The Falklands Play

Wednesday, April 10, 2002 by

There’s an adage when it comes to writing drama – don’t tell, show.

The Falklands Play is BBC4′s biggest noise thus far, garnering the channel its highest ratings yet. Its arrival on BBC4 15 years after the script’s completion is rather a mixed blessing. On the one hand it’s laudable of the BBC to use its new service to address some infamous unfinished business, indicating an element of self-reflection pleasing for BBCophiles. On the other hand, it’s slightly annoying that a drama that was deemed below par by no less than Bill Cotton and Michael Grade should finally make it to the screens, particularly after playwright Ian Curteis’ incessant campaigning.

If we were unaware of the full implications of the Play‘s realisation, BBC4 was keen to put paid to that and The Falklands Play found itself accompanied by an involving documentary (The Falklands Play Row) beforehand and a post mortem afterwards headed up by Roger Bolton and BBC4′s The Talk Show. Both were fine TV, the former drawing upon all interested parties (bar Bill Cotton) to provide an even-handed if brief overview of the disagreement. The latter was memorable thanks mainly to the involvement of John Nott, Secretary of State for Defence during the Falklands “campaign”, and his admission that he’d love to scrap the BBC’s World Service. The Play itself was the weakest part of the line-up.

Ironically, part of the problem was the distance between the completion of the script and the production of the drama. Aside from Thatcher herself, it was hard for today’s audience to identify the players on screen References to “Willy” would have the viewer guessing “Is that Willy Whitelaw?” whilst the appearance of the character helped matters little – none of the actors bearing any real resemblance to the people they were portraying. This wouldn’t have been so much of a problem back in 1987 when the key players would still be recognisable enough – many of them still politically active. As it is, the likes of John Nott did turn out to be as “here today, gone tomorrow” as famously asserted by Sir Robin Day. This reviewer therefore spent the first 10 minutes of the programme under the misapprehension that he was watching Clive Merrison as Norman Tebbit at Thatcher’s ear. Captions with names, plus their parliamentary position would not have gone amiss.

It’s almost been part of the publicity for BBC4′s production of The Falklands Play that the budget afforded the project has been substantially less than that put aside by Alisdair Milne back in ’86. This showed on screen. All scenes – bar those in the Commons and the rare exteriors – seemed to be played out against two walls and a couple of chairs. Hard and fast close-ups obliterated the need for elaborate backdrops, and the appearance of ubiquitous “Americans on British TV” Colin Stinton (Alexander Haig) and Bob Sherman (Ronald Reagan) felt like an inevitability. The limited production, however, was positively encouraged by Curteis’ script.

And it’s the script here that’s really of the most importance. With Curteis’ continual harping over the years, one would expect a work of excellence to be at the heart of the furore. In fact, The Falklands Play feels like an extended school’s programme, with characters mouthing out in turgid and unrealistic detail the implications of every decision made. “Only one thing makes war justified and lawful – only one thing! When it’s a struggle for law against force – for people’s laws, their language and way of life!” rallies Thatcher privately in her office when Francis Pym dares suggest that perhaps Britain shouldn’t be engaging in conflict. This smacks of reasoning, of hammering home a theme – but it doesn’t smack of realism. Additionally, The Falkland’s Playis a masterclass in telling, rather than showing. Curteis’ script never makes us feel as though we’re actually watching anything happen, rather we experience a sequence of reports being filed. The only time it seems as though we’re witnessing anything for ourselves is in the use of contemporary news footage.

In its favour, The Falklands Play is excellent in steadily laying out how the events of ’82 actually unfolded. But it’s here again that it resembles an educational programme. There is no complexity to the debate around the government’s actions, with the only doubter (Pym) portrayed as lacking in backbone and patriotism (that he’s played by Jeremy Child is most revealing of all, an actor whose stock-in-trade is the posh weasel). In the same vein, characterisation is poor, a continuing joke about Haig’s heart-condition being the writer’s only nod towards a detail not strictly germane to the central argument, and as a consequence all the more jarring.

With a work like this, we’re always in a grey area between truth and drama. Curteis goes to some pains to align his work with truth, the Play hanging on Thatcher’s real life Commons rebuke of Benn wherein she equates the fighting of wars with the protection of free speech. Unfortunately, truth affords Curteis little opportunity for drama, and settling to operate within this grey area he has produced a grey work.


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