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TV review: Simon Schama Meets. . ., A Spy Among Friends, and How to Crack the Glass Ceiling

23 December 2022

BBC/Oxford Films/Eddie Knox

In Simon Schama Meets. . . (BBC4, Sunday of last week and iPlayer), the historian Ai Weiwei, who campaigns against authoritarian repression in China

In Simon Schama Meets. . . (BBC4, Sunday of last week and iPlayer), the historian Ai Weiwei, who campaigns against authoritarian repression in China

IN AN admirable spirit of thrifty recycling, Simon Schama Meets . . . (BBC4, Sunday of last week and iPlayer) presents the full interviews with leading figures combining the worlds of art and protest from which he makes selection in his current History of Now series. The first encounter is with the artist and activist Ai Weiwei, whose life is a protean struggle against Chinese authoritarian repression.

Weiwei’s father, a famous national poet, fell from grace when he dared to question Mao and the Party; the “Cultural Revolution” ensured that his and his young child’s lives were made a living hell. Post-Mao loosening of restrictions enabled Weiwei to study in the United States; he was fêted and rehabilitated to the extent of sharing in the design of the Chinese Olympic Stadium.

Then, the devastation of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake turned him once more into a public enemy: he documented and challenged the government corruption that had undermined the structural safety of the schools whose collapse caused the death of 5219 children. He created a monumental artwork, stealthily removing thousands of the substandard steel reinforcement rods, his team laboriously straightening them out and laying them in patterns — sombre, enigmatic, condemnatory.

Severely beaten up, secretly imprisoned, his studio destroyed, he is now in exile, deliberately turning his suffering into art, insisting on recording what happens. He speaks with deep and moving authority, telling truth to power at terrible cost.

ITVX’s new drama series A Spy Among Friends (streaming from 8 December) recounts a lifetime’s infatuation with Soviet Communism. We might not need yet another film about the eventual unmasking of Kim Philby, but this is a particularly stylish version, chock-full of bitter home truths. The beautifully realised atmosphere is crepuscular, murky: nothing is clear and bright, parallelling the shadowy depths of espionage.

The big theme is that Philby — like Burgess and Maclean — got away with treachery for so long because the British ruling class simply could not entertain the thought that one of their number could be a traitor; polite evasion and tea and biscuits were more important than facing an appalling truth. The interrogator who finally insists on uncovering why Philby was allowed to get away is a Geordie woman with a black husband who refuses to buy into the rotten system.

Proving how little we’ve changed, in How to Crack the Glass Ceiling (BBC2, Tuesday of last week), the journalist and broadcaster Amol Rajan investigated why people from “working class backgrounds” are so under-represented in top jobs. His own place of work, the BBC, provided the most telling sequence. Wherever you’re from, a sympathetic editor encouraged, start by using your contacts to work as a runner or something: that is, work without pay — and anyway, what contacts? The system remains, mostly, a charmed and closed circle.

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