Brian Donaldson feels, hears and smells the stench of death in a bunch of new documentaries
When reading the brief synopsis of The Fallen (BBC2, Sat 15 Nov, 9.05pm) ••••• your worldview may determine how you approach this documentary: ‘a powerful and poignant film in which families and friends of those who have died fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq talk openly about their loved ones and their grief.’ Should you be a pupil of the ‘live by the sword, die by the sword’ school of sympathy, there will be no tearing you away from The X Factor results spectacle. If you happen to be one of the very few left who still feel that the invasions sparked by the ‘war on terror’ were wholly justified, then this may be a place you’d want to visit to fuel your gung-ho sensibilities and wish for the fight to continue.
But at its core, the second half of the programme’s description holds the most water. While the three hours reflect on those 297 soldiers who have died from 2001 on (that figure has risen to 298 since the film was completed), this is really a story about those left behind and the stricken pain they carry each day which leads them to behave in very different ways as they attempt to rebuild their lives without a loved one. As such, it could just as easily be a film about those who have perished on the nation’s roads or about parents who outlived their children: the grief is tangible, the agony unbearable. Most eye-opening is the number of those who passed away for reasons other than the hostile actions of the Taliban/Iraqi insurgents. Suicide, drowning and road accidents are all in there as the bereaved deal with loss in their own way, whether this is by turning their home into a shrine, having a tattoo done of their beloved or blasting their son’s ashes into the sky with a fireworks display.
There’s nothing quite so dramatic about World War II Behind Closed Doors (BBC2, Fri 21 Nov, 9pm) ••• but this is good old-fashioned documentary making about 20th century conflict. We all know Joseph Stalin as that other moustachioed European tyrant who slaughtered his perceived opponents by the millions, but his talents as a seasoned and manipulative negotiator come to the fore in this series about the rather awkward relationship he enjoyed with Hitler, Churchill and Roosevelt. Most pleasing of all is the filmmakers’ refusal to poison the reconstructions with a Eurotrash voiceover translation from the West Midlands or Croydon, or worse, have the actors burble on in a lobotomised Euro-pudding English. Instead, a subtitle frenzy underpins the various terrors being unleashed on the world often by the flick of a pen on a pact agreement.
Jail Date (Channel 4, Sat 15 Nov, 7pm) ••• features some killers given hope of a life beyond their cell by hooking up with a fragile soul in the free world. The vague twist here is that it’s men falling for women prisoners as we meet Essex lad Richard waiting for Texan beauty Beckey, who may never be released for her crimes, though she continues to plead innocence. Despite having more tattoos than Cape Fear’s Max Cady, Richard lives with his mummy and daddy while he attempts to raise the initial three grand which will help fund her latest appeal. When he melts under Beckey’s videotaped words of love, you can’t be sure whether to pity this daft sod or laugh at his gullibility.
Naivety is perhaps at the heart of the followers of Kurt Cobain still grieving about their lost hero who shot himself in the head leaving behind a wife, daughter and pals because he couldn’t take the pain of fame no more. Maybe just handing in his notice and running for the hills would have been a less glorious departure but it would have saved those who liked his records but loathed the deification from having to listen to all the angst-ridden nonsense about what a tough life this millionaire songwriter had. With Kurt Cobain: About a Son (More4, Tue 18 Nov, 10pm) •, we go over the same old ground again (my daddy didn’t love me, I’m an alien, I have OCD, I had manic depression aged nine, I love drugs me, blah blah etc) except this time it’s in his own words as recorded by music journo Michael Azerrad over separate 25 hours of conversation captured mainly between midnight and 4am. Director AJ Schnack opts to couch Cobain’s tiresome complaining with images of the Washington state that played a major role in the grunge superstar’s life. After 100 minutes of this hokum, which takes the jerk right out of tear-jerking, you too might consider the pointlessness of life.