History in the making

Robert Harris's best-selling novel about the search for Stalin's diary has been adapted for television. James Rampton reports from the Latvian set of Archangel
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The Independent Culture

Jon Jones is wrapped up in so many layers, he resembles nothing so much as the Michelin Man. He has the right idea. Welcome to Riga, where he is directing Archangel, BBC1's adaptation of the Robert Harris bestseller. It seems rather too close to the Arctic Circle for comfort. Latvian locals on the crew tease me, saying that I ain't seen nothing yet. As the temperature plunges towards minus 30 and a nearby river freezes over, they laugh at my weedy Western whingeing. "This is nothing," one jeers. "You should try coming here in January."

Jon Jones is wrapped up in so many layers, he resembles nothing so much as the Michelin Man. He has the right idea. Welcome to Riga, where he is directing Archangel, BBC1's adaptation of the Robert Harris bestseller. It seems rather too close to the Arctic Circle for comfort. Latvian locals on the crew tease me, saying that I ain't seen nothing yet. As the temperature plunges towards minus 30 and a nearby river freezes over, they laugh at my weedy Western whingeing. "This is nothing," one jeers. "You should try coming here in January."

The heating in the director's trailer is working at full blast, but there is ice forming on the inside of his window panes. Jones looks out at a blizzard that makes last week's storms in Britain seem little more than a light dusting. "Ah," Jones sighs. "How I long for the warmth of Pinewood." Well, Pinewood would be a good deal less chilly, but what you'd gain in heat, you'd lose in verisimilitude. This novel just had to be filmed in Eastern Europe, so the crew spent several months at the end of last year in Moscow and Riga, precisely re-creating the events of Archangel.

The drama revolves around Fluke Kelso (played by the ruggedly magnetic Daniel Craig). He is a down-at-heel historian who is blighted by the twin afflictions of alcohol and alimony. His high-flying days are far behind him. But, while at a dreary academic conference in Moscow, he chances on a story that could turn his career around. A grumpy, old man collars him and claims to be a former secret-service operative who knows where Stalin's secret diary - a holy grail for Sovietologists - is stashed. In partnership with the man's stroppy daughter, Zinaida (Yekaterina Rednikova), and an ego-driven television news reporter, O'Brian (Gabriel Macht), Kelso launches into a mission to locate the treasure. But all he succeeds in doing is letting out of the bottle a genie that imperils Russia's very survival.

Harris, who has sold more than six million copies of his novels, including Fatherland, Enigma and Pompeii - always zeroes in on the past. Why has he found it such fecund territory for fiction? "I don't feel I'm writing about the past, but the present," he says, wearing a furry hood in a vain attempt to keep out the cold. "The past gives me the equipment to understand what's going on now. Some writers are driven by an inner compulsion, but I'm motivated by a fascination with history."

He believes that writing about the past can often strike a more resonant chord than fiction set today. "I find historical fiction a great way of making sense of the world," he says. "I used to worry about the label of 'historical novelist', but increasingly I think it's not a bad thing to be. Never before has there been such a desperate need to put everything in a historical context. I'm not chasing after the novel of the decade. So many books these days are about the internet or the latest developments in biotechnology - but they're doomed to inevitable obsolescence. A subject like Stalin or the Romans, on the other hand, doesn't date. That's why Shakespeare's Roman plays are some of the freshest political plays ever written. Because he wrote about the past, he could burn off the extraneous folderol of the contemporary. You can't write a universal book mired in contemporary events."

But, of course, this sort of novel requires serious research - it can't be tossed off after an afternoon at the local library. Harris spent more than a year undertaking background work on Archangel. And it paid off, lending the work an indispensable air of plausibility. During pre-production, the drama's producer, Christopher Hall, recalls: "I spent three days in Moscow going round the city checking that every location Robert had mentioned in his book was accurate - and he'd nailed every single place."

The producer, whose CV includes The Lost World and The Hound of the Baskervilles, adds: "Twenty years ago, you'd have shot it all in Britain. An Englishman Abroad, Alan Bennett's film about Guy Burgess's time in Moscow, was filmed entirely in Dundee. While Testimony, Tony Palmer's film about Shostakovich, was shot in Wigan and Liverpool. But the British viewing public have become so much more sophisticated."

Jones points out of the window and gestures at the surrounding scene: an immense forest of depressing tower blocks that stretches as far as the eye can see and that you would be hard pressed to find in even the most run-down parts of the UK. "You don't get the scale or the architecture or, most importantly, the Russian faces in Britain," he says. "We don't have estates or weather like this. In, say, Dundee, you'd have to shoot very narrow, but here you can shoot very wide and capture the sheer scale of it. You can film bleak landscapes that go on for ever. Being here gives the drama an unmatchable texture. Without going to the former Soviet Union, you're just not equipped to tell this story with any credibility."

But is it not just the look of the film that is authentic. This adaptation of Archangel, by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, also captures the febrile ambience of post-Soviet politics. Rednikova, the charismatic Russian actress, agrees. "I work a lot in LA, and, there, every script I read about Russia is riddled with mistakes," she says. "Those scripts suggest that there are only three things that define Russia: Mafia, hookers and crazy scientists. In Hollywood, I'm only ever asked to be a Russian gangster's moll. But Robert's interpretation of Russia in Archangel is absolutely correct."

The actress explains that what particularly struck a nerve with her was Harris's evocation of a country stuck in the past and still harking back to the "halcyon days" of Josef Stalin's rule. Here, the author's 1998 novel has proved truly prescient. There is a worrying upsurge in support for the tyrant who devastated the country between 1924 and 1953. Recent polls have found that one-in-four Russians would vote for Stalin if he were alive today.

In addition, books rehabilitating the dictator top the best-seller lists. One, entitled Generalissimus, maintains that fewer than 2.5 million people perished during his reign - most Western estimates put the figure at closer to 20 million - and even they were killed at the behest of Stalin's opponents. "[ Archangel] reveals that the Stalinist fire has been here all along," Rednikova continues. "You just need to put a match to it. Stalinism has never been exorcised. It still lives in the hearts of many people. A lot of Russians have been waiting for years the return of a strong man - now they believe they've found one in Putin."

Craig echoes his co-star. The actor, recently in Enduring Love and Layer Cake, reckons "there is a hard-line element in Russia who believe that a return to communism is the way forward". "That is a lot to do with the way we live now and with threats of global terrorism and fear," he says. "Some people believe that the only way to deal with it is with an iron fist. I don't tend to believe it myself, but that is why Putin is so popular - because he is so strong."

The book also touches on perhaps the most amazing aspect of all - that, despite slaughtering many millions more people, Stalin has never been demonised in the same way as Hitler. Lisa Osborne, the script editor on Archangel, proffers an explanation. "There's a section in the book where Robert writes, 'This is one of the most astounding phenomena of the age - Stalin continues to enjoy a wide measure of popular support in this half-empty land. His statues have been taken down. The street names have been changed. But there have been no Nuremberg Trials, as there were in Germany. There has been no Truth Commission, of the sort established in South Africa'.

"The Russians haven't come to terms with the past, like the Germans did after the war, even though Stalin's crimes were much more heinous and on a greater scale. The patterns of change are very slow. There is an argument that the Second World War didn't end until 1989. The Iron Curtain was merely a continuation of the war. When you're in the middle of those great long tides of history, you don't recognise what they are. But they're extremely fertile grounds for story-telling."

Above all, Archangel warns us to heed the lessons of history. We cannot flee from our own past - we are all prisoners of it. Harris says: "There is this myth that everything is being reinvented every minute. But there has never been a more valuable moment to say, 'If you believe that, you're fooling yourself'. In Russia at the moment, they're merely painting a smile on the face of a corpse. It will take at least a generation to work these things out. Germany is still coming to terms with Hitler - and why not? It was only 60 years ago."

So, Harris utilises the past to reflect on the present. But, in so doing, he feels no need to make up epochal events - the real ones are stimulating enough. For a novelist, he contends, fact is always more rewarding than fiction. "I wouldn't want to invent a prime minister," he says. "Not only is Tony Blair more fascinating, he's more unbelievable than any fictional prime minister."

'Archangel' starts on BBC1 at 9pm on Sunday 20 March

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