Peter Kosminsky is unflinching in his belief that TV has a duty to cross-examine society, says Matthew Bell
Over more than 30 years – initially in documentaries, then in dramas – Peter Kosminsky has built a reputation as a fearless film-maker, unafraid of asking awkward questions and taking on the Establishment.
His work has dealt with conflicts in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Palestine, Iraq and Syria, the machinations of New Labour politicians, the lives of abused children, and the victims of war.
Occasionally, the writer-director changes tack (he directed the multi-award-winning period serial Wolf Hall for the BBC in 2015), but Kosminsky mostly sticks to what he knows best – producing meticulously researched, contemporary pieces of work.
It was, therefore, no surprise that he mounted a powerful defence of political drama at an enthralling RTS early-evening event at the end of August. He argued that TV drama, when he first entered the industry as a BBC trainee in 1980, “held a mirror up to society”.
Times have changed, Kosminsky hasn’t. “I’ve just carried on doing what was prevalent when I started,” he insisted. “It’s just everything else that has shifted. It’s like the tide has withdrawn and left me on this little island.”
Interviewed by Channel 4 News reporter Fatima Manji, Kosminsky argued that television remained “an incredibly powerful medium”. But, “most of the time, we use it for escapist tosh. I believe that it should be used to ask awkward questions of society.”
Kosminsky’s commitment to political drama is unflinching, as his latest work, The State, which aired on Channel 4 in late August, demonstrated. He explained that The State was the third part of a trilogy for Channel 4 that began with The Government Inspector in 2005, about the suicide of biological weapons expert Dr David Kelly and the existence, or otherwise, of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
The trilogy continued with Britz in 2007, which, through the starkly contrasting stories of a brother (an MI5 officer) and sister (who is recruited as a suicide bomber), examined the experiences of second-generation Muslims in Britain.
The Government Inspector and Britz doubled Kosminsky’s tally of RTS awards; he had already been honoured for the 1990 ITV drama Shoot to Kill and the BBC’s Warriors in 1999. He was made an RTS Fellow in 2006.
Kosminsky drew a “straight line” between The Government Inspector, Britz and The State. “The single most fatuous thing I’ve heard said in politics on this subject in recent memory is when Tony Blair said that Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war would never have any impact on radicalisation on the streets of Britain,” he claimed.
“I thought, when he said it: ‘Are you mad? Have you actually spoken to any young British Muslims recently? Have you any idea of the videos that they’re watching and the conversations they’re having?’ They feel that the West is at war with Islam. They think it’s a new crusade.
“These three films are a very small part of attempting to draw that line.”
The trilogy, certainly for now, marks the end of Kosminsky’s work exploring Britain’s relationship with radical Islam: “I don’t have any plans to return to this subject again but – who knows?”
The closing of this chapter of his work, however, does not indicate any optimism about the state of the world. Indeed, the writer-director’s analysis was decidedly downbeat.
“We’re in a very dark place at the moment, with Brexit, Trump in the White House and white supremacists being tacitly endorsed by this individual who has his finger on the nuclear [button],” he said. “I’ve got young kids and this is a hell of a time to try to talk to them about good and tolerant values and the dangers of racism.
“I don’t believe violence is an answer to anything – I haven’t always felt that way but I definitely feel that way now. But I can completely see why people are moving to the fringes, because there’s a vacuum of charisma in the middle.”
Kosminsky welcomed the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders in the UK and US but, in general, he said, “People look at the centre ground and it seems so grey, boring and uninspiring.
“This fleeing to the margins is very dangerous. I fear for our society in a way that I have never done in my life before.”
‘Peter Kosminsky in conversation with Fatima Manji’ was held at Channel 4 in central London on 30 August and produced by Sally Doganis.
Characters rooted in real events
Peter Kosminsky’s latest work, The State, follows a group of British jihadis who travel to Syria to join Islamic State but quickly lose their ardour for an organisation that the writer-director described as a ‘blood-drenched death cult’.
The idea for the programme came from Kosminsky’s interest in ‘the radicalisation of quite unlikely people’. He continued: ‘[There were] stories of schoolgirls being radicalised in their bedrooms, on their laptops, without their parents’ knowledge, but no information at all about what happened once they got to Syria.’
Kosminsky explained that he had a twin objective for the four-part Channel 4 drama, which aired over four consecutive nights in August. ‘[It is] tempting when these atrocities occur, either in the Middle East or on the streets of some of our cities, [to think] that [terrorists] are clearly mad,’ he said. ‘Unfortunately, it isn’t true in the main.
‘It doesn’t help us to understand what is a very challenging and difficult phenomenon facing our society at the moment.
‘The first thing, and I knew this wasn’t going to be popular, was to try to disabuse [viewers] of this simplistic interpretation that the only reason people do this is because they are insane.’
Second, Kosminsky said, he wanted to write a ‘cautionary tale’ about how quickly the newly radicalised are disabused of their ‘idealised vision’ of an Islamic caliphate when they are confronted with the reality of life in Syria.
The State features composite characters based on Kosminsky’s trademark thorough research, which took 18 months to complete. ‘I wanted to take four people who were typical of the research and plunge them into this [Islamic State] experience,’ he said.
‘The characters were composites but there were no incidents depicted that hadn’t occurred,’ he added. ‘Everything that happens is in the research.’
He argued that people were more willing to reveal their experiences to him than to a news programme in which they could be identified. ‘Nobody knows who spoke to us [apart from] me and the Channel 4 lawyers,’ he said, adding: ‘And I would never reveal my sources.’
The State does not shield viewers from the brutality of Islamic State, but Kosminsky maintained that the reality of the violence was far worse.
‘The stuff I saw, you couldn’t get on television,’ he said. ‘If we depicted it as it really was, it would be unwatchable; not only because it would breach broadcasting guidelines, but it would just be relentlessly bloody. There were decapitations and amputations happening in a square in Raqqa every day.’
He had tried to find a balance between ‘making it unwatchable’ and offering a ‘ridiculously anodyne treatment that didn’t acknowledge the fact that we’re dealing with an incredibly bloody organisation’.
Kosminsky said that The State was the hardest thing he had ever attempted. ‘If you watch those [Islamic State] videos and also read some of the testimony,’ he said, ‘the images that were conjured in my head will never leave me.’