How did mild-mannered eye doctor Bashar al-Assad end up a mass murderer?

Former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and his wife Anisa with his children (l-r) Maher, Bashar, Bassel, Majd and Bushra. Photo: Louai Beshara/ AFP/ Getty Images
Former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and his wife Anisa with his children (l-r) Maher, Bashar, Bassel, Majd and Bushra. Photo: Louai Beshara/ AFP/ Getty Images

Perhaps the saddest thing about this fascinating BBC2 documentary was realising just how completely avoidable the Syrian conflict was.

‘How did this mild-mannered eye doctor end up killing hundreds of thousands of people?’ someone wondered about Bashar al-Assad in BBC2’s extraordinary three-part documentary A Dangerous Dynasty: House of Assad (BBC2, Saturday). It’s a question we’ve all occasionally pondered as the Syrian body count rose — 500,000 thus far — and as six million refugees fled the country. The answer is so lurid and complex that it could have come from one of Shakespeare’s tragedies.

Chinless, studious, polite Bashar was never meant to become president of Syria. His thuggish military officer father Hafez, who seized power in 1970, had earmarked the job for his dashing equestrian soldier son Bassel. But when Bassel was killed in a car crash, the reluctant Bashar (rather in the manner of Michael Corleone replacing his elder brother Sonny) was forced to take on the role that would transform him inexorably from a healer to a killer of men (women, and children…).

Read the rest in the Spectator.

Did Ed Balls mean to make a documentary on the joys of Trump’s America?

Plus: the sad, sordid fate of Shergar.

The thing I most regret having failed ever to ask brave, haunted, wise Sean O’Callaghan when I last saw him at a friend’s book launch was ‘So tell me about Shergar.’

It has long been known, of course, that the legendary racehorse — one of the five greatest in the last century, according to Lester Piggott who rode him to victory in the Irish Derby — was kidnapped in 1983 by the IRA and never seen thereafter. What I didn’t realise, till after O’Callaghan died last year, was that the ex-IRA man is the only insider ever to have gone on the record as to his fate.

Turns out that poor Shergar was executed within hours. According to O’Callaghan’s version, the horse panicked, fracturing a leg, and his captors, incapable of dealing with a highly strung thoroughbred, shot him to put him out of his misery. Another, anonymous version once relayed in the Sunday Telegraph has it that the kidnappers realised they were never going to get their £2 million ransom but couldn’t release the horse because the property of the IRA man in charge of the operation was under heavy surveillance. So they machine-gunned him: ‘There was lots of cussin’ and swearin’ because the horse wouldn’t die. It was a very bloody death.’

On Searching for Shergar (BBC2, Sun), filmmaker Alison Millar offered us few new leads and no body. But her moving documentary was none the worse for being melancholy, meandering, unresolved.

Read the rest in the Spectator.

What’s the Point of Philomena Cunk?

Plus: gritty, gripping Euro noir on BBC4 and a stylish new country-house whodunit on BBC One

Because I’m a miserable old reactionary determined to see a sinister Guardianista plot in every BBC programme I watch, I sat stony-faced through much of Cunk On Britain (BBC2, Tuesdays).

Philomena Cunk (played by Diane Morgan) is a spoof comedy character who used to appear on Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe and has now been given a full series. Though the character is amiable enough — a heroically thick Northern woman in a smart jacket who goes around Britain making stupid observations and asking celebrity historians dumb questions — I can’t quite work out what the point of the joke is.

Is it a send-up of dumbed-down Britain? Is it designed to make TV history experts look pompous? Is it Molesworth reimagined for 21st-century viewers who’ve never read Down with Skool!? Is it Ali G without the awkward racial element, which would likely never get past the censors now?

Read the rest in the Spectator.