Getting off Scott free

As the Scott Inquiry finishes, the TV satirists close in. By James Rampton
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The Independent Culture
Rory Bremner, one of the contributors to Scott of the Arms Antics, a two-and-a-quarter-hour expedition into the previously uncharted depths of the Scott Report, characterises it as "everything you wanted to know about Scott, but were afraid to be bored by". The aim is to alleviate boredom through a perhaps unique mixture of fact and fun, to unravel the Inquiry - a gigantic spider's web of interwoven, contradictory testimony about arms to Iraq and related matters - with the aid of laughter.

Bremner sets the tone for his "beginner's guide to Scott" with an opening address to the nation as John Major. "To imply that because I held the positions of Foreign Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister, I was in some way aware of Government policy, is scurrilous beyond belief." The programme goes on to intersperse verbatim re-enactments of segments from the Inquiry, rigorous pieces to camera by veteran "Scott-watcher" Paul Foot, and analysis by Sheena McDonald, with choice cuts of Bremner, a spoof Pathe News, and two actors (Neil Stay and Philip McGough) playing civil-service graduates from the Sir Humphrey Appleby School of Chicanery.

David Lloyd, the Channel 4 editor who commissioned Scott of the Arms Antics and has been preparing it "for almost as long as the Report", is aware of the danger of trivialising a serious matter. "I would urge people worried about that to think twice. This is a very big moment in contemporary politics, one which will have lasting effects - particularly on the freedom of information, I suspect. We have a serious purpose conveyed through not-so-serious genres. What we've made is highly analytical, but it is entertaining at the same time."

Some of the most entertaining sections are the reconstructions of actual exchanges from the Inquiry, which conform to that old cliche, "You couldn't make it up". Using Alice in Wonderland logic, Major at one point announces: "Something I was not aware had happened suddenly turned out not to have happened." And, after the serial obfuscation of numerous civil servants, William Waldegrave's assertion to Sir Richard - "You have to believe that Whitehall is basically honest" - brings the loudest laugh of the night from the studio audience. The whole thing is a conspiracy theorist's wet dream.

The very fact that fact is funnier than fiction presents Bremner with a problem. "This is the point John Bird, John Fortune and I have been hammering away at for years now," he says. "How can you possibly be satirical when the truth itself is satirical? You think something satirical up and then they go and do it for real. It's like being Captain Scott. You get to the satirical South Pole and you find that Major is already there. He's pitched his entire camp, is brewing up and opening a branch of Skits R Us."

Bremner admits that sifting through the transcripts "was about the most demanding thing I've ever had to get my head round. It resisted me for a while because there's so much information. After all, it's taken Lord Justice Scott 18 months to gather all the evidence." But he persevered, so "I didn't come across as a smug git. This programme is too important for that. It's about the levels to which a government can go and the machinery it has at its disposal when it wants to mislead people. The culture is geared towards artful drafting - they're all Artful Draft- Dodgers. At the heart of government, the culture is essentially non-disclosive. It can justify a position beyond any semblance of plausibility. It makes you laugh, but it's also true."

Bremner does not get concerned about how his targets view his onslaughts. He can't see Michael Heseltine, for instance, getting his locks in a twist over the programme. "Channel 4?" asks Bremner, breaking into the familiar quavering tones of the Deputy Prime Minister. "That's a button too far. I'm much too busy watching adverts for hair products on QVC."

Reverting to his normal voice, Bremner concludes: "The point of satire is to put the truth across as I see it. It's not up to me to fight Major's corner for him. I last bumped into him in the gents at Edgbaston. It was rather strange seeing the Prime Minister taking the piss out of himself. That's my job."

In the future, Lloyd hopes to make more such programmes. "I saw Rory yesterday," he recalls, "and he said, 'What about doing one on Maastricht?' 'Crikey,' I replied. We're always game for a challenge. If we can make the integration of Europe accessible, what a cracker that would be."

'Scott of the Arms Antics', Sat 10pm C4

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