Magazine article The Spectator

History on the Fly

Magazine article The Spectator

History on the Fly

Article excerpt

Norma Percy's latest documentary, Israel and the Arabs: Elusive Peace (BBC 2, Monday), was another remarkable production from Brook Lapping, a company that specialises in catching history on the fly, as it whizzes past. The first episode (of three) covered 1999 and 2000, when Bill Clinton became the latest US president to imagine that he could do some good. He was wrong, but you had to admire him for trying, with bravery, optimism and that slightly alarming secret smile of his.

The Brook Lapping style only works if you have the main players on camera, telling exactly what happened, and by some miracle they had managed to get them all. Except for Yasser Arafat, of course, though they had library film of him, too. But there was Ehud Barak, then prime minister of Israel, Clinton's secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, who charged hither and yon like a particularly nimble Brahmin bull, plus the interpreters.

They usually have the best stories because they aren't worried about what history, or even their electorates, will make of their performance.

You would imagine that a series of talking heads -- 'Then I made this offer, then I told him that might be difficult, then he said he would consult his advisers' -- would be tedious beyond words, but in fact it is compulsive, and like any drama has its most enthralling scenes. This week it came when Barak offered half of Jerusalem to the Palestinians. 'If he doesn't accept this, he's just a terrorist . . .' he had said. It was a back-of-the-neck-bristling moment.

In a sense this is the true end of history.

The phrase 'History will decide' is always meaningless, since nothing in history can be fixed in amber. It's not like proving the theory of relativity, or Fermat's last theorem -- something that can be established before we move on. If history ever made up its mind, historians would all be out of work.

And perhaps they will be. Because with a resource like this series, it is possible to come fairly close to knowing precisely what happened, what everyone said and what their motives were. Imagine if Norma Percy had interviewed Hitler and Chamberlain about Munich, or had rounded up all the key people at the Council of Vienna. The dole queue would stretch from Peterhouse to Trinity.

Nothing by Brook Lapping was at the top end of Channel 4's Fifty Greatest Documentaries (Sunday), which was a pity.

Instead, the industry professionals who compiled the list tended to go for the splashier and the more violent: Death on the Rock, for example, and Fourteen Days in May, about the Munich Olympics massacre. …

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