Author and Scriptwriter

'Among the most important writers of contemporary British horror.' -Ramsey Campbell

Friday, 31 July 2015

Edward Woodward and the Armenian Genocide

Have you ever heard of the Armenian Genocide? And if so, how did you hear about it and when? How old were you?
Me, I was in my late teens, in 1991, and it involved Edward Woodward.
Woodward was, of course, an extremely accomplished actor, and had a long and fruitful career, but if you were a teenaged boy in the 1980s you’d be most likely to know him from The Equalizer, in which he played a former CIA agent who takes to playing knight errant on behalf of New Yorkers being persecuted by one set of bad guys or another.

But that night, he appeared in a BBC2 series called In My Defence. In My Defence was a series of monologues, in the vein of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, except that each character in the series was a real-life person, one whose convictions had driven them to a famous – or infamous – stand. The first in the series had been Derek Jacobi as the French novelist Emile Zola, on the verge of penning his famous J’Accuse letter. The final episode starred Woodward as a man called Gourgen Yanikian, an Armenian engineer and novelist who shot and killed two Turkish diplomats at a Santa Barbera hotel in 1973.Seeing him in In My Defence was a revelation in more ways than one, partly because it showed that Woodward was an actor of real range and ability, but mostly because, as he/Yanikian told his story, I learned for the first time about the first major genocide of the twentieth century.
From 1915 onwards, the Turkish Government set out to finally purge itself of those non-Turkish
Gourgen Yanikian
ethnic minorities, especially the Christian ones: principally the Armenians, but also the Thracian and Anatolian Greeks and Assyrians, all of whom were to suffer genocidal persecution. You can find out more here. (Content warning: both the images and the descriptions of events are pretty graphic.)
Men, women and children had been killed – burned alive, drowned at sea, killed by lethal injection, butchered and mutilated or marched into the desert wilderness of Deir Al-Zor to starve to death. In total, one and a half million people were murdered with the kind of inventive, gleeful sadism we wouldn’t see again till almost eighty years later, with the break-up of Yugoslavia – and were forgotten, it seemed, almost at once.
So why had I never heard of it before? Because within a few years of the end of the First World War – and on the heels of that, the Spanish Flu Pandemic, which killed more people than the war itself – the Soviet Union had emerged as a major power, which the Western Governments saw as their principal enemy. Turkey, which shared a border with Russia, was a valuable strategic ally – and even more so after the Second World War, when the Cold War began. Even by the 1930s, the Armenian Genocide had been forgotten: Adolf Hitler, seeking to garner support for his own exterminationist policies, was famously said to have asked: “Who now remembers the Armenians?”
The programme has never been repeated or released on video or DVD, but some kind soul has uploaded it to YouTube, so here it is. It’s a comparatively gentle introduction for anyone who hasn’t previously heard about the subject.
It's stayed with me all these years, anyway, so I thought I'd share it with you.
Have a good weekend.

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ETA: I realised I hadn't actually included a picture of the real-life Gourgen Yanikian. I've now corrected that.

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