Close to the Enemy (Episode 1/7, BBC Two, 10 November), written and directed by Stephen Poliakoff, confronts, over seven episodes, important historical issues concerning the way we handle political evil. Set in Britain in 1947, the drama centres around two opposing forces among the victors of WWII: those who are investigating German nationals for alleged war crimes (The War Crimes Investigation Unit) and those who are trying to persuade skilled ex-members of the German military to use their technical knowledge in the service of Britain (T Force). The moral questions arise, obviously, where the two groups of the vanquished overlap.
The first episode begins with the abduction, at night, of a German engineer, Dieter Koehler (August Diehl), and his eight-year-old daughter, Lotte (Lucy Ward). They are brought to England and put into the care of Captain Callum Ferguson, played by Jim Sturgess with laconic cockiness, rather like Sean Connery with an English accent. Given his recent abduction, it is unsurprising that Dieter (who, on the face of it, seems like a decent cove) does not want to play ball. Callum is given six days to turn him round. His strategy is to take the pair to The Connington, a posh-but-faded hotel, and let them have anything they want.
Now it is true that during and after the war German prisoners were sometimes kept in stately homes and hotels. There is certainly evidence of serious maltreatment in some cases, but I have been unable to find any account of their being given a limitless expenses budget. In fact, this ploy is an example of a theme which occurs more than once in Poliakoff’s work (Shooting the Past, 1999; Joes’s Palace, 2007): the idea that one can achieve one’s aims simply by behaving weirdly – victory though eccentricity, one might call it. There is another example of this in a later episode where Callum, in front of his wards, rips out all the hidden microphones from their room. I think the idea is that Koehler might decide that Callum is such an off-the-wall fellow that he can be trusted. It hasn’t worked yet, but there is something about Callum’s smugness that makes me think that it, or something like it, eventually will.
The stage on which this drama plays out is the Connington Hotel. All the other guests are deeply sinister. Unexplained characters act as focuses for mystery: a dapper aristocrat, a pair of posh tarts and numerous Marplesque little old ladies. We even meet a stray German paedophile – at least, I think that is what he is. Apparently by coincidence, we meet him both at the port of entry and at the hotel, suggesting he may be a spy trying out a different disguise. That is one of the problems with Close to the Enemy. In a story of deceit and subterfuge the audience has to have a reasonable chance of understanding what is going on, otherwise the script runs the risk of suffering a kind of narrative collapse; this production teeters close to the brink. To give another example, there is a scene where the daughter, Lotte, bawls with homesick distress in the middle of the dining room. Now, requiring any actor to sob wordlessly in a way which dominates an entire room is a big ask, and it is no disgrace to actress Lucy Ward (well cast in this role) that her performance leaves one wondering whether she is really distressed or whether she is faking, as part of some cunning plan. Eventually the action makes it clear that she is on the level, but by then it is too late. Mystery is fine, confusion less so.
In the basement ballroom Callum finds, sitting on the stage, Eva (Angela Basset), a gorgeous, black American jazz singer, straight from the Deep South. None of the other guests seem to know about her, or the gig for which she is preparing. On the opening night the stuffed shirts of the British audience do not respond to her very stylish music (British people unfamiliar with American Jazz in 1947. Can that be right?). But Eva has an idea. She encourages the residents to come down to the basement by giving each of them an orange, of which she happens to have been given a case that morning. Oranges were not obtainable in 1947 so the punters do come, and the principals seem to enjoy themselves, but the rest still manage to look a bit glum. This may be another example of ‘victory through eccentricity’, but it just looks like manipulation by bribery to me.
What the script lacks is a structure which links scenes together through causation – one thing happening because of another. Instead of this, Poliakoff sets us down in a kind of moral Legoland where separate emblematic events are held up before us like placards, one after another.
The episode (and probably the series) is actually held together by the (almost unspoken) historical reference to the pain and suffering caused by the National Socialist Party in the first half of the Twentieth Century. The Nazis are the glue which holds the drama together. Now, as readers of Historia know better than most, there are vital lessons to be learned from History. But the Devil is a master of disguise and surely by sticking to a well-thumbed section of the historical textbook – so familiar that it needs no introduction – we may run the risk of missing something else.
Close to the Enemy is on BBC Two on Thursdays at 9pm or on BBC iplayer.