What is the point of BBC Four? The channel is being wound down to the point of irrelevance. Occasionally there will be a gem, such as last year’s Art of Persia, but mostly it has become a repeats channel – UK Gold with pretensions. This week you’ll find re-runs of Yes, Minister, Reggie Perrin, All Creatures Great and Small and The Joy of Painting. Great shows, but not what BBC Four should be about. Even the one thing that justifies being described as “archive” material – old episodes of Top of the Pops, which have been a mainstay of my Friday night viewing – have run out of steam now that they’ve reached 1990, a truly terrible year for music unless you still hold a candle for Jason Donovan.
One of the last good things on the channel is Storyville, the strand that showcases top class documentaries either co-produced by the BBC or bought in from elsewhere. The Hunt for Gaddafi’s Billions was not one of its best, dragged down by a leaden voice-over and a strictly chronological retelling (I know shows that dart back and forth in time can be annoying, but there is a happy medium). The story and the characters, though, were worthy of a John le Carré novel.
Arms dealers, shady politicians, mercenaries and secret meetings in underground car parks – all were here. I’m not sure why any of these people agreed to be filmed for a documentary; Misha Wessel and Thomas Blom, the Dutch journalists conducting the investigation, are clearly persuasive.
The film focused on the “ultimate treasure hunt” for the billions Gaddafi was said to have smuggled out of Libya shortly before his death in 2011. Reports placed the money in South Africa, a country that had been supportive of Gaddafi since the days of Nelson Mandela. One team on its trail – with eyes on a 10 per cent commission – included a “colourful arms dealer” called Johan Erasmus and a Tunisian businessman named Erik Goaied whose relationship to all this remained opaque until late in the film. Goaied wore the haunted expression of a man who was in very, very deep.
But they were in a race against Taha Buishi, an “asset recovery agent” appointed by the new Libyan regime. It wasn’t long before Buishi vanished, only to re-emerge months later with an account of being kidnapped. Another player was shot dead by Serbian hit men. It was that kind of story – the kind you’ve seen played out in fiction but rarely in real life. The only sympathetic figure was Tito Maleka, veteran ANC head of security, who seemed to have some principles. He was the only one.