The tomato is perhaps not the most important food item in the world. Unlike potatoes, coffee, tea and bananas, no country in the world depends on tomatoes. No nation will find itself bankrupted and no war will ever start because a tomato crop has failed. Then again, a world without tomatoes would perhaps not be worth living in. Just imagine going the rest of your life without baked beans or tomato sauce! Doesn’t bear thinking about does it?
Of late, I have been thinking about tomatoes a lot. It began with a sojourn to the town of Fleetwood in Lancashire, where I decided to take lunch in the Thomas Drummond, a Wetherspoons pub. Being in a celebratory mood, I treated myself to a 12 ounce Aberdeen Angus steak.
Now when it comes to a steak meal, for me the only establishments in the UK I deem worthy of my custom are Wetherspoons pubs. In terms of quality and price I know of no other establishment on this sceptred isle that comes within a country mile of ‘Spoons.
I’m afraid a year of living in Dallas raised my expectations of how big a steak should be and how much it should cost. Before Dallas, I actually considered a visit to an English steakhouse to be something of a treat. Now you’d have to point a gun at my head to get me to set foot in one.
Admittedly, even a 12 ounce Aberdeen Angus jobby pales into insignificance against the dirty great slabs of dead cow on offer in your average Dallas eatery, but you’d be hard pushed to find a Dallas-sized steak in this country that wouldn’t set you back the price of a second hand car.
Anyway, the point is that my Wetherspoons steak was just fab. The Jack Daniel’s sauce was scrummy. And the onion rings were fine. The only fly in the ointment – or should that be in the soup? – was, rather inevitably, the tomato. To be specific, it was half a tomato. Not that I had any problem with the incompleteness of the fruit in question. No, my beef was with the fact that the outside was cooked and the inside was raw.
Yep. That’s right. Outside cooked. Inside raw.
Now, that’s exactly how I like my steak, but it’s not the way I like my tomato. If you’re going to cook a tomato – or even half of one – make sure it’s cooked all the way through, why don’t you?
Frankly, I wasn’t at all surprised that the tomato was only half done; in fact, I was rather expecting it. You see, there doesn’t seem to be a single eatery or hostelry in Britain that knows how to cook a tomato properly. Or perhaps they know and just can’t be bothered. Perhaps they think that because everyone else fudges the job they’re at liberty to do the same.
Throughout the length and breadth of Britain I have eaten ‘cooked’ tomatoes in pubs, clubs, restaurants, greasy spoon cafes and trattorias, and I don’t think I have ever once been served with a tomato that was cooked as a tomato should be cooked. I have even breakfasted at 5 star hotels (not at my own expense, I hasten to add) where for the most part the cuisine is way above par but where I have found myself confronted with supposedly fried tomatoes whose skins are cooked to a crisp but whose innards are cryogenicly preserved.
Why is it so hard for people to get it right?
Here’s a tip for the tomato cookers of the world: if you’re going to grill or fry tomatoes, use cherry tomatoes. They’ll cook all the way through in no time. Failing that, slice a beef tomato and throw the slices under the grill or into a pan. It’s not difficult and you’ll be helping to make the world a better place.
And while we’re on the subject, who the hell is responsible for inflicting plum peeled tomatoes on the world? Bleeuuuurrrrgggggh!!!!!!!
Ali, Boutros, Chadli, Daud, Ekram, Faisal, Ghulam, Habib, Ishmael, Ja’far, Khalid, Lutfullah, Malik, Nusrat, Omar, Quddus, Rashad, Sadik, Tariq, Uday, Wajdi, Yakub and Zafar.
Upon the occasion of his seventeenth birthday, Ali was taken to the tent of Hassan-i Sabbah, King of Assassins. The old man greeted him with an affectionate kiss on the head.
‘You are the most blessed of the blessed,’ he said. ‘You have pledged your life to Allah the most merciful. Your reward will be great.’
Ali bent his knee. ‘I thank you, my lord, for giving me the chance to show my love for Allah and my fellow muslims.’
‘Put this on. It is your passport to Paradise.’ Hassan-i Sabbah, the Old Man of the Mountains, handed Ali a suicide vest. It was pure goat skin packed with high explosive. ‘Die as Allah wills it and when you arrive in Heaven, you will have forty virgins waiting for you.’
Gladly, Ali donned the vest then followed Hassan-i Sabbah into an adjoining tent where other boys his own age were lined up. All of them wore passports to paradise.
‘Ali,’ said Hassan-i Sabbah, ‘let me introduce you to your fellow martyrs. Here is Boutros, Chadli, Daud, Ekram, Faisal, Ghulam, Habib, Ishmael, Ja’far, Khalid, Lutfullah, Malik, Nusrat, Omar, Quddus, Rashad, Sadik, Tariq, Uday, Wajdi, Yakub and Zafar. They, like you, have sworn to kill as many infidels as Allah permits. They will join you in Paradise…’
Ali was smiling serenely as he boarded the subway train. He was smiling partly in anticipation of the forty virgins he knew would be waiting for him in Paradise, but mostly he was smiling because of the pills Hassan-i Sabbah had commanded him to swallow before setting out on his mission.
In other trains in other cities around the world, the boys he had met in Hassan-i Sabbah’s tent had already taken their places.
Ali sat between a pregnant woman and a heavily made-up girl with pierced lips and a crucifix dangling from her neck. ‘Whores,’ he muttered, by which he meant every woman on the train.
As the train left the station, a bony finger pressed a button in Afghanistan and sent a signal that bounced off satellites and fed into the mobile phone systems of the world. In less than a second, the signal reached its many targets and unleashed the wrath of Hassan-i Sabbah.
Ali was blown to Kingdom Come at the exact same moment as Boutros, Chadli, Daud, Ekram, Faisal, Ghulam, Habib, Ishmael, Ja’far, Khalid, Lutfullah, Malik, Nusrat, Omar, Quddus, Rashad, Sadik, Tariq, Uday, Wajdi, Yakub, Zafar and hundreds of innocent people.
As Hassan-i Sabbah had promised, death didn’t hurt one bit. Dressed all in white, Ali found himself standing on a large fluffy cloud.
‘Welcome to Paradise,’ said a bearded man in a white suit. ‘I am the Angel Gabriel and it falls to me to see that you get your just reward.’ He waved a hand and a tent appeared. ‘This is to be your home for all eternity. I trust you will find it comfortable.’
‘And the forty virgins I was promised?’ asked Ali.
‘They will be your sole companions for now and forever. This way, please.’
Ali followed Gabriel into the tent, wherein forty virgins awaited his arrival.
‘Ali, here are your virgins,’ said Gabriel. ‘Meet Boutros, Chadli, Daud, Ekram, Faisal, Ghulam, Habib, Ishmael, Ja’far, Khalid, Lutfullah, Malik, Nusrat, Omar, Quddus, Rashad, Sadik, Tariq, Uday, Wajdi, Yakub, Zafar…’
My novel ‘Sybernika’ recently reached a milestone – namely 1,000 downloads on Smashwords. It is, of course, downloadable from other sites but I have no figures for them.
Curious to see if my work had made any ripples out there in Internetland, I did a quick Google on the term ‘Sybernika’ and was pleasantly surprised to come across two highly flattering reviews of the book, one of which describes it as ‘a cyberpunk classic’.
Before I preen myself by publishing the reviews here, I’d like to mention you can download a free copy of ‘Sybernika’ from http://www.sybernika.com where you can also read it online.
And now those reviews (both of which come from the Web Fiction Guide):
“A cyberpunk web classic. Violent, depraved, and weird!” - Fiona Gregory.
Short but sweet. The second review is more detailed:
If you’re a fan of horror and scifi/cyberpunk, I can’t recommend this story enough. I only intended to read the first handful of chapters, but I ended up blowing through all of Part 1 (about half of the completed story, from what I can tell). It was grim and creepy, and incredibly well written, both in structure and story.
The story is told in a lilting, almost poetic style. I thought I would get bored or annoyed with it at first, but after a while I realized it really adds to the building atmosphere of the story . . . and what atmosphere! The scifi hook kept me reading at the beginning, but as the author subtly and unrelentingly built up the dread I found it impossible to stop.
I would mention the flipside of such amazing writing abilities; with such believable characters the darkness of this story became increasingly difficult to read. The violence, the domestic, emotional and sexual abuse, and the overall dark tone was a little hard to deal with, precisely due to the fact that it felt so real. I thought it was perfectly appropriate to the story, but readers with more delicate sensibilities may want to beware.
Honestly I’m shocked at how real the emotions were while reading this serial/novel. Module (read: chapter) 10.0 was able to deliver an emotional punch to the gut, and it’s a single sentence long. It’s rare that I encounter a character that I truly, viscerally hate, not because they’re annoying or over-the-top evil, but because I can see them as an actual person, real enough to loathe. The antagonists of Sybernika fall into that short list of characters.
Long story short, Sybernika has its ruthless moments, but as long as you know what kind of story to expect going in it’s a marvelous work. Well worth my time.
OK, folks. This is the moment the entire scientific community has been holding its breath for. Here comes my well thought out explanation for why the universe appears to have begun with a so-called big bang when I have shown such a thing to be impossible.
Imagine, if you will, two separate universes drifting along in what we might call the multiverse and which we can conceive of as being a ‘something’ containing many universes. These two universes drift towards each other and then suddenly touch. At the point where they touch (which might be vanishingly small), they start to merge. This is the beginning of our universe, which is basically the bits of the two universes that overlap.
As an analogy, you might want to imagine two amoebae in a pond. They touch and one absorbs the other or – more precisely – they absorb each other, creating an ever-expanding zone that is a mixture of both creatures and their respective characteristics.
This overlap steadily grows which is, of course, why our universe is expanding. If we play the film backwards, the universe gets smaller and smaller until the moment at the beginning of time when it comes into existence. This is what gives the illusion of there having a been a big bang. It’s not so much a big bang as the start of fusion.
My solution to the big bang conundrum also rather elegantly explains why physicists have made no progress in being able to merge the two theories that explain how our universe works – quantum mechanics and relativity – into a single unified theory. It seems that the universe works according to two different sets of rules, which perplexes most physicists as they firmly believe there should only be one set.
But, if our universe is the product of two other universes, each universe would have brought its own rules to the game in the same way each parent bestows his or her own genes on their progeny. In other words, we should look upon our universe as a hybrid.
Just a thought.
My three questions concerning certain fundamental facts of the universe generated some interesting answers both on this blog and on facebook. Someone mentioned Richard Feynman’s notion that perhaps all electrons are the same electron. (It was actually John Wheeler who suggested it to Feynman who immediately shot the idea down. Or maybe not. Depends on whose version of the story you believe. As with all things to do with quantum physics, there’s a certain amount of uncertainty.)
The thing about electrons is that they are all the same. You pick an electron out of a deck, put it back in and shuffle the deck, and you have no idea which was your electron. There is absolutely no way of telling one from another.
For all we know, the electrons of the universe are forever swapping places with each other, like identical twins in a cheesy Whitehall farce. They could be mocking us – having a laugh at our expense. We have no way of telling.
And that’s the point of my asking why there is more than one electron. Somehow the universe manufactured zillions upon zillions of the little buggers without deviating from the original blueprint in any way whatsoever. If you’re not staggered by that fact, you should be.
We have factories that produce supposedly identical goods over and over again, and yet they’re not actually identical. Take a look at two Mars bars that have come off the same production line. They’re made by the same process according to the same recipe, yet even a cursory glance can spot differences between the two.
Not so with electrons.
Which is why it’s tempting to think that all electrons are the same electron popping up all over the universe at the same time. After all, in the world as we experience it, nothing is 100% the same as anything else. If you pardon my Zen, things that aren’t the same thing will always be different in some way.
Well then, supposing we follow our logic and accept that there is indeed only one electron. How do we explain the multiplicity and ubiquity of that one particle?
I have two possible explanations. (I actually had three until I sobered up.)
Let’s suppose there’s a huge multidimensional particle bigger than the entire universe which I shall call the super electron. Most of it exists in dimensions beyond the four we can directly experience. The bits that poke into our reality are identical because they’re bits of the same thing constrained by the same laws and parameters. These bits are what we call electrons.
This is a variant of string theory, whereby instead of each electron being the manifestation of its own unique string, they all arise from one string.
If this were true of the electron, it would hold true for all particles. And that would explain quantum entanglement.
My second explanation posits that the universe is a hologram, a projection of some other reality which is 2-dimensional in nature. (The idea of a holographic universe has been around for ages and is worth Googling should you be so inclined.) Suppose in this other reality there is only one electron (and one neutron and one proton and one of every other subatomic particle). If that electron is projected into our universe once, it can be projected many times over in the same way that a picture can appear on millions of television screens at the same time.
This is, of course, just idle speculation on my part and should be totally ignored. Maybe one day someone who knows what they’re talking about will give me a satisfactory explanation as to why there’s more than one electron. In the meantime, I’ll go on pondering the imponderable.
1. Why is there more than 1 electron?
2. How much does the universe weigh?
3. What’s the speed of gravity?
Let me make it clear from the start. This discourse is not concerned with the television series The Big Bang Theory which is very funny and often downright hilarious. What I’m talking about is the scientific theory which supposedly explains the origin of the universe. It is one of the most ridiculous theories ever proposed and yet supposedly intelligent scientists all over the world accept it without questioning. What a bunch of plonkers!
What happened was this. Back in 1929, an astronomer called Edwin Hubble observed that every galaxy beyond our own was moving away from us with a speed proportional to distance. This, he and many others concluded, could only mean that the universe is expanding. If the universe is expanding, then it would have been smaller yesterday than it is today and even smaller than that the day before. In other words, the further back in time we go, the smaller the universe is.
That makes sense to me. I can so totally see the logic in that. But then comes the absurd bit. According to the Big Bang Theory, there was a time when the universe was infinitely small and infinitely dense. It was what is called a singularity.
You can see what the idiots did, can’t you? They did what the ancient Greeks so often did. They applied logic to known facts and reached an absurd conclusion by dispensing with common sense.
Sure, as we look back in time, the universe gets smaller and smaller. Some thirteen and a bit billion years ago, it was so small it was the size of a pea. Go back a few seconds and it’s the size of a grain of sand. Back further and its even smaller. And so on until logic says it must have been infinitely small.
Logic says. Common sense says otherwise.
Try taking the logic further and ask what the universe was like before it was this so-called singularity. Surely, it must have been smaller than infinitely small. It must, in fact, have had negative dimensions.
That’s where the logic takes us and it is clearly absurd. But it’s the same logic that gives us a singularity. If we can’t have a universe of negative dimensions, then how can we have one of zero dimensions?
The scientists who propound the Big Bang Theory have a nice get out clause on this one. They claim there was no ‛before’. Time began when this singularity – which remember was infinitely small and infinitely dense – began to expand.
But hold it a minute. You have this singularity. It has zero dimensions and therefore no time (time being the fourth dimension). Literally nothing happens without time. But time doesn’t begin until the universe starts expanding but the universe can’t expand without time. Do you see the problem?
So does it really make sense to claim that the universe was once so small it was this funny kind of nothing that possessed the quality of infinite density?
Imagine a film of someone blowing up a balloon. If you play the film backwards, the balloon gets smaller and smaller, in just the same way as the universe would if you filmed its entire history and ran it in reverse. However, there is a point where the balloon stops getting smaller. And this comes as no surprise to you or I because we’re not dumb enough to think that anything that gets bigger over time must once have been infinitely small.
As it stands, the Big Bang Theory flies in the face of common sense. I’m not denying that the universe is expanding. I’m not denying that the further back in time you go, the smaller the universe gets – up to a limit. But don’t give me that guff about it once being infinitely small and infinitely dense, especially when you can’t explain how your singularity ever came to be or what it was before it became a singularity.
If you’d claimed that the universe started as something the size of a tennis ball – or even a pea – I might have believed you but you had to go and get carried away with yourselves, didn’t you?
(In a future blog, I will expound an alternative to the Big Bang Theory which actually makes sense. So watch this space.)
When talking about the work of Jean-Luc Godard it is ill advised and well nigh impossible to consider his films without reference to his critical writings. Indeed, Godard himself has often asserted that his filmmaking is as much an exercise in criticism as his writing. The two are inextricably linked and, as Chris Darke notes, Goddard’s writing can be seen as preparation for his directorial debut in A bout de soufflé (France, 1960).1.
Before becoming a director, Jean-Luc Godard was a critic for the influential film journal Cahiers du Cinema.
In the 1950s, Godard — along with Andre Bazin, Francois Truffaut and other Cahiers writers — promoted auteur theory which argues that cinema should be approached with the notion that the director is the author – that is the prime creative force – behind a film. The notion was not new and had been around since the 1920s2but Cahiers gave it fresh impetus.
The main tool of auteur theorists became known as mise-en-scene criticism. The term mise-en-scene was borrowed from the theatre and refers to the way things are arranged within a scene.
The Cahiers group claimed that certain directors could lay claim to being artists. This notion and the arguments used to support it became known as ‘les politiques des auteurs’.
Auteur theory would probably have stirred little controversy but for the fact that the Cahiers group bestowed auteur theory on certain Hollywood directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawkes, John Ford and Samuel Fuller. They argued that even though these directors worked within the studio system, they nonetheless had a consistent, discernable style that marked each of their films as their own.
Of course not every director was so elevated in the eyes of the critics. Any director who lacked a personal vision (the main criterion for being deemed an auteur) was airily dismissed as a metteur-en-scene.
As Francois Truffaut put it in his seminal article Une Certaine Tendence du Cinema Francais which appeared in Cahiers no. 31 in January, 1954 : ‘when they (the screenwriters) hand in their scenario, the film is done: the metteur-en-scene, in their eyes, is the gentleman who adds pictures to it’.
Jean-Luc Godard was even more blunt when he addressed 21 major directors. ‘Your camera movements,’ he said, ‘are ugly because your subjects are bad, your casts act badly because your dialogue is worthless; in a word, you don’t know how to create cinema because you no longer even know what it is.’
In 1960, Godard put his money where his mouth was and directed A bout de soufflé which was as much a homage to the Hollywood films he loved as a reaction against the conservatism of contemporary French cinema. It was also his chance to put into practice that which he had been preaching as an auteur theorist. If ever a film was covered in the indelible fingerprints of its director, A bout de soufflé is it.
With this film, Godard tore up and then rewrote the rule book, but that is not to say that he re-invented the game completely.
In many respects, Breathless (to give it its English title) – a story about a hoodlum on the run from the police — is Hollywood film noir given a post-modernist slant. Stylistically, it owes more than a passing nod to Italian neo-realism as well as those American directors Godard regarded as auteurs.
Right from the start, Breathless is determined to misbehave itself. It opens with the protagonist, Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) preparing to steal a car. In voice-over he announces that he’s an arsehole — or possibly a tough guy depending on the translation. Either way the film has immediately broken with cinematic tradition.
As he rushes through the countryside in his stolen car, he talks aloud to himself. Then he suddenly turns to the audience and says, ‘If you don’t like the sea, and you don`t like the mountains, and you don`t like the big city, then go hang yourself.’ This is very subversive. The fourth wall is broken and we have been made active accomplices in Michel’s activities. From here on in, it is impossible to view the film in the manner to which we have become accustomed.
Godard used a number of techniques that were unconventional and which by rights should have spoiled the film as a piece of convincing cinema. These included shooting with black and white film, the use of hand-held camera, long takes and – most iconoclastic of all – jump cuts. According to the perceived wisdom of the time, A bout de soufflé should not have worked and yet it is one of the most cinematic of all films.
Until Breathless came along, it was pretty much agreed that the editing of a film should be seamless — that is the audience’s attention should not be drawn to its construction and should be left to lose themselves in the plot. Godard, however, goes out of his way to remind us that we are watching a film. Scenes that other directors would linger over, making sure we catch every significant detail, are put together in a seemingly haphazard manner and it’s often a case of ‘blink and you miss it’. For instance, when Michel shoots the policeman, we are offered a series of shots that give us no chance to anticipate what is about to happen and it is some seconds after the sequence that we realise what has just happened.
This frenetic editing is taken to extremes with the use of jump cuts. Even today this technique is frowned upon as the mark of an amateur but Godard clearly knew what he was doing and there is no doubt he could have avoided the jumps if he wanted to. Clearly he is thumbing his nose at the cinematic old guard.
The editing in Breathless, its use of natural lighting, actual locations and black and white film stock, all give the film a less than polished look. This is no accident. Godard has put a lot of effort into making Breathless the rough diamond it is. This is the critic in him coming through. He wants us to question the way films are made and to be aware of the conventions of cinema.
Of course there is more to Breathless than its form and technique. It has a story line which could have been lifted from any number of Hollywood B-movies but which is handled in a highly idiosyncratic and non-formulaic way. The plot has all the ingredients of a fast-paced thriller but Godard goes out of his way to confound our expectations. As David Borwell3 notes, ‘Brief scenes – some largely unconnected to [Michel’s] goals – alternate with long stretches of seemingly irrelevant dialogue’. Add to this the art house contrivance of almost one third of the film consisting of a conversation that is mostly small talk between Michel and Patricia (Jean Seberg), the girl he thinks he may love, and we are a long way from familiar B-movie territory.
None of the elements that make Breathless extraordinary originated with Godard. Other film-makers had used them before him but never so self-consciously. A bout de soufflé draws attention to the way it is put together in a manner that most other films go to great pains to avoid.
It should be borne in mind that Breathless was not alone in its aesthetic. Other Cahiers writers had also made, or were about to make, films with the same mind set. These films have been lumped together under the heading of Nouveau Vague (New Wave). Each was radical in its own way, but none as radical — and subversive — as Breathless.
Nelmes, Jill (ed.), An Introduction to Film Studies – 3rd Edition, London, New York, Routledge, 2003
Hayward, Susan, Cinema studies – 2nd Edition, London, New York, Routledge, 2000
Bordwell, David and Thompson, Kristin. Film Art. An Introduction. New York, McGraw-Hill, 2001
1 Nelmes; p.443
2 Hayward; p.20
3 Bordwell and Thompson; p.367
Reflections on Death of a Princess.
In the autumn of 1977, British filmmaker Antony Thomas was at a dinner party in London. One of the topics of conversation was the execution in public on July 15th of that year of a 19-year-old Saudi Arabian Princess and her 20-year-old lover. The Princess in question was Princess Misha’al Fahd bin Mohammed, a granddaughter of Prince Mohammed bin Abdul Aziz, King Khalid’s elder brother. Her lover, Khalid Mahallal, was the son of a senior Saudi general.
It was bin Abdul Aziz who had ordered the executions, the charge being adultery with a commoner. The Princess was shot; her lover was beheaded in a public square.
Although the story was suppressed in Arab countries, it had circulated by word of mouth and become folk-lore.
In Britain, the incident had hit the headlines because a British construction worker had photographed the Princess’ execution with a Kodak Instamatic camera.
Thomas decided to make a documentary about the Princess and got the backing of ATV (a British commercial television channel) and WGBH (a PBS affiliate) in Boston, Massachusetts. Additional money was raised from television companies in Australia, Holland, Japan, New Zealand and the US.
Over the next few months, Thomas interviewed dozens of Saudis who claimed to have either witnessed or known about the execution. Based on their testimonies, he and David Fanning of WGBH put together a script. With Thomas as director, the documentary – entitled Death of a Princess (UK,1980) – took about 18 months to complete.
Thomas’s original intention was to make a straight documentary, but it soon became clear to him that the nature of the material he was gathering could only be told as a docudrama:
Where I travelled through the Arab world, the story was celebrated. Everyone had their own version of that story, all very, very different. … Whoever I spoke to […] attached themselves to this princess. She’d become a myth. […] Somehow this princess was sort of like a catalyst. And after thinking about it seriously, I thought, my gosh, this is perhaps an even more interesting story to tell.
I had a problem, because everyone I spoke to was interviewed in complete confidence, and how do I tell this story? […] You couldn’t make a documentary. It was impossible. You’d have a whole array of people with their voices distorted and bags on their heads, and that wouldn’t make a very good film.i
The controversy and diplomatic fall-out for which Death of a Princess is now famed began before it was even aired.
Saudi officials were invited to a preview of the film and left deeply offended. The British government received word from the Saudis that King Khalid was outraged by the film’s contents. Saudi Arabia threatened to break off diplomatic relations with the UK and to suspend oil exports.
The docudrama was broadcast in Britain on the 9th of April, 1980 despite the best efforts of Saudi Arabia to have it withdrawn.
In an effort to divert some of the flak it knew was headed its way, ATV preceded the program with a statement that said: ‘The program you are about to see is a dramatised reconstruction of certain events which took place in the Arab world between 1976 and 1978. We have been asked to point out that equality for all before the law is regarded as paramount in the Moslem world.’
The broadcast that followed was to have serious repercussions throughout the world.
In 1979, Great Britain exported £2 billion in goods to Saudi Arabia which was its 11th largest market in the world. Add to this Saudi Arabia’s appetite for British weapons systems – especially Nimrod reconnaissance aircraft – and the fact that Britain bought 16% of its oil from the kingdom and it is no surprise that, the day after Death was broadcast, the Foreign Office cravenly issued a statement part of which read: ‘We profoundly regret any offence which the program may have caused in Saudi Arabia. We have, of course, no power to interfere with the editorial content of programs, still less to ban them.’
Two days later, the Saudi Embassy in London called Death of a Princess ‘… an unprincipled attack on the religion of Islam and its 600 million people and on the way of life of Saudi Arabia, which is at the heart of the world of Islam.’
King Khalid cancelled a trip to London and – on the 23rd of April – expelled the British ambassador. Unusually, the British government did not respond with its own tit-for-tat expulsions or any other sanctions.
More ominously, the Saudis issued a statement saying it had carefully examined its economic relations with Britain and the activity of British companies in the Kingdom. This had serious implications for the U.K.’s balance of trade at a time when Saudi Arabia was Britain’s largest export market in the Middle East.
According to the Financial Times: ‘In the 13 months to June last year construction contracts worth £288m were awarded to U.K. Companies. Britain has several large continuing contracts in Saudi Arabia, including the British Aerospace Corporation’s Saudi Air force, worth between £500m and £850m over the period 1977-1981, and a contract worth £148m for cable and wireless to modernize the communications system of the National Guard. […] Britain is one of two competitors for a large Arabsat satellite communications contract, to be awarded by a multi-state Arab organisation based in Riyadh.’ii
Straight after the broadcast, the Saudis set about making life awkward for British businesses in Saudi Arabia. New restrictions were placed on visas issued to Britons. A large American construction firm was instructed not to subcontract to the British. And permission was withdrawn from British Airways for supersonic flights over the Kingdom, thus rendering Concorde’s London-Singapore route unprofitable.
Death of a Princess appears to have offended the Saudis on several levels. According to Thomas White and Gladys Ganley: ‘The film was perceived by Saudis as a violation of privacy since it represented a first look behind a closely drawn curtain into Islamic law as applied in Saudi Arabia, into Saudi culture, and, perhaps most devastating, into the behaviour of members of the ruling regime.’iii
The Financial Times opined that the Saudis took umbrage because the film: “… suggested that Prince Mohammed, the oldest surviving son of the Kingdom’s founder, had done his granddaughter to death on charges of adultery which were not exposed to the rigours of am Islamic court, and it was a matter of rough family justice…. Thus, the prince’s action would have been the highest treason and must, at all costs, be kept secret…’
Under Islamic law, adultery can only be proven if both parties admit to the crime or four independent witnesses can be found. As neither of these criteria were reached in this case, the execution of the Princess and her lover was unlawful. To put it bluntly, it was murder.
David Fanning, the film’s co-writer and executive producer alleges: ‘The difference between the official version, which was the girl was killed because she was found guilty of adultery, and the truth of it, which turns out that she was, in fact, executed by the king’s elder brother in an act of tribal vengeance in a parking lot in Jeddah, was, in fact, the heart of the controversy because that was the part that, of course, the royal family could not countenance. And that was the great outrage.’iv
Initially, the British press and public sided with Thomas but not for long. As he himself tells it: ‘… whole front pages were devoted to this thing. It went in two waves. The first wave was very supportive of the film and taking quite a racist attitude: “Who are these people to tell us about democracy and justice?
“And then the Saudi[s] sneezed and expelled the [British] ambassador and so forth, and then the whole tone changed. Now it was all about documentary truth and insult to another culture. It was actually shocking, the way the press had taken one position to [the] extreme with ghastly racist cartoons – I remember some of them – and they they just got a little knock like that, and they shot the other way.’v
One of the main charges laid against Death of a Princess is one that could be laid against any docudrama – namely that by employing a mix of fact and fiction it blurred the distinctions between the two.
Lord Carrington, the then Foreign Secretary, commented: ‘The new formula of mixing fact with fiction, dramatisation masquerading as documentary, can be dangerous and misleading.’vi
Sir Ian Gilmour, the chief Government spokesman in the House of Commons for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs went further: ‘… the whole genre is something the IBA and BBC should give considerable attention to…. I think the so-called dramatisation or fictionalising of alleged facts or history is extremely dangerous and misleading.’vii
One sequence in the film above all others provided ammunition to Thomas’s critics. It shows Saudi princesses cruising the highways of Rijadh in quest of men. It is hard to explain Thomas’s decision to include this scene as other than an extreme failure of judgement. The Economist said: ‘One of the film’s most gripping sequences was almost certainly unfair; scenes of the bored princesses at home listening and dancing to pop music were followed by their predatory drive into the desert to pick, behind their veils, a temporary mate. The evidence for the vacuity of the princesses’ lives is more substantial that for the promiscuity of those desert raids.’
This portion of Death is – by Thomas’s own admission – based upon the testimony of a single, unnamed source.
Thomas provides not one scrap of solid evidence for his contention that Saudi princesses so blatantly disregarded tradition, honour and the dictates of Islam. Nor does he explain how even one of them could get away with such behaviour in a country that keeps such a tight rein on its women.
Death of a Princess in America
On the 12th of May, 1980, PBS aired Death in the USA. The Saudis made the expected protests both before and after the broadcast.
In 2003, the president and chairmen of PBS in 1980 – while discussing the controversy surrounding the showing of a more recent docudrama – had this to say about the incident: ‘The government of Saudi Arabia and Mobil Oil, PBS’s major underwriter, urged us very publicly not to to broadcast the program […]. The secretary of state wrote us a letter, released simultaneously to the press, urging us to reevaluate PBS’s decision to broadcast the program […]. Members of Congress from both parties decried “Death of a Princess,” fearing the Saudis would shut off the nation’s oil supply and case a severe economic downturn.’viii
Grossman later on revealed: ‘The Saudi royal family did everything possible to prevent PBS from broadcasting the film […]. The Saudis, the biggest oil supplier to the United States, let it be known that they were prepared to shut off the supply or raise oil prices precipitately.’ix
Interestingly enough, whereas in Britain the public were initially supportive of Death before turning against it, the opposite happened in America.
However negative public opinion may have been before the broadcast, after “Death of a Princess” aired, the public turned supportive. What started out as the most unpopular program in PBS’s history ended up as its highest-rated broadcast. Critics commented after seeing “The Reagans” on cable that it was hard to figure out what all the fuss was about. Viewers of “Death of a Princess” had the same reaction. PBS received applause and awards for standing up to the pressures and preserving its independence against threats from the U.S. government, the Saudis, its own underwriters, and even its own audience.x
iWGBH Educational Foundation (author unknown) (2005). Interview. Antony Thomas, viewed 13th January 2007,
ii‘UK Companies Fear Saudi Discrimination’, Financial Times (15th April, 1983), p.3
iiiWhite, Thomas & Ganley, Gladys (1983). The “Death of a Princess” Controversy, viewed 13th January 2007, <http://www.pirp.harvard.edu/pubs/pdf-blurb.asp?id=129>. p.8
ivWikipedia. Misha’al bint Fahd al Saud, viewed 14th January, 2007, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Misha%27al_of_Saudi_Arabia>
vInterview. Antony Thomas.
viGoodwin, Andrew & Whannel, Gary (1990). Understanding Television, London and New York: Routledge. p.75
viiGoodwin & Whannel. p.75
viiiGrossman, Lawrence K. & Minow, Newton N. (2003). “The Reagans”: What CBS Should have Done, viewed 12th January 2007, <http://www.cjr.org/issues/2003/6/reagans-grossman.asp>
ixLedbetter, James (1998). Made Possible By…: The Death of Public Broadcasting in the United States, London and New York: Verso. pp. 150-151
xGrossman & Minow, viewed 12th January 2007.