REVIEW / The unnecessarily messy business of the truth

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The Independent Culture
BY AN odd irony the offices of South Coast Shipping are in Canute House. South Coast Shipping was the owner and operator of the Bowbelle, the sand dredger which sank the Marchioness pleasure boat in the Thames, leaving 51 people dead, and ever since the accident it has tried to hold off a rising tide of criticism. With the Government insisting that no public inquiry is necessary, it seemed as if the company had succeeded but Dispatches' (C 4) methodical and detailed report on the incident left the water lapping at its chin.

Dispatches didn't make anything of the address but then it was a programme of almost heroic self-restraint. It hardly lifted its head to go into the human details of the night - the sort of memories that would have guaranteed the attention of viewers - but instead doggedly worked its way through the documents, building a case that both government and the Bowbelle's owners had displayed, if nothing worse, indifference and incompetence.

You were left hoping that South Coast Shipping don't run passenger ferries anywhere. Ships of its fleet have been involved in over 50 reported incidents - collisions and accidents - since the mid- Seventies and its own insurers increased the premiums on the Bow fleet, describing the claims record as 'horrendous'. The Bowbelle itself had considerable visibility problems; when it was unloaded, as it was that night, the area of blindness from the wheelhouse was twice the permitted distance. The company claims that lookouts on the bow had been issued with walkie- talkies but no crew member recalls being told about them.

Much of this was a matter of differing opinion and memory but Dispatches also managed to pin the facts down with paperwork. The Bowbelle's system of communicating between wheelhouse and engine- room was rather antiquated, a telegraph system which rang a bell. The company claimed it had had no complaints about its efficiency or safety but Dispatches had the documents to prove the contrary - two defect reports which note exactly that problem. Thirteen months later, when the Marchioness was sunk, the fitting of a safer system was still 'under consideration'.

Alex Sutherland and Callum Macrae's film also made a strong case for the fact that the official account of the accident, which involved a sudden turn to port by the Marchioness, was simply wrong. Witnesses on a nearby boat, the damage to the hull and the evidence of Bowbelle's own emergency messages all persuaded you that the gleaming computer graphics weren't just wishful thinking but an accurate account of that night. The Government's attitude was best summed up by Cecil Parkinson's dismissal of the 'emotion and hysteria of public inquiries'. That's the thing about ordinary people, you see, they will get upset when their relatives are killed and insist on hearing the truth about how it happened. It's all so unnecessarily messy.

If you're nervous about Ben Elton's tendency to lurch from comedy into polemic you can relax. Stark (BBC 2), an adaptation of his bestseller, is funny and stylish. The worthy stuff is all there in this comic thriller about ecological disaster and capitalist conspiracy but it is handled with sly self-mockery and offers some wonderful details, like the unreconstructed Ocker magistrate who appears from time to time.

'Yer young, yer bright, yer crackin' easy on the eye,' he says to a gamine rebel who comes up before him, 'When in 12 types of buggery are you goin' to pull yerself together?' Even the little bit of politics makes you laugh. 'A social anachronism, penniless, bloody-minded, proud - though God knows of what,' drawls a heroin-addicted English toff at one point, describing the Aborigines who stand in the way of his plans for world domination. 'You might be talking about the British aristocracy,' his listener replies drily.

My apologies to Bob Speirs, who I foolishly deprived of the director's credit for Absolutely Fabulous in reviewing Mama's Back the other day. Perhaps that's what made the difference.