TELEVISION / Putting the imagination in chains: Thomas Sutcliffe reviews Hostages, the controversial drama of the Beirut captives

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'You know, maybe someday this experience might be valuable,' said the actor playing Brian Keenan in Bernard MacLaverty's screenplay (we had better be clumsily scrupulous for the moment). 'Brian,' replied the actor playing John McCarthy, 'there is not one valuable second in all this.' Was he ever wrong. On a very rough estimate the ITV network will have earned around pounds 1,000,000 from its advertising revenues during the transmission of Hostages. As Granada is fully aware, narratives guaranteed to attract large audiences for two hours of prime-time are extremely valuable properties.

That, presumably, was why the company found itself able to resist the requests of several hostages to drop the project. Watching the result, you wondered whether they might have been better off, artistically at least, if they had ignored all moral reservations. As it was, the film was a pained compromise - an exploitation movie with a bad conscience. 'No endorsement has been sought or received from anyone depicted,' read an opening title. This was rather mealy-mouthed as an apologia - after all, if you have already decided to use characters' real names, you have effectively kidnapped a kind of endorsement without having to ask.

There were similar pieties about the dialogue in the film, suggesting that this was as accurate a version as we were likely to get for the moment. The problem is that the real drama of the experience will only truly find its way into words when those involved write their own stories. Until then, MacLaverty could only go a certain distance: the capacity of these men to distil a bitter humour from their unchanging circumstances was well caught ('I think it's the library fines when you get out,' said the John McCarthy character, asked what he hated most about captivity) and the occasions of despair came across powerfully - particularly in a long, gripping scene with Jay O Sanders as Terry Anderson. But the question people asked themselves about the hostages wasn't 'I wonder what they talked about all that time' but 'I wonder what they felt'. Nervous about doing what he can do superbly - imagine - MacLaverty had to settle for the role of an unpopular amanuensis, cobbling together scraps of evidence from here and there.

The result often had a local power - the scenes of the men being mummified in packing tape before being moved had you twitching with claustrophobia and there were sharp acts of quotation. 'It really comes home to you when your clippings turn yellow,' said one of Brian Keenan's sisters looking back through the campaign scrap-book; earlier a State Department official had calmly informed Terry Anderson's sister that 'The hostages are to be devalued'. But the film was underpowered overall, too often distracted by its responsibilities to relatives and the ignorance of the audience (history lessons kept interrupting the drama). Jill Morrell, a powerful element of the public story, was here reduced to cardboard, a little figure marked 'Indefatigable love'.

And while there was some sense of the gloomy enclosure in which the men lived, the effect was dissipated by the frequency with which the camera popped outside for fresh air - taking a long look at the Bekaa Valley, where the men were moved at one point, or watching the guards play a football match which the hostages could only hear. The fear of boredom never leaves popular television drama but it might have been tactful to take a few more risks given that the subject here was the human survival of apparently limitless tedium.