Dabbler Review: The Promise, Channel 4

Peter Kosminsky’s four-part drama The Promise reached the half-way mark on Sunday (if you missed them, you can watch the first two episodes on Channel 4 OD). Eight years in the making and filmed entirely in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (not the easiest places to work), each episode is a 100-minute film in itself and vividly captures the violent turmoil that characterised the final years of the British mandate in Palestine. The Promise also attempts to link events of sixty years ago with today’s bloody stalemate.

Kosminsky runs two stories in parallel, switching between them intermittently. The first begins in modern day Britain, with naïve 18-year old Erin (Claire Foy) in her dying grandfather’s house stumbling upon his diary chronicling his time as a British sergeant in post-war Palestine. She then leaves for Israel, diary in hand, to accompany her college friend Eliza who is about to start her military service. Whilst there she begins to retrace the places, events and people her grandfather had written about and seeks to find out why his experiences in Palestine left him so bitter and scarred for the remainder of his life.

We also find ourselves in the 1940s, following Erin’s grandfather Len, played brilliantly by Christian Cooke. We see him first liberating the concentration camps of Europe and then in Palestine as part of the unsuccessful British effort to reconcile the completing claims of the Zionists and the indigenous Arab population. Having witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust, he is initially sympathetic to the Zionist cause and the plight of the refugees flooding in from Europe. But his feelings begin to change as he and his fellow British soldiers are targeted by Jewish militants intent on removing any barriers to statehood and unlimited Jewish immigration.

Kosminsky has chosen a hot topic for his drama. The 1948 war and the events leading up to the birth of the Jewish state are the subject of bitter debate inside Israel. For many Israelis and the state’s vocal supporters in the West, any depiction of Israel as anything but a victim is quickly rounded upon. Israel’s birth in 1948 was nothing short of miraculous, they argue, and came about despite the best efforts of the British and the entire Arab world to prevent it.

This rather simplistic version of events is now challenged by historians who have replaced propaganda with history pieced together from documents written at the time. They do not question the bravery and determination of the Zionists, but they argue that they were fighting an Arab enemy that was weak and divided. They also point out that the Jewish state would never have come into being about had it not been for the British occupation of Palestine. Most controversially, they claim that the Jewish forces expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their towns and villages during the 1948 war, to ensure that their nascent state had a clear Jewish majority. The descendants of these Palestinian Arabs still live in refugee camps across the region today.

Kosminsky does not shy away from tackling complex and controversial issues head on and I look forward to seeing how he treats the escalating conflict in the final two episodes. The history of the Arab Israeli conflict is far more complicated than protagonists on both sides would often have us believe. The Promise presents its moral complexities in a compelling way and by linking the present with the past, gives the viewer a sense of how difficult (or impossible) it is to bring Palestinians and Israelis together in a lasting peace.

Politics aside, this is great Sunday night entertainment, if a little unrelenting. I’m not sure how much it cost, but I’d guess a small fortune. So far I think it has been worth every penny.

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About Author Profile: Toby Ash

A former journalist, Toby now works a consultant in the private and humanitarian sectors. When not in deepest Cornwall or darkest London, he trots the globe taking stunning photos which you can see on his Instagram account - @toby_ash

14 thoughts on “Dabbler Review: The Promise, Channel 4

  1. Wormstir@gmail.com'
    February 18, 2011 at 18:39

    I haven’t had a chance to see this yet- I was worried it was going to be too ‘ right on’ but you’ve allayed my fears Toby!

  2. finalcurtain@gmail.com'
    February 18, 2011 at 19:33

    It’ll never be made into a musical, that’s for sure – I agree with you Toby, that it was rather relentless and one-paced. And at the risk of being the bacon sandwich at the bar mitzvah, it might have been an idea to have spent a bit more of what looks like a vast budget, on the script.

    • tobyash@hotmail.com'
      Toby Ash
      February 20, 2011 at 13:51

      Absolutely right Mahlerman. I think there were so many hurdles to overcome getting it filmed in Israel and the occupied territories that they took their eye off the ball with the script at times. I think this is especially true of Erin. Some of her lines made me wince.

  3. Gaw
    February 20, 2011 at 21:34

    Having read your review, I really wanted to see this. But sitting up to watch 100 minutes of the Arab-Israeli conflict after 9pm on a Sunday night is difficult to pull off. iPlayer it shall have to be.

  4. leahbatnatan@fsmail.net'
    February 21, 2011 at 13:10

    A great drama and a blessed relief from all the rubbish on t.v.
    The script is good on the whole, but seems to be slightly biased in favour of the Palestinians. Apparently Arab youths and children don’t throw stones at Jews! Some of Erin’s actions are to say the least far fetched, but it is sometimes necessary in order to move the narrative along. On the whole I would say it’s probably the best thing on t.v. at the moment and is shot in interesting and authentic locations. I have the feeling though that some old soldiers, including my late father, who was in the Middle East during WWII, might picks some holes in depiction of the British military!

  5. emily_holroyd@yahoo.co.uk'
    February 21, 2011 at 17:57

    This drama is good and entertaining but to claim it is purely factual and not anti israeli I cannot agree with. I’ve watched all three episodes so far and other than a brief exposure of the horrors thousands of jews encountered in the holocaust, the rest has depicted the Jews as being ruthless and ungrateful. Similarly the homes that we go into of some ‘typical’ Israeli families suggest extreme wealth;with outdoor swimming pools, maids etc in contrast to the Palestinians who are shown to live in squalor which is absolutely not the case and an unfair exposure which to some, although this is a fictional drama, will view this as true to life which is not the case.

  6. maimoona_hashmi@hotmail.co.uk'
    February 21, 2011 at 19:51

    Having seen three episodes of the The Promise, it’s refreshing to see the Israeli-Arab conflict being portrayed relatively head on. For those of think this drama is leaning towards the anti-Israeli side, i completely and 100% disagree! The Palestinians live in the most oppressed conditions under the Occupied West Bank and it is fair to say the Jews have a relatively privileged lifestyle in comparison. Yes Palestinian children have thrown stones but what do they get in return…bullets!! While we see the Israeli soldiers completely oblivious to any act of violence the Jewish children inflict upon the Palestinians.

    • polajoel@yahoo.co.uk'
      February 21, 2011 at 21:58

      The Palestinians are living in oppressed conditions because they are governed by terrorists(Hammas) and their only mission is to wipe out all the Jews. have you ever been to Israel. Their are plenty of areas that not like you see on TV. Run down and dirty. Not all Jews have a privileged lifestyle. Every day they are worried about rockets coming over the borders. Infact that is something you never see on the news. Hundreds of rockets are fired from Gaza. As soon as the Israelis act on this it is all over the news. “Israeli soldiers completely oblivious to any act of violence the Jewish children inflict upon the Palestinians”
      This statement is one of which you have related to what you have seen on the promise. Have you even been to Israel?

      • sophie-eliza-bell@hotmail.co.uk'
        February 27, 2011 at 21:36

        It’s true of course that the Palestinians live in oppressed conditions, but I absolutely agree with you, Joelmole, that they have brought it about themselves by expressing an intention to wipe out the Jews. Israel is an island in a hostile sea, facing a hostility towards Jews that was born with Islam, not with the creation of the state of Israel, merely exacerbated by it. Read the canonical Islamic text Sahih Muslim 41:6981-6985 online if you doubt this.

        It also seems that the people in Gaza and the West Bank don’t actually mind living in oppressive circumstances, provided that it’s Islamic oppression and not inflicted by Israel! Hamas is Islamizing the Palestinian territories all the time. Right now, an atheist is serving his life sentence in a jail there for making a Facebook page using the name ‘Allah’. Conditions don’t get more oppressive than those under which you can be jailed for thoughtcrime.

        This TV show has so far been very biased against Israel, and rather dull.

      • rachelcheshire35@gmail.net'
        Rachel Cheshire
        February 28, 2011 at 21:56

        Well it was brilliant. Very refreshing to view a program that isn’t affraid to show the situation as it is. There are parts of Gaza that they could have shown as it would have been too upsetting to be viewed. Anyone who is believes this isn’t happing to the Palestinians should take a trip out there. Thank you channel 4. Why would anyone be bias, its just the sad and depressing truth.

  7. joshua.leff@btinternet.com'
    February 22, 2011 at 11:42

    As you rightly say, ” The history of the Arab Israeli conflict is far more complicated than protagonists on both sides would often have us believe. ” But not for the reasons you have given, giving uncritical credit to the “New Historians”, who you say ( surely not all of them?) argue that,but for the British occupation of Palestine, the Jewish State would not have come into being. I say that this too is a gross oversimplification.

    It must be remembered that the British had considerable interest in keeping control of Palestine, which it saw as a stepping stone among stepping stones to preserve its “Jewel in the Crown” – India. Essentially it was the brutality of colonial policy that drew out the anger in the Jewish community in Palestine, most of whom were not involved in murder and regularly condemned most of it, when it occured. And as for your comment regarding Jewish objection to limiting immigration, it is worth mentioning exactly what this did mean. The 1939 White Paper, ostensibly to appease Arab sensitivity to Jews coming to Palestine, restricted the numbers to 15,000 per annum for 5 years, when clearly millions of lives were at stake. Although a number of politicians spoke out against this shameful policy, including Churchill, it was not considered an important enough issue among the Tories under Chamberlain, to divide the party and the policy was implemented.

    The Balfour Declaration 1917, which became part of a binding obligation after San Remo Conference !920, and ratified unanimously by 51 states of the league of Nations in 1922 entrusted the task on the British to allow and prepare for the creation of a Jewish Homeland, whilst ensuring that the rights of non-Jews would be safeguarded. That these declarations encouraged immigration of Jew and Arab, where new opportunities abounded, it was clear from the start that the British Colonial Office were not in the right minded thinking mode to do anything other than to advance its own interests – hence the mess and division that currently exists.

    It is difficult in a fictional drama to bring these realities to the fore. The average “Len” is shown to be caught up in these rangles, but the failure of the producers of the Promise is the airbrushing out of clear fault lines, including the anti-semitism of many Arabs to want Jews to live with them, a policy sadly that is prevalent in almost all Arab societies, where there are now very few Jews (with the exception of Morocco).

    For many, who view this as a drama, this will form the basis of future views , which seems to coincide with the skewed views of opinion formers that dominate the mainstream media.

  8. david.r.curtis@btopenworld.com'
    David Curtis
    February 22, 2011 at 17:03

    Please let me know if a book of the programme is published. In spite of being in Palestine and the 9th Battalion of the Parachute Regiment at the time. My hearing and sight are very good, and I can still swear like a paratrooper, but I often have not been able to follow the dialogue in the first three episodes of “The Promise”, because the actors’ speech is so indistinct. They carry Method acting too far, at the expense of communication with the audience. Thus I really need a book in which I can read the dialogue.

    • federalgrafik@gmail.com'
      Patrick O Connor
      February 24, 2011 at 14:58

      David Curtis – you are not alone, I am only in my 40’s and find a lot of the dialogue very muffled.

      Having lived in Israel in the seventies and been back through it for a year in the nineties I was appalled and dismayed at the gradual entrenchment of the Israelis position regarding what they refer to as “Judea and Samaria” and their brutalisation of the Palestinians – whose refugee status and lack of basic human rights now echos the status of 19th century Jews in Europe. Living behind barbed wire, at the mercy of heavily armed religious zealots in Hebron and elsewhere – theirs is a living nightmare with no discernable end.

  9. cj_nemo@yahoo.com'
    February 27, 2011 at 22:19

    The program has lots of inaccuracies like Jews live in big houses with swimming pools whilst Arabs live in tiny village properties. This is totally unreal. Firstly Israel has Palestinian Arabs in the parliament and also as a judge in the supreme court.The majority of people live in flats. Also it doesn’t mention how the British slaughtered 15,000 Arabs or the Arabs slaughtered Jews in Hebron and Safad in 1920. Cutting off the head of children and doing live castrations. Finally it appears that the Arabs the ones who are clean. Back in 1948 7% of the land was owned by Palestinian Jews 5% by the Arabs. 70% by the British and more land was bought by the Jews. The Jews always wanted peace in the region but unfortunately the Palestinian Arabs are manipulated by Iran through Hamas. That is the real problem here stopping peace. If you’re going to do a historical accurate drama about the promise you need to look fairly at all sides

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