The death of rock ‘n’ roll

On November 9 The Execution of Gary Glitter raked in 1.2 million viewers across the country. In a time where the television watching public are no longer slaves to the major networks’ schedules, mainly due to the rising popularity of on demand services, this was a very healthy turn out for Channel 4 indeed. It seems that the sheer absurdity of the premise was enough to attract a substantial amount of curious viewers.

And they were not let down. Writer, director and producer Rob Coldstream had not made a programme simply to depict a real celebrity’s execution in a fictionalised future Britain. Instead, what we were subjected to was an interesting and thought-provoking drama, which raised a set of questions and debates what our society would be like if capital punishment was to be reintroduced. Channel 4 drama boss Hamish Mykura has said, “High profile crimes against children often prompt calls for the return of the death penalty – this drama confronts the public with what many say they want”. The show was, without a doubt, successful in achieving this and more.

One reason for its quality was the level of authenticity that went into production. Shot like a retrospective documentary of Gary Glitter’s trial and execution, if you had tuned in half way through you could have been forgiven for thinking you’d completely missed Parliament’s decision to reissue the death penalty and were watching the first case in Britain for over 40 years.

So realistic was the show that it felt as if I’d actually been dropped off into an alternate universe where the blood-hungry masses had finally swayed politicians. Quite frankly, I was glad the statement, ‘This is a work of fiction’, was splashed across the screen at the start.

This realism was enhanced by the fact that real reporters and politicians were used to play themselves. This included what appeared to be a stark raving mad Anne Widdecombe, Observer music reporter Miranda Sawyer, who interestingly added some context to just how influential Glitter was as a musical artist back in the 70s, and tabloid whore Garry Bushell, whose over-the-top rants were annoyingly subjective enough to be real. Similarly, footage of people expressing their views on the death penalty to the camera depicted actual members of the public, as well as paid extras.

But this film would have fallen apart if it were not for the central performance of Hilton McRae. His electrifying portrayal of Glitter was odious, arrogant, repugnant and creepy. He was Glitter in every way, lifting the drama from the usual, overdone ‘what-if’ format. With such a strong performance and quotations from the real-life Glitter incorporated into the script, for example, ‘I’m not what you think I am’ and ‘I happen to find young women attractive’, his plea to the jury was chillingly genuine.

This is furthered by the story that after the assistant director had told all the extras in the courtroom that they were about to see the real Glitter, Hilton McRae had to make a hasty retreat when first appearing in full costume as mutterings and grumblings rapidly turned into abuse.

But other than the realistic approach to proceedings, it seemed that Rob Coldstream’s political agenda was in the right place. The programme’s main purpose was to provoke debate and despite the fact it has been widely criticised for not tackling the issue in enough depth, the uncomfortable feeling we get when watching Glitter’s execution is the show’s greatest achievement. Even though we do not care for Glitter’s blubbering in the lead up to his enforced death, the grimness in the depiction of putting a bag over his head and hanging him from the neck until dead is disturbing and deeply barbaric.

Some critics condemned the show for having no aftermath or consequence following his death but being left with the silence of his swinging legs along with the lack of euphoria and accomplishment following the execution of such a hated public figure asked the question: what would we really accomplish by bringing such a punishment back into legal practice?

There was enough here to challenge public opinion through its ambiguity. If the show had ended on a preachy note, many would have stopped paying attention, myself included, but the statistic stating that ‘54% of people surveyed thought the UK should bring back the death penalty for the most serious crimes’ left a sick feeling in one’s stomach.

Perhaps a completely fictionalised character could have addressed the issue of accidently hanging the innocent but, in Gary Glitter, Channel 4 had found the perfect centre-piece. We simply would not have enough time to develop such strong feelings against any other character in 90 minutes, let alone before the show had even started. The programme was not a simple question of guilt or innocence but the question: does the death penalty answer these problems or create more?

As for Gary Glitter himself (real name, Paul Francis Gadd), I wonder if he ever managed to watch his own execution on television. It must have been a weird out-of-body experience, to say the least


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