House of Saddam, BBC2

Did we like it?
An admirable, intelligent, well-acted drama that was sadly difficult to love because every one in it is a bastard, with the most sympathetic character being Saddam’s half-brother who ordered the slaughter of an entire town.

What was good about it?
• Igal Noar was magnificent as Saddam Hussein. It was impossible to make him likeable, but Noar gave an insight into his misdeeds. The episode began with a birthday party for Saddam’s daughter during which he usurped the president under a pretext of his opposition a subordinating alliance with Syria. At first it was a convivial, if tense, celebration until the president was ushered into a backroom, and Saddam told him to “retire”. The way Noar navigated Saddam from genial host to aspiring dictator was brilliant; it was like a bone snapping in two.
• Noar and the rest of a very good cast also managed to segue together the narrative, which, for all intents and purposes, was a whistle-stop tour of his most blatant atrocities – seizing power, the consequent purging of the politicians, the Iran-Iraq War – but Noar was able to slow down time almost so we could peer into the impassive and cruel cerebral factory of Saddam. So when Saddam handed his loyal deputies the gun to execute one of the disloyal politicians, we shared that bristling sense of impotence, that the politician was compelled to shoot or he would be next to be executed.
• Despite the fact that you don’t care about Saddam’s wellbeing because he is such an appalling human being, this did throw up a curious contrary ambivalence. Because you don’t care about him, it’s hard to perceive him as a real person, and he therefore becomes a grotesque TV villain. And because he’s reduced to a TV villain, when he comes under attack in Dujail, you want the bullets to hit and kill him as you would a Dalek which may conflict with your own personal philosophy on killing, no matter how justified the target.
• Above and beyond a simple retelling of Saddam’s life, this drama also provoked thought on the nature of kissing and hugging. Saddam kissed and hugged people not to express affection but as a tool of control, even his adoration for his daughter was compromised by his willingness to arrange her marriage to seal a clan alliance, while he hugged his best friend shortly before murdering him as a way of proving to the rest of his minions that nobody was safe from his wrath should they cross him. On a more trivial scale, such theatrics are played out (and encouraged) on reality shows where the most enthusiastic hugger/kisser is invariable the most incomplete and spiteful person.
• The blood could have demanded a note in the cast list it was so prominent, whether disloyal deputies brains spattered against the wall or a loyal henchman on the floor of Saddam’s throne room.
• Saddam’s self-delusional aphorisms that kept his henchmen in line. “The man who can sacrifice his best friend is a man without weakness” and “”I know a traitor before he knows himself”.

What was bad about it?
• Saddam Hussein has generously stepped from beyond the grave into the void to fill that gaping hole of all-purpose ogre for TV producers to create dramas with a monstrous figurehead at the top of the table so much so you wonder if the invasion of Iraq was sponsored by US TV channels rather than US oil companies. True, his malice seems all the more palpable because of who he was and what he did, but this does also mean that viewers are oblivious to what is true and what has been fabricated or elucidated “for dramatic purposes”.
• While watching you’re always struggling to discern the line between truth and dramatic licence. Some like the massacre in Dujail have been well documented, but did Saddam hold the gun while his ‘loyal’ deputies executed the ‘disloyal’ ones, did he really murder his best friend? At what point did the scriptwriters/ producers think, “Ah, sod it let’s just make him do this” confident that Saddam was already so draped in evil that a few cufflinks of iniquity wouldn’t alter the viewer’s perception and give them a chance to smuggle in a bit more ratings-grabbing violence.
• And another factor in this litany of wickedness is that the viewer knows how it all ends. It doesn’t matter if Saddam murders, tortures and brutalises with impunity – we all know that come 2003 he’ll be deposed and subsequently executed a while after that. This creates a complacency in the tension compared to, say, Ralph Fiennes as Amon Goth in Schindeler’s List; while Goth was ultimately executed for his crimes you were never sure of his fate as he was historically relatively insignificant, or even if he really existed at all.
• Every single character was deeply unpleasant, save for a few arbitrary children, and this detaches you from the narrative as you simply become absorbed into the cycle of murder and counter-murder. It’s gripping stuff, but if you cared about the protagonist such scenes as when Saddam’s motorcade comes under machine gun fire in Dujail would be better.
• Although the mechanical nature of the plot, whereby it jumped from historical atrocity to historical atrocity, was often submerged beneath the compelling drama, on occasion House of Saddam did sometimes resembled 10 Top Tips to Become a Tyrant, cribbed from 1984 such as eliminate benign rivals, fake/senseless wars, fake news reports of fake/senseless wars and the preservation of the elite above all else.

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