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TV review: Bin Laden: The road to 9/11, Grenfell: The untold story, and Imagine. . . Tom Stoppard: A charmed life

17 September 2021


The early life of Osama bin Mohammed bin Laden (1957-2011) was the subject of Channel 4’s Bin Laden: The road to 9/11 (Monday of last week, first of three)

The early life of Osama bin Mohammed bin Laden (1957-2011) was the subject of Channel 4’s Bin Laden: The road to 9/11 (Monday of last week, first of t...

ALTHOUGH not a good player, he was very keen on football, and loved watching American cowboy films on TV, always identifying with the virtuous hero. Bin Laden: The road to 9/11 (Channel 4, Monday of last week, first of three) revealed some unexpected truths about the terrorist’s childhood as it traced his path from sensitive privileged youth to ruthless mass murderer.

The catalyst was the humiliation meted out by Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War; the turning point was Russia’s occupation of Afghanistan. First welcomed by the Mujahidin because his huge inherited wealth and contacts provided crucial funding, and because of his eagerness to drive a bulldozer, creating roads, he hardened into a charismatic leader fighting the hated Russians, and was popularly (although inaccurately) championed in the Arab world as central to their defeated withdrawal.

His austere faith eventually labelled all enemies of Islam as legitimate targets of violent jihad; for him, Western democracy condemns all civilians as guilty of their governments’ perceived crimes. The most fascinating aspect of this documentary is the line-up of former friends and colleagues eager to explain how they broke with him and condemned his extremism: it feels surreal to listen to these articulate gentlemen while a label identifies them: for example, “former bomb-maker”.

Grenfell: The untold story (Channel 4, of last week) reminded us forcibly of our homegrown outrage. The artist Constantine Gras was commissioned to work with the residents by the company undertaking the tower’s £10-million refurbishment; this programme showed for the first time his videos of the exasperated and angry meetings held between developers and residents, expressing their frustration about how the upgrading was done. These encounters, while not focused on the new cladding panels’ lethal potential, acutely demonstrated the gulf between those who make decisions and the powerlessness of those who have to live with the consequences: or, in this case, because of them, die terrible deaths and suffer unbearable loss.

It brought into our own homes, heartbreakingly, the personal reality of the victims, their families, their network of friends. Four years later, more than 21,000 UK households still have combustible cladding.

Surely Imagine. . . Tom Stoppard: A charmed life (BBC1, Thursday of last week) would be utterly removed from the horrors of Grenfell and 9/11? In fact, Alan Yentob’s film grew darker and darker as the playwright’s glorious succession of dramas mashing up existential philosophy with high farce (“I just adore jokes”) finally examines in Leopoldstadt his true roots: not privileged Englishman, but by birth Czechoslovakian Jew, whose wider family was exterminated in the Holocaust. Is Sir Tom’s exuberant hilarity life-affirming — or masking inexpressible tragedy?

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