Saturday, 18 July 2015


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on Saturday 18th July 2015.

The Outcast: Sunday, BBC One

Inside The Ku Klux Klan: Monday, Channel 4

Paul Whitelaw

An expensive-looking holiday in other people's misery, The Outcast is a hazy, haunted post-war period drama that never connects on an emotional level.

Its failure to communicate is, I suppose, entirely in keeping with its themes of repression and mute isolation. But that's a charitable view: The Outcast is about damaged people incapable of expressing themselves, but that's no excuse for such slow, alienating, bone-dry execution. What's the point of a story that fails to engage?

Our protagonist is Lewis, a damaged soul from an upper middle-class family immersed in tragedy. Lewis' happy childhood was obliterated by the death of his beloved mother, who drowned before his eyes. Traumatised, his inability to explain what happened to his remote war veteran father triggered an endless downward spiral.

Packed off to boarding school, he retreated further into himself, his deep emotional trauma undiagnosed and misunderstood by everyone around him. As the narrative skipped forward like a series of depressing diary entries, we observed this scarred child of the seen-but-not-heard generation morph into an angry young man with a disastrous diet of medication: self-harm, alcohol, arson and sleeping with a woman who resembles his stepmother. Freud ahoy.

This, clearly, is a well-intentioned story about the tragic consequences of a “pre-enlightened” age when the concept of bereavement counselling was the stuff of a madman's dream. A potentially interesting subject, but writer Sadie Jones fails to make us care about Lewis as we should.

He's automatically sympathetic by dint of his circumstances, but we never get beyond his troubled surface. He's outwardly numb, so that's partially by design. But as Jones subjects him to misery after misery, he feels more like a maltreated marionette than a three-dimensional character. Jones uses him to make a point, meaning that – contrary to her intentions – the endless indignities heaped upon him become borderline comical.

It's formally quite bold in that it relies as much on silence and imagery as dialogue – Lewis' inner turmoil is signified by a sound effect of blood raging noisily through his skull. But The Outcast is hobbled by its self-conscious solemnity.

As the likes of Jon Ronson and Louis Theroux have shown, one of the best ways of understanding – and undermining – crazy extremists is by humanising them. That is, to show them going about their everyday, often hapless business in such a way that they no longer feel threatening. When fear becomes pity, a monster is robbed of its power. That's the idea anyway.

Did Inside The Ku Klux Klan succeed along these idealogical lines? A documentary following a Missouri chapter of this notorious racist movement, it certainly confirmed what we already know - that racists are sad, angry, deluded, insular, paranoid, dysfunctional human beings desperately lashing out at an imagined foe to blame for their unhappiness. But if we already know this, what purpose did it serve?

If you ignore racism it won't go away, that's not what I'm suggesting. Racists aren't like bees - I really can't stress that enough. Bigotry of all kinds should always be exposed and challenged. I just don't think another documentary about a tragic bunch of ignorant rednecks is particularly useful.

The programme made the important point that, despite their threadbare currency and easily mockable foolishness, the Klan are still guilty of appalling acts of violence. We can't laugh them into obsolescence. That wasn't the programme's intention, but unlike Ronson and Theroux at their best, it basically amounted to a despairing, common sense sigh in the face of immovable bigotry.

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