TELEVISION / Into the heart of darkness

'IT'S BETTER to light a candle than sit and curse the dark . . .' A nearly naked man is chanting as he squats striking matches, turning his cell into a demon's grotto. He looks like a wild Christ, or Crusoe before he found Friday; cadaverous eye-sockets bruised the colour of grape, a prophet's beard. When the candles are lit he starts a fierce jig, sploshing through pools of wax and singing along with pipe music we can hear a long way off: 'Auld Lang Syne' filtered through a madman's brain. Dance, dance, wherever you may be. Even if it's Beirut. Especially if it's Beirut and you are Brian Keenan consigned to dank oblivion and going out of a mind that is the only thing they have left you. But this isn't Keenan, this is an actor playing a character called Keenan performing a routine drafted by a writer. They need a credit at the bottom of the screen: from the original suffering by Brian Keenan.

You would have to be a hostage to have missed the row over Granada's Hostages (ITV). Keenan, John McCarthy, Terrys Waite and Anderson opposed the film because it made free with their captivity while claiming to be true. Granada, who had interviewed two other hostages and combed press cuttings and film libraries, said there was no monopoly on truth. Besides, whose account would ever be the full story? Certainly not theirs. Theirs was half-empty.

Bernard MacLaverty's drama-documentary began strongly with news footage of a blasted Beirut. John McCarthy (Colin Firth) is doing a piece to camera about the kidnapping of Keenan, which is going rather well until he forgets his name. He won't ever forget it again. Hours later, after making a fond call to Jill Morrell (Natasha Richardson) in London, McCarthy joins the ranks of the men stolen from their lives to 'tweak the tail of America, the Great Satan'. So far so gripping: the film's troubles start when the action stops as McCarthy is bundled into a cell with Keenan (Ciaran Hinds).

Fear and boredom, boredom and fear: the life of the hostage is one of the great interior dramas. Like characters out of Beckett they do not move: waiting for Godot, waiting for any bloody-o. Each man hard up against his own Self with whom he previously needed only a nodding acquaintance. We all like to think that given physical constraints we would find space to roam in our teeming minds. But what if all that's in there is a few used bus tickets and blindfold panic? We don't really know, and Hostages didn't tell us.

Television is terrified of silence, of being boring; but this is a story (six interminable years compressed into two hours) about tedium. It needed the patience of a nature programme; instead we got rapid cuts from McCarthy and Keenan trading jokes on the worst thing about captivity ('I think it's the library fines when you get out') to cardboard loved ones campaigning at home. The film made most impact when it took its time: Tom Sutherland quietly explaining DNA to Keenan and McCarthy while, out of sight, Terry Anderson thumps his head over and over on a wall. In one great scene, you felt MacLaverty writing with the shackles off, pinning down what a sensuous memory might mean to a parched man like Keenan: 'I go into Kelly's Cellars, right, maybe The Crown. Start off with a pint of Guinness. Take two big mouthfuls at a time with wee rests in between. Then have another. Half-four maybe get a hard- boiled egg, top it on the marble, dip it in salt. Jeeze the hard-boiled eggs are somethin' else; kinda blue rim round the yolk. Then a couple more pints . . . beginning to feel all right Islam or no Islam. Then this girl walks in: she smiles.' You think he's talking to McCarthy, but the camera slowly pulls back, exposing his solitude just as he cries: 'Oh, Christ, I demand someone to talk to.'

A first-rate cast did a terrific job with second-hand material, but even Natasha Richardson struggled with her 'dewy-eyed and eternally faithful' label. She spent much of her time by a photocopier, almost certainly searching for the missing pages of the script which would have given her Jill Morrell the awesome character all Britain knows she has. Colin Firth brought more subtlety and depth to a McCarthy shallowly conceived as a wisecracking Spitfire hero than the script offered: Kathy Bates was humane and pugnacious as Anderson's sister, and Harry Dean Stanton played the twitchy, hangdog-in-a-manger Harry Dean Stanton part which sat splendidly on hostage Frank Reed. But it was Ciaran Hinds who made you forget the issue of whether Hostages was real or imagined. He may have pilfered Keenan's life, but he repaid it with everything he had whether in moments of roaring defiance ('I am from east Belfast, I will not submit') or nuances of great delicacy as when his feet felt their way round the sandals his captors gave him to go home; the first footwear he had worn in years.

If Hostages had a moral, it was not about the human spirit but the perils of the drama-documentary, a clumpy hybrid that offers the worst of both worlds. MacLaverty, a writer of great power, was hemmed in by known events while his imagination was grounded by a proper respect for the feelings of characters who are still walking wounded. Are we seriously to believe that Keenan and McCarthy never discussed friends or family? To avoid trampling on the vulnerable, the film pussy-footed around. Fiction has no such anxieties, but then seeing imaginary characters thumped and trussed up wouldn't have the frisson needed to attract the vast audience that feeds on 'true-life' crimes. The hugely successful Death on the Rock and Lockerbie were both drama-docs, but of necessity: the stories they told were unfinished, the evidence wilfully obscured by governments. Combining reporting and reconstruction, these programmes dug up things others preferred buried, illuminating dark concerns and punching them back into public debate. The guesses they made seemed essential: no such excuse can be made for Hostages.

So why did I cry at the end when Hinds gave Keenan's press conference speech? The same reason I cried at the time. Because a man reduced to a pair of burning eyes found a lyricism to shame the complacent and the free. Coming out of that 'awful smothering in the shadows', he had you gulping in air with gratitude. I hope Hostages won't deter someone from making a great documentary about our reluctant emissaries to the border of humanity. Keenan closed his speech with the last line of Tennyson's Ulysses: 'to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield', but an earlier line means more now: 'Some noble work may yet be done,/Not unbecoming men that strove with gods.' And with themselves.

Civvies (BBC1), Lynda La Plante's much-touted series about Paras adjusting to life outside the army, also featured a man called Keenan who got on the wrong end of the lads' boots in a quaint regimental custom known as Paddy Bashing. This was hard-hitting stuff: cauliflower ears, tomato noses, pea brains. And not a New Man within puking distance. But there was plenty of male bonding, including Frank, our tough but tender hero saving his mate with no windpipe from asphyxiation. Greater love hath no man than to evacuate his friend's throat with a straw. Credulity got its marching orders from the word go, but there is great music which acts like a depth-charge at moments of high drama (once every three minutes). Jason Isaacs was superb as Frank, and Peter O'Toole was shameless as a Cockney Mr Big. Mrs Whitehouse will be beside herself, and everyone else will be beside the box again on Tuesday.

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