September 9, 2011 6:42 pm

Those televising history are doomed to repeat it

September 11 was a television event so it is hardly surprising that the anniversary produced programmes of every kind

“Last Tuesday’s date may not prove epochal,” Martin Amis wrote in mid-September 2001. It wasn’t a false prophecy so much as a dashed hope – about as dashed as a hope can get. Later, Amis would complain about the use of “9/11”, seeing it as typical of the US’s consistent but not always successful habit of abbreviation, which has also given us, he noted, “Brangelina”, “J-Lo”, and “www” – “that worldwide fatuity ... which cuts three syllables down to nine”. Again, things refused to go Amis’s way – as this week’s television deafeningly confirmed.

There was 9/11: Emergency Room (Channel 4), Seconds from Disaster: 9/11 (National Geographic), 9/11: Washington Under Attack (National Geographic) – and that was just Monday night’s fare. Al Jazeera has produced a three-part series, The 9/11 Decade (Tuesdays), the second episode of which, when it wasn’t celebrating (with some justice) the broadcaster’s own integrity, bravery, impartiality and mistreatment, provided a fair-minded account of “The Image War” fought between east, as represented by Osama bin Laden, and west, as represented by Donald Rumsfeld – a battle between fundamentalism and colossal cynicism.

It was generally felt that while the impact of 9/11 will continue for decades, “the 9/11 decade” came to an abrupt and welcome end in May, with the killing of Osama bin Laden – the subject of Bin Laden: Shoot to Kill (Channel 4 Wednesday).

National Geographic emerged as the most devoted chronicler but its programmes showed a tendency to treat the anniversary in its narrowest terms, as a licence for the most literal form of remembrance – how that particular Tuesday panned out in Washington, how it panned out for George W Bush (The 9/11 Interview, Tuesday), and so on. An episode of the occasional series Seconds from Disaster (Monday) provided a gloatingly retrospective account of how the 9/11 attacks might have been avoided, charting “the catalogue of errors ... series of critical failures ... lack of communication”, but without distinguishing between forgivable oversight and foolish myopia.

Whatever else it might have been (and it was, as Bush put it, “a significant day”), 9/11 was a television event. So it was hardly surprising that its anniversary produced factual programmes of every kind – docudrama, vérité documentary, blow-by-blow witness testimony, historical rumination, interview/monologue, oral history. The BBC, with tedious predictability, showed the greatest taste and tact, reminding us of the psychological impact of that day, and not just the logistics. Twins of the Twin Towers (Tuesday), notwithstanding its deeply unfortunate title, told of the survivors who were not just grief-stricken but felt chopped in half by September 11.

One of the oddities of these programmes was the apparent glee with which they showed, again and again, the aircraft hitting the towers – as if we hadn’t had seen the footage enough over the past 10 years (http://tiny.cc/f1a4e; http://tiny.cc/58iwv). We were shown the second plane from street level, from a distance, from beneath its belly as it crashed into the South Tower. The shock wears off (that’s what shock does), its place taken by a sort of disgusted awe – the frisson of the iconic. The images, so stripped and petted, have come to seem almost Warhol-ish, whereas they ought to remind us of Osama bin Laden, Mohamed Atta and their victims.

While some of the September 11 memorials succumbed to sensationalism, the makers of Appropriate Adult (ITV1 Sunday) should be applauded for avoiding every potential pitfall in their portrayal of Fred and Rosemary West. If anything, it was in danger of being too good – of providing too much viewing pleasure, especially in the shivery closing moments, which announce “Next up, Rose”. There were many things the first episode did not deliver – a psychological portrait of the Wests or an account of their crimes. For those, we have to turn to such books as Gordon Burn’s Happy Like Murderers (reissued in November) or to Amis again, whose cousin Lucy Partington was one of the Wests’ 11 (discovered) victims, and who writes about Fred West, that “sordid inadequate”, with eloquent disgust in his memoir Experience. Yet those books only describe what Dominic West, playing the killer, was able to convey – the surface amiability, vulnerability, and (even) charm. The programme followed West’s police interviews, during which he had a social worker (Emily Watson) by his side. “You’re my appropriate adult,” he says, in his little-boy, yokel-ish Gloucestershire accent (a close match for the original: http://tiny.cc/qbaiv). And she takes a liking to him, like so many women before her.

In 1995, while Rosemary West was awaiting trial, Friends arrived on Channel 4. It finally departed this week (but only as far as Comedy Central), and despite a decade of round-the-clock repeats, many will miss it. For those who think they might, the time apart will allow you to forget some of the more obscure season five subplots, so that when choice clips start popping up on nostalgia programmes, you’ll sigh with wistful affection rather than weariness.

small.screen@ft.com

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