Near the end of the first of three BBC 2 documentary episodes that chart the rise and fall of the Maxwell family, there’s a supposed revelatory moment. Before his conspiracy laden death, Robert Maxwell is visiting Yad Vashem, and breaks down when seeing the name of the village, now Solotvina in Ukraine, where he grew up.
He tells how when he returned with his wife years later, after most of his family were murdered in Auschwitz, after he’d become a war hero, after he’d been a Labour MP, after he’d started on his path to being a business mogul, he’d exclaimed to her: “Not a single Jew was left.” With tears in his eyes it was the most human he had been represented so far, his trajectory in the story more that of an unstoppable
monstrous force of nature. The moment is used as evidence of a crack in his armour before the fall, even suggesting it might have contributed to it.
For any Jews watching though, it seems obvious that the same moment is actually where he shows us his armour, as it explains so much of what we have been told of his life, and illustrates how much more was omitted. It’s not even Robert who kicks off the tale, the programme opens on his daughter Ghislaine, in jail in New York after being found guilty of sex trafficking underage girls. The bulk of her story awaits us in the later episodes, but a through line is meant to be drawn from past to present, maybe most tenuously by a secretary scornfully recounting overhearing a phone conversation in cat language between father and daughter. I thought it sounded rather sweet.
The bulk of the first episode was a back and forth oscillation between the day of Robert Maxwell’s death, and the realisation 15 years earlier of his long term ambition to own part of Fleet Street. Ever higher he climbed, ever higher his megalomaniacal tendencies exerted themselves, ever higher the perch wobbled. Not to excuse his crimes, but it is the why of his journey that’s missing, and to better understand his actions, the story would have been better served starting at Yad Vashem. What lessons did he learn from the Holocaust? Survival? Survival by domination? Why did he have so many children? Why did he change his name and work so hard to create his persona of an English gentleman, cut glass accent and all? Why did he so yearn for acceptance by the Establishment? Why was he such a control freak? Why did he react so aggressively when threatened? The answers are there, the questions aren’t asked.
It is a fascinating watch, but a frustrating one. It so badly wants to get to the overweight man floating dead in the sea, but misses so much along the way, especially his extraordinary life pre-Mirror. Fleet Street may have made him, but it didn’t make him. As the demolition of the family continues over the next two episodes in House of Maxwell, I wish more had been made of the foundations.