I am not sure if I would have been able to cope with the Peter Brook stage version of the Mahabharata, which I believe ran to nine hours (across three plays) but the television version shown by Channel 4 in 1990 was an event in itself. As in the stage version, the television dramatisation of the Hindu holy work was split into three films. ‘The Game of Dice’ is the first, taking its title from the pivotal moment in the original texts.
The Mahabharata is fifteen times longer than the bible so obviously takes a visionary of the likes of Peter Brook to bring it to the stage and screen. Brook’s creativity is needed to provide a way for the viewer through the complexities of the story. The first episode opens with a boy and a poet. This device allows us a narrator, a poet, who tells the story to the boy with the help of Ganesh, the god with the head of an elephant.
We are introduced to the main characters and their mythic origins. Central to the on-going story is the animosity between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, two branches of the same family. This leads to a game of dice; a challenge from a Kaurava brother to the leader of the Pandavas. The Pandava brothers know their leader is a gambler and will not know when to stop. The Kauravas know that they can send their best dice player to the game on their behalf. What follows is inevitable and we are left to wonder what will become of the Pandavas once they have lost their wealth, their prestige and their freedom. As part two has the title ‘Exile in the Forest’ it becomes clear!
Watching this dramatisation again after so many years, it struck me that it has not lost any of its power. ‘The Mahabharata: A Game of Dice’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
The Mahabharata (1989) TV mini series Directed by Peter Brook
This Norwegian television series broadcast by Channel Four in Britain, in the excellent ‘Walter Presents…’ strand, was a superb thriller. Henning and Philip are two school boys who have fallen in love. They intend to keep their relationship a secret so head to a cabin in the woods using Henning’s well-known excursions for motocross rides. Unfortunately, they are interrupted when a gang arrives with a prisoner in the boot of the car. It is obviously an execution situation between rival gangs but it goes wrong when the prisoner gains the advantage and kills the others. He then spots Philip and Henning so heads their way.
This is the scenario that turns into a police investigation; one that would be easier to solve if both Henning and Philip revealed their involvement. Scared of being outed as gay, they continue to keep quiet even though they know that their information would help. To make matters worse, Philip’s foster-mother, Helen, is the chief investigating officer. With her husband, Sven, they look after Philip and presume every sign of odd behaviour has more to do with his concern for his mother than anything else.
Over six episodes, we see the investigation make headway despite some difficulties. When the killer turns up in the most unexpected place, the heat is turned up and the tension increases. Two young men, desperate to keep their relationship secret, and a police investigation stymied by lack of important information makes for a high-class drama.
‘Eyewitness’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
The Channel Four strand ‘Walter Presents…’ is a fantastic way of discovering television from across the world. I loved this hard- hitting drama from Iceland even though the subject matter under discussion by the detectives was grim.
A teenage girl is found hanging in the theatre in Reykjavik in what is an apparent suicide. This is the start of a stream of events that unravel showing how vulnerable young women are treated by disreputable men.
At the heart of it is Gabriela, a determined detective who investigates the case while lawyers acting on child protection cases also take an interest. Also involved is a chaotic, alcoholic lawyer called Logi. What starts as a police procedural soon becomes something more complex as lawyers, family and police all try to sort out what led to a promising ballerina killing herself on stage.
In the course of the series, it becomes clear that polite society in Iceland isn’t! The central plot is hard to see at first since there are blind alleys involving the ballet company’s bullying ballet master, the youth worker with an unhealthy interest in his charges, and the use of websites to humiliate and expose.
Complexity makes the series worth watching. The first two episodes seem to head in one direction only for the third episode to open up a new route. It is worth pursuing to the end. ‘Case’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I avoid sentimental books and films at all costs and I have to say I thought this film might fall into that category telling, as it does, the story of a young man from difficult circumstances who finds glory in a talent competition. Hany Abu-Assad’s film ‘The Idol’ won me over, though, and at the end, when I saw real news footage that I remember seeing on Channel 4 News in Britain, I knew this was a film for my hinterland.
The film tells the true story of Mohammed Assaf from Gaza whose biggest asset is his singing voice. The first half of the film shows the Muhammed as a boy with his sister and friends. Their dream is to form a band and buy the musical instruments to make this happen. Various schemes go wrong but the determination of the children is clear to see. They find a niche when his voice is in big demand as a wedding singer. But, when his sister Nour becomes ill and needs a new kidney, we see the desperate situation of the population in Gaza. Muhammed is close to his sister and cannot contemplate life without her.
As we move into the second part of the film, Mohammed is now a young man driving a taxi to fund his university studies. His singing has not died away completely but there is less joy in it for him until he meets an old friend who used to have dialysis alongside his sister many years ago. She encourages him to sing for her and something in him awakens. An aborted attempt to sing by internet for a television show reminds us of the policies that keep many Palestinians trapped in Gaza.
The journey to ‘Arab Idol’ where the real Mohammed Assaf made his name begins with a need to get beyond his trapped location. Friends and family help and in a series of incidents which bring him good fortune he finds himself appearing on the programme. This is the only part of the film that seemed too good to be true but, by this stage, I was ready to accept that he needed the breaks.
The film ends with documentary footage from around the world as his story interested foreign news programmes. It is an inspiring story of a boy from Gaza who travels to Egypt to take part in a talent show on television and who wins. Scenes of joy around the Gaza strip and Palestine are shown from news footage; there is no need to recreate this part fo the story.
‘The Idol’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
It is actually hard to remember how Russia (or the Soviet Union) was regarded back in the 80s. The sense that there were two competing philosophies and every nation had to choose which side they were on was real, as was the idea that the ‘other side’ meant us harm.
That is why the 1985 film ‘Letter to Brezhnev’ was such a hit. Written by Liverpool writer Frank Clarke and directed by Chris Bernard it showed the city of Liverpool as a place suffering from the worst aspects of the Thatcherite policies of the time. A key theme of the film was how the hopes of working class people, and women in particular, can be stolen.
Frank Clarke cleverly showed how the freedom of the west was not so free for everybody, especially those trying to make a living in difficult times. But this is not a heavy or gloomy film but rather a romantic comedy. Teresa and Elaine are two friends who enjoy nights out, especially as Elaine is out of work and Teresa has a bleak job in the chicken factory. They meet two Russian sailors, Sergei and Peter, when out on the town and they spend a night together. While Teresa is looking for a good time, Elaine wants love and romance. So Teresa hooks up with Sergei for the night of sex that is on both their agendas. Elaine and Peter, though, use their hotel room to talk… all night long. Something happens during this night: Elaine and Peter fall in love.
When the sailors have to return to their ship the future for Elaine looks bleak once more and she seems doomed to spend the rest of her life in Liverpool. Yet, they made a pledge to each other during their night together: they would love each other for ever and get married one day. In the days that follow, Elaine decides to take action and the title of the film is important at this point.
The charm of the film comes down to the two central characters whose love for each other seems genuine. Elaine’s actions may seem fanciful but they are actions we hope will succeed. The ending is particularly charming.
Love is where it falls and this film reminds us of that. The two individuals care little about systems and politics but a lot about each other… and that is worth making a film about.
Hats off to Channel Four for realising that there is a world outside UK and that there are countries other than USA and Britain that make television programmes. This excellent series was broadcast under the umbrella ‘Walter Presents…’, the channel’s attempt to celebrate the best of world television.
I was hooked on this series about the young East German man sent into West Germany to complete a mission to ‘save his country’. There may have been some plausibility issues about an untrained and ordinary person sent to do a highly complex spying mission behind enemy lines but the programme had such heart that I ‘allowed’ these gaps and enjoyed the story.
Martin Rauch is a border guard when we first encounter him. He is compelled to go to West Germany as Moritz Stamm, a young soldier in the West German army and an aide to a top ranking General. Martin/Moritz is played by Jonas Nay the loyal East German whose commitment to his country owes more to family and the familiar than to any ideology. Unfortunately for him, his Aunt is a high ranking official in the Stasi and her need of an agent overrides her sister’s objections about losing her only son. Martin’s reservations about leaving his single mother are ignored when he is drugged and taken across the border against his will.
The Cold War was frozen in place in 1983 and the suspicion each side had for the other was clearly seen. Martin/Moritz sees up close the ease with which misunderstandings can have serious consequences and he becomes the ordinary person who tries to get his superiors (on both sides) to see that misunderstandings could lead to war. Even though the history is known, the series builds up the suspense and I was reminded that we did live through a period when we thought the other side wanted to kill us.
What the drama did best of all was to show that fear of the other side provided motivation enough to keep the Cold War going. As with many global conflicts winning is less important than making sure the other side didn’t win. Generals, diplomats, spies and politicians all play a part in perpetuating the mistrust.
The best scene of all: an overwhelmed Martin/Moritz in a West German supermarket for the first time facing the range of goods on offer.
‘Deutschland 83’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
In the mid 80s I lived without a television. When, for various reasons, I bought a new set, I discovered this American series. It was broadcast by Channel 4 each Sunday evening and for the first three series, at least, I was charmed by its portrayal of growing up in the 60s. As this was the era when I grew up, it particularly appealed to me. This was an age when the differences between America and Great Britain were still remarkable so it still had the sense of a different world and I thought all things American were bigger, brighter, better than what we had in the UK.
Fred Savage as Kevin was truly remarkable, mostly because he was so unremarkable as a school kid. He could have been the school kid next door.
The evocation of an era played well with my age group as we had reached the age when we realised that we could be nostalgic for an earlier time just as our parents had been, and which we found so annoying! For this reason the narration by an older Kevin, voiced by Daniel Stern, worked particularly well.
Kevin, his best friend Paul Pfieffer, and Winnie Cooper formed the small circle around which the normal trials of childhood and adolescence played. We had Kevin’s point of view to guide us. Later series moved the story on from the 60s to the 70s but I tuned out before then, not though without keeping fond memories for this slice of television history.
‘The Wonder Years’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?