Peter Kosminsky is one of Britain’s most acclaimed directors of hard-hitting television drama. His latest project – 11 years in the making – tells the story of postwar Palestine and Israeli independence through the eyes of a British soldier serving in the territory. It promises to be an event.
In 1999, shortly after his film about the British peace-keeping force in Bosnia, Warriors, was screened by the BBC, Peter Kosminsky received a letter. It was from an old soldier, who had found Warriors moving, and wanted to thank its director. At the end of the letter, though, was a line – thrown out more in hope than expectation – that caught Kosminsky’s eye. “You should do a film about the British soldiers who were in Palestine,” it said. “No one remembers us.”
As psychological bullets go, this one was well aimed. Kosminsky is nothing if not in the business of remembering. The kind of things that governments like to forget are his stock in trade. Down the years, he has made films on a variety of uncomfortable subjects, from the activities of the police in Northern Ireland (Shoot to Kill) and New Labour control-freakery (The Project), to British-born Muslim suicide bombers (Britz) and the suicide of Dr David Kelly (The Government Inspector), each one trailing controversy – if not always a sudden bout of recovered memory on the part of the establishment – in its wake. The soldier’s letter was duly passed to Kosminsky’s researchers, who began interviewing veterans.
Between 1945 and 1948, some 100,000 soldiers served in the British-controlled Mandate of Palestine. Kosminsky’s team spoke to around 80; he found the men’s stories to be both gripping and moving, so he carried on, wading next through letters, diaries, memoirs and history books. Slowly, a theme began to emerge. “The thing that came out most strongly,” he says, “was that the men all arrived in Palestine feeling incredibly pro-Jewish. A few of them had helped to liberate the [concentration] camps, so they had seen what had happened [to the Jews] with their own eyes. And everyone had heard the stories and seen the newsreels.
“When Jewish refugees arrived in Palestine off the boats, and were caged and beaten by British forces [the British placed strict limitations on Jewish immigration to Palestine], many soldiers didn’t like it all. They knew what these people had been through. Over time, though, the soldiers’ attitudes changed. Some of this was just the usual British support for the underdog; there’s no question that by 1948 [when Israel declared itself an independent state] the Arabs were perceived as that. But also, if you’re being attacked on a daily basis [by the Jewish resistance], if you’re under constant threat of kidnap, if you’re confined to barracks behind a lot of razor wire, your feelings are bound to change.”
Kosminsky’s first idea was to make a drama about a British soldier who would exemplify this shift. “I suppose it started out as standard Kosminsky fare, which was pointing the finger at Britain. First of all, these men don’t have a memorial; they’re forgotten. It’s only recently that they were allowed to march to the Cenotaph. When they came back to Britain, no one wanted to know; pulling out of Palestine was a terrible humiliation, a total defeat. Second, we were the colonial power in Palestine and, as in so many other examples of our retreat from Empire, we left it totally fucked up. Chaos. We washed our hands of it. I wanted to say: if you think the Israeli-Palestinian situation is not our problem, think again. We were there, we left, and 60 years later, it is still a problem.”
The trouble was, something else kept nagging away at him. “The more I read their stories, the more I began to be struck by some odd parallels,” he says. “For instance, if there’s a suicide bombing in Israel, usually the Israeli Defence Force immediately goes [to the West Bank or Gaza] and blows up the house of the bomber. I’d always assumed this tactic had been invented in the modern era. But in the veterans’ interviews, they described doing exactly the same thing. When a member of Etzel [the Israeli name for Irgun, the Zionist paramilitary group that operated in the Mandate of Palestine from 1931 until 1948] or Lehi [better known as the Stern Gang, another militant Zionist group] attacked them, the British would find the family home and dynamite it.”
On the other side stood the Irgun, as ruthless as any 21st-century terrorist organisation. When the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, which served as the British Mandatory authorities’ headquarters, was bombed in July 1946, 91 people died, many of them civilians. “They were extremely effective. You only have to compare the attack on the King David to something like the Brighton Bomb [in which the IRA killed five people] to see that. There’s a moving memoir by the colonial secretary, who survived. He spent a week attending the funerals of his friends, became unhinged and had to be invalided out. He lost his reason.”
Somewhere along the line, Kosminsky decided that his film would need to tell two stories: one set in the Mandate of Palestine, the other in Israel, 2011.
Eleven years later and the result of all this research and ambition is shortly to be screened on Channel 4. Was it worth it? I think it would have been worth it if it had taken him twice as long. The Promise, which will be screened in four parts, and runs to some seven and a half hours, is the best thing you are likely to see on television this year, if not this decade. It is not only that it is so exciting, moving, and full of exquisite performances; it’s also that the extraordinary detail and thoughtfulness of it – the sheer scale of the canvas on which its director works – subtly imparts so many emotional and factual truths that you feel your own allegiances, whatever they may be, suddenly shifting uneasily, sometimes on a minute-by-minute basis. Revelatory is an overused word, but The Promise is exactly that: the power of its storytelling will open eyes more effectively than any leaked document, any piece of rhetoric, any news bulletin.
The series begins in Britain, where a student, Erin (Claire Foy), is helping to clear out her elderly grandfather’s house. On a dusty shelf, she finds his diary, an account of his experiences as a sergeant, first at Bergen-Belsen and then in Palestine. Erin has a friend, Eliza, who has an Israeli passport, and who must shortly fly out to Tel Aviv to do her military service. Erin, wilful and increasingly intrigued by her grandfather’s spidery handwriting, decides to take up a nervous Eliza’s invitation to stay with her well-to-do Israeli family while her friend embarks on her military training.
Thereafter, Kosminsky tells us two stories: there is Len (Christian Cooke), Erin’s grandfather, who will find himself and his men constantly under attack by the Irgun, but who will also have life-changing relationships with both a young Jewish woman, Clara, and a Palestinian man, Hassan, who works as a tea-wallah in his barracks; and there is Erin, whose stay in Israel turns into something rather more than a gap-year adventure, thanks to Paul, Eliza’s peace activist brother, and to the diary, whose central secret will lead her to embark on an extraordinary quest. It is Erin who will honour, on behalf of her dying grandfather, the promise of the series’ title.
It could so easily have been clunky, all this flipping backwards and forwards. But Kosminsky flicks between the two periods boldly, unself-consciously, as if all the silted history between them was nothing more than a couple of bits of lint, to be brushed off a lapel.
Over the course of a long career (he celebrates 30 years in television this year) Kosminsky has become adept at turning one country into another: “I used the Czech Republic for Bosnia, Kenya for Somalia, Ghana for Liberia, Morocco for Iraq, India for Pakistan and Leeds for Northern Ireland.” This time, though, there was no faking it. “Israel looks like nowhere else: the Bauhaus architecture in Tel Aviv, the physiognomy of its people, who come from all over the world, and most of all the Wall [separating Israel from the Palestinian territories]. I knew I couldn’t recreate those things. The trouble was, it is virtually unknown for a British TV crew to shoot in Israel. We were starting from zero.”
Was it difficult? In person, Kosminsky is adorably mild-mannered; it’s almost impossible to imagine him sitting in a director’s chair, shouting into a loud-hailer. “It wasn’t without its problems,” he says, softly. “Every time we applied to shoot in a public building, permission was always denied, and no reason was ever given.” Undaunted, he pressed on. Acre, a city in northern Israel, doubled as Hebron, in the West Bank; Jisr al-Zarka, Israel’s poorest Arab village, stood service as Gaza; an Israeli border checkpoint was built from scratch. Kosminsky’s crew was largely Israeli, and he was struck by how their demeanour would change in certain places. “In East Jerusalem, for instance, they would be very subdued. I had not realised what a big deal it would be. I spoke to one of them, and he said: ‘We just don’t come here. I’ve only been here once in my life, and that was as a child.'”
Sometimes there were difficulties with actors, too. Although there are many celebrated examples of cross-casting in Israeli and Palestinian films, Kosminsky was determined that Israelis would be played only by Israelis, and Arabs only by Arabs (a decision that paid incredible dividends: the Israeli actor, Itay Tiran, who plays Paul, and Ali Suliman, who plays Hassan, both turn in great performances). “There’s a scene in which an Israeli soldier uses a Palestinian girl as a human shield. We had documentary examples of this and, in the week we were shooting, an Israeli soldier was found guilty in court of doing precisely that. Nobody could deny it occurred, but the actor I cast to play my commander pulled out during rehearsals. I don’t think he had realised that the woman opposite him from whom he had to take the child would be Palestinian. ‘I know these things happen,’ he said. ‘But that doesn’t necessarily mean I want to portray it.'”
How much of the Mandate-era story could be said to be true? “The vast majority of it,” says Kosminsky. Were two British intelligence officers kidnapped, tortured and lynched by the Irgun? Yes. In 1947, Sergeant Clifford Martin and Sergeant Mervyn Paice, both British military policemen, were kept in an airless hole in the ground for 18 days, and then hanged. Were young Jewish women paid as hostesses in city hospitality clubs for the purposes of propagandising about Israel to British officers? Yes. And for these women, old ladies now, the stigma still remains; somewhat ironically, Zionists accused them of fraternising with the enemy. Did British soldiers go AWOL, joining both Arab and Israeli fighters in the months leading up to Israel’s declaration of independence? Yes. At one point, the only two tanks in the possession of the fledgling Israeli army were courtesy of defectors (the incentive was not always ideological; Haganah, another Jewish paramilitary group, offered huge sums of cash to defectors who brought military hardware with them). For the sake of drama, there are elisions. But critics will struggle if they accuse Kosminsky of exaggeration.
Although he grew up in an atheist household in Stanmore, north London, Kosminsky is, as he puts it “racially Jewish”; his paternal grandfather came to Britain, aged three, as a refugee from pogroms in Poland. So it’s striking that, before making The Promise, he had never been to Israel (and even more amazing when you consider his globe-trotting career; when he made the documentary Afghantsi for Yorkshire Television in 1988, about the experiences of Russian soldiers in the Afghan war, he rode in a Soviet tank as it rolled out of Kabul). How did it strike him? “I didn’t have too many preconceptions. I tried to look at it through the eyes of Erin, who is based on my daughters. Tel Aviv, where I lived during the shoot, is a beach town, a party town. They call it the bubble. This is very personal, but people weren’t at all like the Jews I knew growing up, who tended to be intellectual, wanted to discuss things into the ground. This was the opposite. It was brash, almost nihilistic. But I felt detached, mostly. I was there to do a job. I never felt part of the place.”
Did he have no sense at all of homecoming? He smiles. “No! Although maybe that’s a deficiency in me. There is a part of me that feels British, and a part of me that doesn’t; but the truth is, the battle between them is one-sided. I’m very, very proud to call myself British. I’m proud of being a Jew, too, but it’s not who I am. I wasn’t thinking: the Jewish sanctuary! I was thinking: I’m homesick.”
I would describe The Promise as the work of a film-maker at his zenith, if that didn’t suggest that he might now be on his way back down. But his progress to this point has not been without its trials. Kosminsky, who read chemistry at Oxford (in the fullness of time, his Communist father, who started out sewing pockets for Savile Row tailors, sent his son to Haberdashers’ Aske’s, a public school, with Oxford in mind) likes to describe the moment he decided on his future career: during a holiday, he was watching Ken Loach’s Days of Hope, a television series about the British Labour movement. In a scene in an Irish pub, a group of British soldiers grew ever more dangerously rowdy until the teenage girl they had been baiting stood on a chair and sang a song about missing Ireland, at which point they morphed into just another group of homesick squaddies. Kosminsky felt the power of Loach’s work. This was what he wanted to do.
A BBC traineeship followed, but when he was fired as a script editor – long story – he moved to Yorkshire Television. There, he began working on documentaries and later on what we now call factual drama, it having occurred to him that certain subjects – like Northern Ireland, where people were too terrified to be interviewed – could only be effectively tackled with the help of fiction.
When he was fired from YTV, he set up his own production company, and bagged himself a “first look” deal at the BBC, where Warriors won several awards. In 2003, he left the BBC and struck a similar deal with Channel 4. Why? “I spent a long time trying to make it work at the BBC, but then three projects I developed over many years were canned, which made me pretty cross.” According to Kosminsky, film-makers like him no longer see “that flash of mischief” in the eyes of commissioning editors when they turn up at the BBC to pitch ideas. Does he see it at Channel 4? (It seems hard to believe at the home of wall-to-wall Come Dine With Me and obesity freak shows.) He laughs. There’s always dross around. “When I was a trainee at the BBC, my main preoccupation was moaning to Alasdair Milne [the then director general] about a show called Blankety Blank. In Channel 4, I found my natural home.”
Maybe so. But I can’t help but worry. I hope the new regime at Channel 4 understands what it’s got in Kosminsky. I hope they cherish him. Whatever The Promise makes you think or feel about Israel, it is a beautiful and peerless example of what television can still do when it tries.
The Promise starts on Channel 4 on 6 February at 9pm
by Rachel Cooke – The Observer, Sunday 23 January 2011