Still from The State. © Channel 4

Peter Kosminsky on why he chose not to dramatise radicalisation in ‘The State’

The writer-director answers a WikiTributor’s question

Remember when we asked for your questions for Peter Kosminsky, creator of Channel 4 drama The State?

The question we chose to include in our interview came from an anonymous WikiTributor, who asked:

“Some critics suggested that The State failed to explore why people become radicalised, it lacked a backstory. Could you explain why that was and do you think that, given the nature of some stories like this, it is almost too complicated to explain why people do everything?”

Kosminsky provided an in-depth answer, which we think deserves its own post. Here’s what he had to say.

“Well now that’s a fair comment. You’re absolutely right, of course. That became a familiar refrain in a number of the articles that were published and even in tweets and in people’s blogs. It’s completely understandable. I have a number of things to say about that.
First of all, because nothing like this has been done before, because nobody has attempted to get inside the Islamic State in drama, there is an expectation that the show that pops up doing it should be definitive, but I never set out to do something definitive. There are many stories that could be told about this complicated and troubling subject. I just wanted to tell one particular type of story.
I’d seen a good deal in the media around the time I was working on this about radicalisation. A lot of it was quite familiar. I could imagine spending the first hour of the drama — and I only had four at my disposal and those are Channel 4 hours, which only are actually about 45 minutes long when you take into account the adverts — I could imagine spending the first hour getting my characters to the border and not really being particularly revealing in that hour or telling the audience anything they didn’t know. There would have been lots of scenes of people in groups talking about radical ideas or people in their bedrooms online watching radicalising videos or on social media talking to radicalised figures who were trying to recruit them. I had already made a drama called Britz for Channel 4 a few years ago and the second episode of that was all about the radicalization process.
Also, you write within your own area of competence. We had spent a lot of time researching this, 18 months of research. The research was fantastically rich and full of things that I didn’t know and thought we knew and thought the audience might find new and revealing, but they were all things about what life was like in the Islamic State. They weren’t necessarily new and revealing things about what life was like in the process leading up to your decision to travel to the Islamic State. I spent a lot of time reading this material. I met some people, talked to others who had met some people. I found it very difficult to get my head around why an intelligent person would make the choice to travel there.
So it was a combination of factors, of wanting to dramatise what I felt we knew from the research and what would be new and revealing, of not wanting to repeat myself, of not wanting to spend the first hour on the journey from the UK to the border and possibly lose the audience because there was nothing very novel or revealing about it — and also partly because I wasn’t completely sure, even despite all this research, that I could convincingly portray characters who made that decision. I felt on safer ground portraying them after they’d made the decision.
The main purpose of the drama was to see how a decision to travel to this concept called the Islamic State, how that determination, that decision, that resolution survived the daily reality of life in the Islamic State. The research suggested that in many, many cases, that certainty, if you like, that had formed outside the borders didn’t survive the reality of life within the borders particularly well. That was the story I wanted to tell. It was never going to be the only story to tell on this subject, but it was the one that got me interested as a dramatist.”

Given this very in-depth answer, we wondered whether Kosminsky would consider extending the narrative into a prequel, to answer those comments and show the journey to radicalisation.

Here’s how he replied.

“You know, I’ve had a lot of this can we have a series two, even some commissioners from other channels have contacted me and said, “Would you be prepared to do a follow-up?”
The answer is absolutely not, because from my point of view, the story of those four characters is over. Jalal will be dead very shortly after the end of episode four. Shakira’s life back in Britain as a person of interest to the security forces while trying to get custody back of her child, it’s not a happy path, really.
Ziyad is dead and Ushna will be dead very shortly in the bombing campaign on Raqqa, which we’re reaching the end of now. So there is no sequel to The State. The prequel… If I had been interested enough to write the story of those four people making the decision to travel, I would have written it.
If you think about dramas you’ve liked and admired, perhaps in the cinema— setting aside the factual side of things for a moment — one often doesn’t know a huge amount about the backstory of people. I was watching, for example, a Coen brothers movie, Fargo, the other day.
Now this is a very celebrated movie, many admirers, won many prizes. You don’t get one single piece of backstory about any of those characters. You simply arrive in their lives at one moment when one guy is in debt and trying to clear his debt. You’ve got a policewoman who is heavily pregnant, but we know nothing about her past or her history. We just have to try to work out who they are based on watching them in real time. That’s exactly what I did with The State. Now, because people find it so very hard to understand how grounded human beings could make the decision to travel, there’s much more interest in the radicalisation process, but I felt I had already done that and I was more interested in how their resolution survived the realities of the State itself.”

Thank you to our anonymous WikiTributor for the excellent question, and if you’re interested in what else Kosminsky had to say, take a look at the interview when the site launches. Won’t be long now.