Channel 4's documentary-style drama, The Execution of Gary Glitter, imagines an alternative Britain that reintroduces the death penalty. Celebrity sex offender Paul Gadd—AKA glam rock star Gary Glitter—is re-tried for his crimes and hanged. It's a story about the moral quandary of capital punishment, generously garnished with the British media's obsession with pedophilia.
The real Gadd was disgraced by a child porn bust and his subsequent residency in sex tourist hotspots. After 18 months in a Vietnamese jail on a conviction for child molestation, he was released in 2008 and flown back to the U.K. The tabloids now stalk him and run stories like "Gary Glitter changes the style of his beard."
Execution depicts a different outcome. Arrested hours after landing, he's put on trial to test new legislation that allows capital punishment for crimes committed abroad. He sneers, argues, and wheedles. Talking heads, politicians and members of the public pop up in news-style interviews. Then he is put to death. Channel 4's Hamish Mykura says that "this drama confronts the public with what many say they want."
The documentary style is clever, and Hilton McRae does an excellent job as Glitter. He is alternatively smug, sordid, humane and pathetic. But then there's that whole weird thing about portraying an act of rationalized mob justice on someone who is very much alive and free.
Among the rationales offered is that the movie confronts us with a difficult truth; namely, that Britain needs to see Gary Glitter executed if it is to come to terms with its own moral indecisiveness over capital punishment. But the movie's concept isn't really "Imagine if we made new laws that dealt severely with sex offenders." It is "Imagine if we made new laws that would make Gary Glitter the center of national attention again." His presence is a gimmick. Without him, it would be a dry exploitation flick about no-one in particular—but one that might at least make sense.
The film's legal devices exist only to bring the celebrity to the rope. Hangings within a month of conviction, without any right to a court appeal? The EU not enforcing the Convention of Human Rights just to keep Britain happy? Get real, little Englanders. Besides, Britain has an ample supply of bona-fide child murderers competing for eligibility: I guess Ian Huntley just doesn't look enough like Fu Manchu.
Moreover, if the filmmakers cared about depicting the reality of capital punishment, they could have at least cooked up a more convincing doom. Western executions, where they play, follow years of legal wrangling. They are usually dehumanized clinical events, not pathos-filled remixes of Saddam's last gasp.
In any case, the dramatics fade before the loopyness of the Glitter premise. How did Britain's fixation on sexual stranger danger get this baroque? I'm stumped, frankly. I'm ready to be told the whole thing was some kind of deadpan black comedy. But a few ideas do spring to mind.
My countrymen often complain of the nanny state, but that modern taste for risk-peddling seems an international phenomenon. Throw pedophiles in the mix, however, and the outcomes start getting really weird.
Take, for example, the recent actions of Watford local council, which banned parents from being with their own children in a public play area. Then there's the 82-year-old woman accused of being a possible pedophile after taking photos of a swimming pool. And so on. This suggests confusion over the proper areas of association between kids and adults.
Then there's concern over youngsters' wellbeing in general. Britain's children are supposedly the unhappiest in Europe. Those responsible for their happiness were given a scathing review by UNICEF, which suggested British families are the least nurturing this side of the former Warsaw Pact. Though Britian's schools remain among the world's best, the rankings fell sharply over the last decade, and reports of its state childcare system make for grim reading.
There's also a broader anxiety over childrens' place in society at large. That younger kids are given few of the freedoms and pleasures older generations enjoyed is another problem hardly isolated to the U.K. But our fear of older youths is manifested in the press as a distinctively British moral panic. Tabloids seem to treat the nation's offspring either as hapless victims of predatory adults, or as dangerous, vaguely subhuman livestock.
Perhaps this sort of thing lets us forget that most childrens' problems are the result of familial and institutional neglect, not the likes of Gary Glitter.
Finally, there's the case of the bleeding obvious: media the world over sexualizes children, but Britain's is particularly ready to project its hypocrisy at deserving targets–or anyone who addresses the subject matter without the required solemnity.
Satirist Chris Morris produced the original "Paedogeddon" mockumetary in 2001, ridiculing the media's voyeuristic obsession with the subject. He got pols and celebs to repeat nonsensical urban legends, making fools of the lot. Condemnation of the show was nearly universal, but reinforced his point over and over again. One Daily Star article slamming the show ran next to an item praising a 15-year old singer's breasts. The Daily Mail described Morris as "unspeakably sick"–even as it ran a photo of the bikini-clad royal busts of princesses Beatrice, 13, and Eugenie, 11.
In one of the final scenes of The Execution, the condemned man says "they're not going to execute Paul Gadd." This makes a point about celebrity, about how it trades in mediated personas. The "thought-provoking" question is clear enough–is something other than a man being destroyed?–but it's a thought buried under the batshittedness of Glittergeddon.
If The Execution of Gary Glitter sounds barbaric, rest assured that it was merely inane. He isn't some metempsychotic vessel for the nation's unease over child abuse or the death penalty, after all. He's just a dirty old man, and he gets what he deserves.