I watched The Execution of Gary Glitter tonight. Just as executions have a morbid fascination, dramas about executions, like Dead Man Walking or The Green Mile seem to have that same fascination (although perhaps one degree removed).
I think the death penalty is a valid subject for Channel 4, a public service broadcaster. Though it is not a live debate here, it is a real and divisive issue for our cultural cousins in the USA. The hanging of paedophiles is an oft repeated thought experiment, whenever a Huntley or a Vanessa George is arrested, and it is sufficiently discussed in the UK for pollsters to regularly ask the public’s opinion on the issue. According to the programme, 54% of British adults support its reintroduction.
There’s no doubt that the choice of Glitter as the anti-hero was was a fantastic marketing ploy. He is, shall we say, the most culturally significant bogeyman we have. However, this also gave the narrative extra depth, because his rock-star past allowed the programme makers to pass commentary on popular culture. The Daily Mirror headlines for a Glitter trial felt real, and the MP3 remix sending Gary Glitter back to No.1 (on downloads) on the day of his execution was an obvious slam dunk. It is an uncomfortable thought, but I think he is the protagonist many writers would have chosen. The device cannot simply be marked down as the product of pure cynicism.
Charlie Brooker in The Guardian:
What with this and the previous Killing Of George Bush drama-doc a few years ago, the Channel 4 family is establishing itself as the home of thought-provoking celebrity death fantasises. Now they’ve whacked a president and strangled a paedo, what next?
Nor can we call this a fantasy. It was clearly not a programme designed to gloat over Glitter’s fictional death. Instead, this programme, like Death of a President (which Brooker refers to above), seems to be a cautionary tale. Beware of what you wish for, it warns. With Death of a President, the message was a rebuke to that childish strain of liberal thought that we heard so much of during the Bush presidency. The drama pointed out that if something bad were to happen to President George W. Bush, we would get Dick Cheney as President! So those who off-handedly wished for Bush’s death should think again. With The Execution of Gary Glitter, the programme makers seem to be asking the more punitive, authoritarian sections of society a similar question: When you casually call for the killing of another person, do you really mean it? Because, if you do, these are the consequences. These programmes are not the fantasies of the programme makers. They are a rebuke to those who do have fantasies about killing the most vilified people in our society.
The dramatic sequences in the court and in the cell, all utter conjecture, carried the same detachment from reality as any other Channel 4 drama. Meanwhile, I thought the programme was at its most insightful when it showed how populist arguments, all emotive and with little validity, can take hold of the political agenda. These arguments rested on the personal and the anecdotal, and ignored wider moral claims. Liberal arguments were dismissed as “They don’t understand because they live in big houses” or “if their child was raped they would think differently”. This is very reminiscent of much political debate and it was these sections that felt most real. I have argued many times before that liberal arguments (whether it is against ID cards, for human rights, or for legalisation of drugs) are often hampered by supporters’ failure to acknowledge and directly address the fearful, populist argument. I see nothing wrong in extrapolating what the actual consequences would be, were such populists arguments allowed to take hold. This is the task of drama.
Ultimately, however, I think the extrapolation itself went awry. There were a number of huge conceptual leaps, required in order to sustain the Glitter ‘device’, that pushed the thing into a place where its value became questionable. The first is that child rape would become a capital crime at the same time as murder. I think support for the death penalty has its roots in an eye-for-an-eye philosophy, so this extension of the death penalty would be a separate and longer political campaign (perhaps The Castration of Gary Glitter might have been a more plausible title). Indictment for crimes committed overseas is another conceptual leap, and the time line of events seemed squeezed. If Glitter’s crimes had been committed before the reintroduction of the death-penalty, then he would not be eligible for such a sentence. Next, I doubt that hanging would be preferred to lethal injection, were the death penalty be reintroduced, and I doubt that executions would take place in an old, city prison like Pentonville. A more hygenic and nondescript facility would be annexed to a quieter prison in the suburbs, where space is not at a premium. So the ugly fringe festival would not have materialised in quite the same way.
If the death penalty were reintroduced in the UK, executions would be carried out in a less sensational manner, and (as Richard says above) they would be handed down on the poor and unknown. This is precisely what happens in the USA, where the sentences are carried out in a different wing of the prisons (which are themselves built away from towns and media) to the marginalised and uneducated. The Execution of Gary Glitter was morbidly fascinating TV, but in choosing such a sensational protagonist, I fear it might have missed the chance to examine how such a sinister and inhumane practice could worm its way into law, and retain the popular support of the people.