tue 11/08/2020

Rich Hall's Red Menace, BBC Four review - laconic comic referees the Free World versus Communism | reviews, news & interviews

Rich Hall's Red Menace, BBC Four review - laconic comic referees the Free World versus Communism

Rich Hall's Red Menace, BBC Four review - laconic comic referees the Free World versus Communism

A sideways look at the madness and paranoia of the Cold War decades

Big bang theory: Rich Hall goes nuclear

Who won the Cold War? Nobody, according to comedian Rich Hall in this 90-minute film for BBC Four. His theory is that after the symbolic fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago, Russia and America merely “flipped ideologies”. The US government now rules by lies and intimidation, while Russia embraced gangster-capitalism and became “a gas station with a bunch of rusty nukes out back.”

Resembling an old outlaw who’d been dragged into town tied to the back of somebody’s horse, Hall cast a caustic eye over the neurotic decades after World War Two, as East and West stockpiled missiles and pushed the threat of “mutually assured destruction” (aptly acronymed as MAD) to its limits. He reminded us of the Russian spy rings which haunted the nightmares of Western citizens, and revisited the McCarthy-ite anti-Communist witch hunts of the 1950s. But Hall’s take on this was to suggest that a lot of it was hysteria whipped up by hawkish right-wingers, and, surprisingly, that the sinister Senator Joseph McCarthy wasn’t nearly as influential as he’s made out to be.

Whether a comedian, be he ever so laconic, is really the ideal host for a programme like this is a moot point. Hall is droll, in a grizzled-old-geezer-in-the-saloon-bar sort of way, but reducing this fraught and complex slice of post-war history to a series of wry asides and put-downs can’t really give a rounded picture. His curt dismissal of Boris Pasternak’s novel Dr Zhivago (which the Americans used as a propaganda tool against the Soviets) as “a tub of literary lard” epitomised this credibility gap.

Still, the sheer weirdness of a lot of what went on during these years defies logic and reason (like Hall’s story of the highly-trained CIA “spy cat” which was sadly run over before it could carry out its espionage mission), so maybe a comedian is no less qualified to talk about it than anyone else. Hall did wheel in a few academics and journalists to add authoritative comments, but in truth they didn’t contribute much to the proceedings.

The lunacy of it all was illustrated by Stanley Kubrick’s crazed 1964 satire Dr Strangelove, but of course the terror was real enough for the people who lived through it. Hall’s account of the US air force accidentally dropping nuclear bombs on North Carolina, or the little-known Russian “dirty bomb” incident in the Urals, induced a frisson of dread. Hall was smart, too, on how Cold War paranoia infiltrated everything from comic books to sports events and chess tournaments, as both sides desperately sought any kind of advantage. Never again, eh?

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters