept changing from one day to the next. Fanciful tales about the Novichok being inserted through the air-conditioning system of the Skripal family car to a friend of Julia’s bringing a packet of buckwheat cereal contaminated with the stuff from Moscow on a late plane, to Julia herself carrying a perfume bottle of Novichok given her by her prospective mother-in-law flew, and finally to the toxin being applied in a gel-like form to the doorknob of the Skripal family home by a secret hit squad from Russia flew about. In the meantime, a police detective also fell victim to Novichok, was hospitalised, treated and released (to an unknown location); the Skripal house was sealed off (later to be bought by the UK government); and the Skripal family pets either starved to death or were so malnourished from starvation that when eventually found were put to sleep. The animals were later incinerated (along with the Zizzi’s Restaurant table that the Skripals dined upon and the famous park bench) at Porton Down without any autopsying done. Indeed, with the recent cremation of Sturgess, the British government seems anxious to get rid of what should be considered forensic evidence for a possible inquest or trial on what happened to the Skripals, Sturgess and her partner.

Looking for more obliging interviewees, Phillips wanders around Salisbury and comes across the park where the Skripals collapsed. Originally cordoned off by police after the Skripals had been taken to hospital, the park is now surrounded by huge advertising hoardings urging Salisbury residents and tourists to keep calm and keep visiting and shopping. A woman feeding pigeons informs him that the park bench has been removed but Phillips does not follow up asking her or anyone else what happened to it. Phillips walks back to the shopping centre and passes The Mill pub where the Skripals had drinks after lunch on the fateful day.

In all, with the amount of time Phillips has spent pounding the pavement trying to find people willing to offer their views on the poisoning incident or on the UK news media coverage of the same, he gets very few responses, and those mostly from people of an age who might figure they’ve now got nothing to lose by talking. The level of knowledge the respondents have about the incident is vague, given that they live in the city or its surrounds, and the general attitude seems to be one of indifference and apathy.

With the camera bouncing up and down constantly and whizzing about, viewers can feel a bit queasy; this video has not been edited for length. As we follow Phillips about, gaining a close view of his surroundings, we see a city trying desperately to regain a sense of normalcy and not coping very well with its newfound notoriety: several shops have shut down, awaiting new owners and businesses with an air of desolation; there are not many tourists in the city for the time of year (July 2018); people keep their heads down, their faces shuttered; and in some parts of the city, a certain melancholy is present. While the urban landscape is neat and clean, and the park is well kept, a sense of unease seems to be present.

He might not have found the answers he was looking for but in this video Phillips has captured a snapshot of a city teetering on the verge of psychological depression. Unless the British authorities offer definitive evidence and answers as to what poisoned the Skripals, who poisoned them and the motive behind the poisoning, and above all admit to where the Skripals have been removed, Salisbury will continue to suffer in silence.

A devious history of chemical and biological weapons on “Secret Science: Chemical and Biological Weapons” that stops short of serious criticism

Tim Usborne, “Secret Science: Chemical and Biological Weapons” (2016)

In 2016, the year of its centenary, Britain’s major defence science and technology park, popularly known as Porton Down, received a visit from BBC TV science and medical commentator Dr Michael Mosley and film crew. Mosley and Company prowl around a small part of the facilities – which look just how viewers might imagine they would look, if they’d been told that the area contained a mixture of office buildings dating as far back as 1916 and open-space test sites – and are suitably awed by the labs with all their equipment and machines, the secret chambers, the furnaces where old and outlawed substances are destroyed, and the labyrinths of corridors connecting the various rooms. Much of the documentary is structured around the history of Porton Down, the reasons for its establishment during World War I, the substances its scientists researched or developed (including mustard gas, sarin and VX nerve gas) and the controversial experiments performed on animals and humans alike. The story of Ronald Maddison, a young RAF serviceman who died in 1953 during a sarin liquid experiment (for which he had volunteered after being told the experiment was a test for flu vaccine), followed by 50 years of British government secrecy until a second inquest into his death in 2004 brought it into the public domain, is mentioned as an example of such notorious experimentation and the efforts expended by the government to quash public knowledge of it.

As might be expected of the BBC, the documentary treats Porton Down as a beneficent institution whose staff can be regarded as heroes and heroines working for the defence of the British nation against sinister chemical and biological warfare weapons that enemies around the world might unleash. The program acknowledges that animals were experimented upon, and many of these creatures died painful deaths, but their suffering and deaths are to be seen as necessary in the context of major conflicts such as the two World Wars and the Cold War, and subsequent new wars in which various parties including terrorist groups do not care about the Geneva Convention on the prohibition of the use of chemical and biological warfare weapons. So nothing is said about the notorious 2-year experiment over 2012 – 2014 in which over 220 guinea pigs died after exposure to chemical warfare weapons. The program descends into outright propaganda and lies when it asserts that in 1988, the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein gassed Kurdish villagers in Halabja with sarin gas (and not a mixture of mustard gas and various unidentified nerve gas agents as should have seen stated); and that in 2013, the Syrian government (called “regime”, as if the Syrian public had never accepted it) under President Bashar al Assad also unleashed sarin gas in east Ghouta, a suburban / exurban area to the east of Damascus.

While peering around some of the laboratories – Mosley and the film crew were not allowed to roam freely for security reasons – and seeing elaborate testing, including the testing of sarin on spider-web gossamer wound around an implement, can be fun and exciting, we are reminded of Porton Down’s role as a front-line crusading against dastardly secret new weapons technologies exploiting the strengths of chemical and biological agents. For obvious reasons, the possibility that Porton Down might willingly and knowingly supply such dangerous agents to terrorist organisations to wage war on governments that the US and the UK desire to overthrow is lost on Mosley and the BBC.

A more informative documentary on the history of Porton Down and its current role and value to UK military defence and UK science generally, and which does not skirt around the laboratory complex’s willingness to use animal and non-consenting human subjects (including communities secretly sprayed with chemical aerosols) or Porton Down’s links to regime change, war and terrorism, would be welcome.