TELEVISION / Drama-Documentary: Making drama out of a crisis: Granada's Hostages tonight tells the true story of the Beirut captives. Or does it? John Lyttle reports

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Granada's drama-documentary Hostages is prefaced by the announcement that 'Dialogue has been created based upon publicly available material, interviews with former hostages, their friends and relatives, diplomats and politicans from the United States, Europe and the Middle East . . . chronology has been changed and some events have been amalgamated.'

This, of course, is what drama-documentary always does, massaging, compressing and concocting because of a variety of reasons - time constraints, unavailable data, organisation of known information, and to create plain, old-fashioned tension. Still, it behoves Granada to play safe. For Hostages concerns itself with the ordeals of John McCarthy, Terry Waite, the Irishman Brian Keenan and the Americans Tom Sutherland, Terry Anderson and Frank Reed - the Beirut captives.

Four of the six men - McCarthy, Keenan, Anderson and Waite - have made their anger at the programme known, most recently in a letter to the Guardian. Having declined to co-operate with the production, their objections are simple and raise familiar questions about the drama-documentary form: 'Hostages is not the 'true story' of those depicted in it . . . it is clear that the film contains scenes involving us that are pure fiction. Granada is grossly misleading the public by giving them the impression that they will see what actually happened . . . Granada felt it permissible to invent very intimate aspects of our captivity and liberation. We feel that to do this whilst claiming the film to be 'true' is both highly insensitive to the hostages and their families and a serious abuse of public trust.'

Hostages' associate producer, Alasdair Palmer, denies the charges: 'We have never publicised the film as 'the full story for the first time'. The promo we sent out to the ITV regions had instructions not to change anything, but we have no power to stop other stations making alterations. I think that quote may come from the Thames trailer. Actually, we have always made it clear who co-operated and who refused to co-operate. We were at pains to mention it in every interview. Let's face it, all the publicity has been about that.' (Thames admits using the term 'true story' but claims that Granada only issued 'apologetic' instructions requesting the phrase's deletion on Monday.)

If both sides sound bitter and misunderstood, this may be because Hostages began as a relatively united exercise in publicity pressure. In late 1990 Jill Morrell and the Friends of John McCarthy saw Hostages as a way of keeping McCarthy's name in the public consciousness, while Brian Keenan, readjusting to freedom, kept his distance, neither assisting nor opposing. McCarthy's release - two weeks after the writer, Bernard MacLaverty, finished a shooting script - threw the project into disarray. McCarthy's evident animosity turned disarray into chaos, moving Keenan from a position of neutrality to condemnation.

So how could Granada continue without the full story? 'No one is in a position to tell the full story,' Alasdair Palmer answers. 'Frank Reed and Tom Sutherland gave us free, full and frank interviews and they disagreed on many details. Some were inevitable errors of memory, other things were disagreements about each other's characters, how they thought the other person behaved or acted in certain circumstances. They were eyewitnesses. They weren't not telling the 'truth'. They were telling their version of what happened. This is our version based on 18 months' research. How could there be a collective, definitive, agreed summing- up of the experience?' Palmer pauses. 'God, I don't want to suggest John and the other hostages don't have a right to express their views. But I do very vehemently protect our right to have an alternative interpretation of events.'

'Right' is an emotive word that introduces a new, intrinsically moral, element to the usual drama-doc debate. The argument is topical. In America, David Hampton, a con artist, has sued the writer John Guare for transforming his high-society scams into the hit stage play Six Degrees of Separation. Having counterfeited himself as Paul Poitier, son of the better known Sidney, Hampton is now demanding copyright on his own life, to do with as he will. Whatever his motives, the crux of the matter is protection against having one's life seized by outside forces for their own interests, a situation the hostages are all too painfully conversant with.

Palmer acknowledges the point. Here is a world-famous group of people who would gladly wipe away the reasons for their fame. They certainly did not choose to be processed through the media mill. None the less their faces, voices and experiences are the property of millions of prying eyes and ears.

Indeed, the notion of privacy, of having an exclusive claim to selfhood in the present era of instant mass communication seems almost laughable. In America, where the networks rush to sign the traumatised, and the traumatised hop, limp and crawl to be signed, the idea is beyond laughable and closer to redundant. There comes a point where, like it or not, stars and victims alike become public property.

Palmer asserts: 'Drama-documentary is no different to journalism and John McCarthy was a journalist. Every journalist who writes a human interest story believes he can write about events that happened to other people, perhaps events they felt belonged to them and that they didn't want brought into the public eye. If John McCarthy had believed otherwise, he would have been out of a job. There also comes a stage when it's impossible to say 'Stop, I don't want to do any more.' '

Put plainly, some stories are too hot to pass up, especially when they have pre-sold commercial allure. Will the boy be freed and get the girl who has waited so long? Will the plain-speaking Irish sisters move the powers-that-be to facilitate their brother's release, after 14 - or is it 15 - failed attempts? Will the American sibling, vocal in pursuing publicity for her imprisoned brother, be reunited with him and go back to being an ordinary person? Love and family, the perfect ingredients for a popular Anglo-American co-production.

Still, having condensed five years into two hours and included a scene in which Terry Anderson intones (ironically enough) 'Words are so important - it's all propaganda', the strongest accusation against the production is not idle distortion or even lying, but poor taste. The race to finish and screen the film while McCarthy, Keenan, Waite and Anderson have, as they have said, still to 'come to terms with what happened' is frankly unfeeling. Yet equally one might accuse it of good taste. In not pretending to be complete or 'true', the film can, for instance, discreetly delete the previously reported apathy with which some of the hostages greeted Terry Waite. This would explain Waite's single line of dialogue and 'guest victim' appearance.

Finally it is Hostages' essential paradox (that it cannot both tell the unvarnished truth and protect privacy) that makes the film fascinating. It is a paradox the hostages will also be obliged to deal with as books are written and published. Keenan's An Evil Cradling debuts on Thursday, 24 hours after Hostages is broadcast, while McCarthy and Jill Morrell's collaboration arrives next year. What happens if fellow prisoners challenge your veracity, denounce your recollections, doubt your opinions and claim your criticisms are cashing in on their lives? 'Actually,' says Alasdair Palmer, 'if it's strictly a commercial question, I don't think Hostages will hurt sales. The film will do a lot for the books. The public has a short-term memory. It's free publicity.'

'Hostages' is at 8pm, ITV.

(Photographs omitted)