The return of the Kinnock factor

TV Review
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The Independent Culture
When David Hare's play The Absence of War opened at the National Theatre, most newspapers invited a member of the Shadow Cabinet to play drama critic for an evening. Their general manner was that of bad-tempered fact-checkers - this was implausible, that was far-fetched, the other was downright wrong. There was a sort of demarcation dispute in progress here - Hare had crossed the line into their field of operations and they were damned if they weren't going to even matters up. Most took the view that Hare (who had researched the Labour campaign in detail) had not exactly over-performed on the invention front. Theatre means making things up, doesn't it? And if the things you see aren't made up, then they should be accurate.

This is not a very sophisticated view of theatre's ability to preserve the perishable matter of the world but, watching Richard Eyre's television version of the play for Screen Two (BBC2), you could sympathise a little with some of their overnight instincts. The politicians reviewed The Absence of War as if it was that misbegotten form, drama-documentary. It clearly wasn't - it was documentary-drama, if a category is needed, which is a very different thing.

In the former, truth is always in thrall to fiction; in the latter, the reverse is the case. John Thaw's performance as George Jones, a passionate conviction politician, is locked into orbit with an invisible twin, Neil Kinnock - a presence that both underwrites our interest and threatens to prevent the drama ever reaching escape velocity. Remaking the play as a television film only compounds the problem, because television is a form that has always been susceptible to the gravitational pull of literalism.

The best moments in Eyre's film were those that acknowledged this, allowing you to stop fretting about truth-to-life. In the opening credits, for instance, you stared down from above as Jones made his way to the stage through a rapturous crowd. As he mounted the steps he stumbled and the acclamation congealed to a hush of concern, a premonitory freeze-frame. When the election is suddenly announced the screen explodes in a flurry of voices, not the over-the-shoulder bustle of documentary, but an artfully choreographed moment of chaos that brought home the blissful panic of campaigning, particularly for an Opposition party ("For this three weeks we exist").

Elsewhere you couldn't help but be reminded of the difference between theatrical space, fluid and forgiving, and television space, which is almost always inflexibly real. On stage the scene in which the team have a furious row after a booby-trapped election interview may well have worked - the conventions allow for localised deafness. On screen you just find yourself thinking that politicians who can't avoid screaming at each other in a current affairs studio don't deserve to win; the drama isn't a tragedy here but a farce.

Some of this is deliberate, it's true; Hare's play is partly a comedy of errors, capitalising both on the black humour of politicians' unobserved and the unintentional pratfalls of language. "It's good...," says one of Jones' advisers, entering with the latest research, "it's good... it isn't bad... it's fine." "I can't even say the Welsh drive me mad," yells Jones, in a last act of rage at the way his tongue has been put under permanent supervision by his minders (a line that was even funnier because you translated it into Kinnock's mouth). Hare's point here isn't so much that style had replaced content, just that it was the wrong style - a flinching inoffensiveness instead of Jones's natural pulpit-thumping - "The Bible and Shakespeare," says his deputy urging him to throw caution to the winds, "these were your texts." It's too late though, as everyone watching would already have known.