Pierre Torres working in Syria prior to being taken hostage © BBC/Expectation Entertainment/Pierre Torres

Pierre Torres, pottering about with his plants and pets, seems a gentle soul. He looks as though the most dangerous thing he’s prepared to do these days is brave the Parisian traffic. But as a reporter and former hostage in Syria, tortured physically and psychologically by Isis extremists, he’s earned all the tranquillity he can get. 

Torres was one of a group of prisoners, cramped in a makeshift jail, who mockingly dubbed their psychotic British keepers “The Beatles”. “George” was their depraved leader; “John” was distinctive with his half-closed eyes and cocked head. All had cold voices and London accents. 

After Isis militants had begun to round up western reporters and aid workers, families and governments were suddenly faced with exorbitant demands for the release of their loved ones and citizens — 100m euros in the case of the American, James Foley. “We want money fast,” the emails demanded. For Diane and John Foley, Jim’s parents back in New Hampshire, it was a moment of delirious hope. 

This grimly gripping three-part series about the quest to unmask and punish the grisly “Beatles” is Aeschylean in scope and content. Bursting with pity, terror, grief, hatred and love, it displays to the full the madness and suffering of war, and the dizzying attempts of the innocent to plot a moral path in a theatre turned crazy with bloodlust. As various hostages are released, they bring to traumatised families precious vignettes of those left behind. “David was unbelievable,” says Torres of British hostage David Haines: always the peacemaker when tensions among the captives became unbearable. 

But the UK and US governments refuse to negotiate with terrorists as a matter of policy, leaving the Foleys desperately unsure how to proceed. “For the Americans and the British there was only a small hope,” confirms Torres. A frustrated Diane Foley takes matters into her own hands, against FBI advice. Finally only six hostages remain. The clip of the helpless Foley kneeling beside “Jihadi John”, aka Mohammed Emwazi, is hard to watch. 

It’s a truism that the situations displaying the very worst of human behaviour also bring out the very best. Torres remembers the uplifting lectures the captives gave each other (Foley’s on the American novel) to while away the time, and honours “all the inspiring friends I had there”. While some faulty individuals will always tumble down the road to hell, others are prepared to make the far more arduous climb in the other direction, and you’ll see them here.

★★★★★

On BBC2 from October 5 at 9pm

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