Endgame - Truth and reconciliation

The man who was a key player in bringing South Africa's bitter political rivals together tells Gerard Gilbert how a new TV drama captures the tension of the apartheid era

The Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute concert at Wembley Stadium on the 11th of June 1988 was one of the most influential of its kind – arguably more effective than Live Aid for being so tightly focused. But what the 70,000 revellers chanting along to Jerry Dammers's exultant protest song "Free Nelson Mandela" – or indeed the world-wide TV audience of 600 million – could not have known was that 100 miles away in deepest Somerset, secret talks had already started to find a peaceful exit from apartheid in South Africa.

These clandestine "talks about talks" had been the brainchild of Michael Young, an executive at the British mining company Consolidated Goldfields, who, with great personal bravery, put out feelers to both sides in South Africa. The result was that bitter enemies found themselves as fellow guests at a quintessential English stately home near Bath, Mells Park, partaking of structured talks during the day and tumblers of whisky by night, in what one of the participants later dubbed "Glenfiddich diplomacy".

What is extraordinary is that these vital discussions might have remained a hidden footnote to the history of apartheid had not David Aukin, head of drama at Mentorn productions and former head of Film on Four, had a chance encounter with Young. The meeting led Aukin to commission a script from the respected screenwriter Paula Milne (The Politician's Wife, The Virgin Queen), which was to become Endgame, a gripping Channel 4 drama starring William Hurt and Chiwetel Ejiofor as the lead negotiators.

"I felt one of the best ways of going in to it was as a political thriller," says Milne. " Michael Mann's The Insider was my sort of template, an intelligent thriller, which was very much about politics."

Endgame begins with a racy sequence in which Michael Young (played by Jonny Lee Miller) is smuggled into the South African townships to make contact with the ANC. Simultaneously, he must seek out out likely members of the Afrikaner intelligentsia. I asked the film's director, Pete Travis, whether Endgame had been given this Jason Bourne-style beginning because, once the talks themselves begin, Young somewhat disappears into the background of the story.

"Not at all; it's actually true. Michael secretly hid in the back of a car five or six times," says Travis. "Even his own company didn't know he was there."

Young himself is rueful about his youthful bravery. "You don't discount the danger, but I think you sublimate it when you're younger," he says, mindful of the fact that since only the chairman of Consolidated Goldfields (played in the film by Derek Jacobi) knew what he was doing, he could easily have been "disappeared" into the veld.

"My phone was tapped, and it was very clear I was being followed," he says. "I received phone calls telling me they knew what I was doing and I better watch my back. I was taught how to check under my car for booby-trap devices and so on."

But surely a company like Consolidated Goldfields had vested interests in maintaining the apartheid regime, not changing it? "Things were definitely going to change in South Africa and it was simply a matter of how long the incumbent regime could last," says Young. "My job at Goldfields was a strategic role, where I had to try and work out how our gold-mining house could remain in South Africa for the long haul. So my chairman agreed in principle that I should begin to forge links with the ANC in exile, just to see what they were like and what they wanted."

Young eventually managed to get the ANC, its team led by Thabo Mbeki, the future President of South Africa, and a delegation of Afrikaners (led by the respected academic Willie Esterhuyse) to a series of meetings at Mells Place in Somerset. These discussions are where Endgame could have become bogged down in "talkiness", but a combination of Milne's intelligent script and some top-notch casting means that the drama is rarely less than absorbing.

The film's British director, Pete Travis, brought William Hurt on board as Esterhuyse, having worked with the actor on Vantage Point, the recent hit political thriller in which Hurt played an assassin-stalked US President.

"When I told Channel 4 that William Hurt's going to do it everyone looked at me as if I was an idiot", says Travis. "We forged a really good relationship on Vantage Point and William said he would do anything for me, and he was as good as his word. He loved the script and really threw himself into the part."

The commitment included mastering the notoriously difficult Afrikans accent. "Some of the South African crew couldn't believe how he got it down to a tee," says Travis. "He brings huge pathos and dignity to the role, because in a way he's the bad guy – he's the racist who has to change; Now I've done it with him I couldn't imagine anybody else doing it. He imbues it with a huge emotional power."

Indeed, in the actor's usual subcutaneous way, he does – and Hurt has an excellent foil in Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Thabo Mbeki, his ANC counterpart at the secret talks. Ejiofor, one of the great stage Othellos of recent times, matches Hurt's emotional intelligence stride for stride.

"Having William and Chiwetel against each other was really exciting," says Travis. "You've got an Oscar winner who's a kind of icon against the up and coming newcomer, someone who's equally good but at a different stage of his career. When they were in that room sparking off each other it was really electric."

Another clever piece of casting is Clarke Peters from The Wire as Nelson Mandela. Casting Mandela, I suggest to Travis, must be as tricky as finding the right actor to play the Queen. "It's actually a bit more tricky. Mandela must be one of the most famous men in the whole world.

"I'm a huge fan of The Wire and Clarke had what I was looking for – a dignity and a kind of stillness. There's just a huge dignity about Mandela that it's almost impossible for an actor to pull off but I think Clarke managed it really well."

Every thriller needs a baddie - and in Endgame that role is filled with suitably venomous menace by Mark Strong, the British actor who has made something of a speciality out of heavies since 2004's The Long Firm. Strong plays Dr Neil Barnard, the former head of South African intelligence.

"He's the guy who holds all the cards because he knows exactly what's going on both in Botha's government, while keeping an eye on Nelson Mandela as well as having a spy at the secret talks down in Somerset. He's pulling all the strings."

Strong says he was moved by filming in real locations in South Africa, including P W Botha's former office in the parliament building (Timothy West plays Botha), Pollsmoor Prison near Cape Town, where Mandela was held after his move from Robben Island, and the more luxurious gilded cage of Victor Verster Prison, where Mandela was held (and spied upon) until his release in 1990.

"It was an astonishing feeling", says Strong. "The furniture at Victor Verster is the furniture that was in there when Mandela was in there." Adds Pete Travis: "It's really quite eerie. There's an umbrella in the garden and you can still see the holes where the secret cameras were. And in the corner of Mandela's bedroom there's still a hole where another secret camera was. "

If some of the props in Endgame could belong in a museum, all concerned with making the drama are adamant that it is not a mere museum piece. "I didn't want to write a curiosity piece on history... a kind of side-show, significant though it may be," says Paula Milne. "I wanted to write something which would be inspiring for the future, to show what potentially could be achieved if two enemies can eschew bitterness and sit across a table from each other."

Indeed, the film ends with a series of captions that inform us how, when the IRA wanted to open negotiations with the British Government, it approached the ANC to see how it managed its own peace settlement. And now it seems Hamas has in turn approached the IRA for similar advice.

"It was kind of the captions at the end that made me want to do it," says Pete Travis, whose earlier credits include Omagh, the 2004 Channel 4 drama about the Omagh bombing. "When I was growing up it always felt that the Irish conflict was totally intractable and similarly as much as we campaigned for the end of apartheid, none of us thought it would actually end. It was the way in which a few brave people dared to stick their heads above the parapet and look their enemies in the eye and say 'shall we talk?' and secretly changed both of those conflicts."

'Endgame' is showing on 4 May at 9pm on Channel 4

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...