Friday, 18 April 2014

The Falklands Play (2002)

The legacy of actually getting Ian Curteis' play about The Falklands to the screen is worthy of a TV dramatisation in itself.

Curteis had previously penned Suez 1956 for broadcast in 1979. Three years later the Director General of the BBC Alasdair Milne praised that play at a Writer's Luncheon Club meeting, which led to Curteis suggest his aim to write a similar play in a few years for the BBC relating to the current Falklands conflict.  Milne was suitably impressed and agreed to commission it. The project, titled The Falklands Play, was put on hold until 1985 (with both writer and the corporation in agreement that it was too much of a hot topic until then)  at which time Curteis had gathered information from Hansard, official documentation and reports, press coverage and biographies of the key and influential figures involved. Studio time was booked at TV Centre for early 1987 with a planned transmission in time for the fifth anniversary of the Argentinian invasion, 2nd April 1987.

However, Curteis began to get concerned as early as 1986. What of the planned General Election for the following year? Milne believed the earliest the election would be called would be the autumn of that year and saw no problems with the slated transmission.

Peter Goodchild, the new head of plays at the BBC however, expressed reservations towards the content of Curteis' play; specifically the portrayal of Thatcher's sympathetic private self as opposed to the public persona. He also petitioned for more exploration towards the cabinet's decision to go to war in relation to it shaping the results of the 1983 election. Curteis declined and by July 1986 news came through that the play was cancelled, citing the forthcoming '87 election.

Suspicion and protest swiftly came about  from both Curteis and the press, especially in light of the news that Charles Wood's Tumbledown (which I reviewed earlier this week) had been given the go ahead for an 87 transmission regardless. The press leapt upon the notion of Tumbledown having an 'anti-Thatcher bias' which, given the script for Tumbledown had not been published at this stage, could only be based on their previous experiences and understanding of Wood's political leaning and writing style. In the end, Tumbledown would also see postponement until 1988 whilst the BBC stood their ground claiming it would be 'irresponsible' to broadcast such a programme as The Falklands Play in an election year due to its depiction of serving MP's and a PM still in office. It also refuted the claims that studio time had been booked and that the script was a draft and in no way completed to any satisfaction -  statements that were utterly contrary to Milne's assurances towards Curteis.  

In 1987, Curteis published his script in paperback form amidst furore and accusations of left wing bias at the BBC and censorship in general.

It wasn't until 2002 that The Falklands Play finally saw the light of day, produced for both Radio 4 and BBC4.

So what's it like?

Personally I believe the distance afforded the final production (from both the international conflict itself and the internal conflict between writer and corporation)  down the intervening years helped the film immeasurably. TV has of course changed since the mid 80s and by 2002, The Falklands Play benefits from not being a stagey studio bound production (not that there's anything necessarily wrong with such a film) It also benefits greatly from a superb central performance from Patricia Hodge as Thatcher. It is a performance that is not caricature or impersonation (indeed none of the accomplished and classy cast dip their toe in such waters) and is therefore a compelling three dimensional character study that is in keeping with the film's gritty almost verite gravity. Three dimensional indeed; for this is not the Thatcher stereotype the public have come to believe and it is here we see the roots in the BBC's concern in Curteis' writing. This is a PM who not only has the familiar attributes of the hectoring voice, the deathly thousand yard stare, and the 'mettle' which saw many grey Whitehall man both cowed and excited in a manner not seen since their days with nanny or the school matron, but is also one who  cries on screen - twice in fact - over the loss of life her decisions will bring about, who is seen quite emphatically to 'take advice' regarding the sinking of The Belgrano and who staunchly championed the human rights which are seen to shape her actions throughout the war. Why, one would be forgiven for wondering if this Thatcher, who balks at the brutalist Argentinian regime of corruption and torture is the same one who was a friend and equally staunch supporter of one General Pinochet?! Make no mistake, I am not in any way shape or form a fan of Mrs Thatcher but I will not let my own political views bias or distort the notion that we are all contradictory and complex individuals who can bend and sway to whatever will or belief important at the time - 'The Iron Lady' included.

Ultimately the script does perhaps suffer from one major gaping hole; the elephant in the (war) room regarding the motives of a Conservative government jingoistically taking a country to war with a crucial election on the horizon the subsequent year. But that is not to say that Curteis script is an apologist for the Thatcher years or for the war in general. To claim so would be to miss out on the nuances and subtlety he packs into his script as he explores the hapless futility of American 'shuttle diplomacy' between the UK and Argentina, and the important questions raised leading up to the events of '82 regarding 'leaseback' and a country who, it was recorded, could not legitimately afford to control its remaining outposts of the Empire. Yes, its a dramatisation that focuses firmly on one political side, along with diplomacy, but that is the point of the work - it is to investigate the day to day events within the corridors of power, not the opposing sides, public reactions or indeed the boots on the ground perspective. We see nothing of these and that is what gives The Falklands Play its focused, tightly paced and thrilling dramatic core, as well as giving it an unprotected flank open to the criticism it received from the very off. 

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