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TV review: A Dangerous Dynasty, Great Canal Journeys, and Rome: A History of the Eternal City

02 November 2018


The Assad family, with the current president Bashar second from the left

The Assad family, with the current president Bashar second from the left

THE war in Syria has become, at best, wallpaper in our lives. It is now “old news”. Our own obsessions with Brexit and internal political wrangling mean that we have taken our eye off one of the most horrific conflicts of the 21st century.

We should be thankful, then, to BBC2 for screening the excellent three-part documentary A Dangerous Dynasty: House of Assad (the final part was on Tuesday of last week). The series followed the story of Syria over the past half-century by paying close biographical attention to the country’s blood-soaked dictator Bashar al-Assad.

The first two parts followed the family, as Bashar’s father, Hafez, took power in a coup d’état in 1970, and ruled until his death in 2000; and Bashar’s unlikely elevation to President. This episode focused on the carnage of the Syrian civil war, which has raged since the Arab Spring spread there in 2011. The talking heads try to understand how a mild-mannered eye doctor became responsible for the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of his own citizens. The programme demonstrates the numerous human-rights abuses carried out by the regime, including the torture of children, chemical-weapons attacks, and even the targeting of foreign journalists.

This is the BBC at its best: powerful reporting marshals facts to dismantle the arguments of those in the West who see Assad as some kind of victim of circumstances, or even a heroic figure defending the Syrian people. He emerges here as a petty and duplicitous coward, controlled by his capricious mother. In a week when there is renewed focus on Christian peers and clergy in the UK acting as mouthpieces for Assadist propaganda, the programme felt very timely indeed.

That religion was only a passing feature was a shame, but this was essential viewing for those wanting to understand our current geopolitics.

Great Canal Journeys (Channel 4, Sunday) offered some light relief. As much a part of many English cities as their cathedral, canals have come roaring back into fashion as a holiday option in recent years. This programme capitalises on that, and we were guided round the canals of the north-west of England.

The celebrity couple Timothy West and Prunella Scales are genial hosts as they pilot their canal boat through Manchester and beyond, learning the history of the industrial revolution as they go. Seeing one of the world’s great cities from a new angle was perfect Sunday-evening entertainment.

BBC4’s decision to repeat Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Rome: A history of the Eternal City (Monday of last week) bore rich rewards. He is eminently watchable, leaping about the streets of the eternal city with excitement. Once he had authoritatively covered Jerusalem and Istanbul, Rome was an obvious choice, but it is wonderful viewing.

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