Caught in the crossfire

Peter Kosminsky dissected New Labour in The Project. Now he has turned his attention to the Kelly affair in a major new drama. By James Rampton
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The Independent Online

The writer-director Peter Kosminsky has a rare talent for getting up the Establishment's nose. Ever since he made Shoot to Kill in 1990, about the Stalker inquiry, he has consistently caused controversy, with offerings such as The Project (focusing on the disillusionment of some New Labour activists after they came to power in 1997), Warriors (the difficulties faced by British peace-keepers in Bosnia) and No Child of Mine (child abuse).

It seems unlikely that an invitation to dinner at Chequers will be winging its way to Kosminsky in the wake of his latest project. The Government Inspector, which airs on Channel 4 later this month, is a potent account of the events surrounding the death in 2003 of Dr David Kelly (played by Mark Rylance, the artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London). Kelly was the Ministry of Defence expert on weapons of mass destruction who became a pawn in the increasingly bitter fight between the Government and the BBC over the justification for the war in Iraq. He committed suicide after a gruelling televised appearance in front of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC).

Wiry and earnest, yet undeniably articulate and charismatic, Kosminsky begins by setting out what he views as the "terms and conditions" of his profession as a writer-director of dramas ripped from the headlines. "My job is to make mischief," he asserts. "You need a few like me kicking around TV - otherwise we'd go bonkers! We can't all be cheering up the nation. There again, we can't have too many like me, or everyone would get depressed.

"My job is to gaze into the places that the powers that be would rather one didn't gaze into. My job is to make uncomfortable films, to ask difficult questions and to cause trouble." He would appear to be fulfilling that remit with The Government Inspector.

Some of the most intriguing scenes in the drama centre on Alastair Campbell, Labour's director of communications at the time depicted, who has recently returned to the fold to help with their general-election campaign. Played with a macho swagger by Jonathan Cake, he spends a lot of time in the film shouting: "What a load of shit!" and, "Bollocks!"

In January 2003, he commissions a second dossier to bolster the case for war against Iraq, with the words: "We need something cheap and cheerful - shift attention from the vanishing bloody WMD." It soon emerges that much of the resultant dossier is lifted directly from a 12-year-old doctoral thesis. In June of the same year, Campbell is portrayed arguing with colleagues ahead of what promises to be a tricky appearance in front of the FAC. "I'm going to open a flank against the BBC," he declares.

At the same time, The Government Inspector zooms in on the torments being experienced by Kelly as he is caught in the crossfire of a mountingly vicious battle. He is depicted first as a man who goes to the press partly out of bitterness that he is being excluded from weapons inspections in Iraq in the aftermath of the war. An expert who spent seven years as a UN weapons inspector in Iraq during the 1990s, he sits morosely on the sofa at home and complains to his wife: "I've given 12 years of my life to this, and no one gives a damn."

Later in the drama, Kelly comes across as a tragic hero of almost Shakespearean dimensions, a victim of malign forces beyond his control. After he has been outed as the source of Andrew Gilligan's story on the Today programme about the government "sexing up" the Iraq dossier - the trigger for the whole almighty row - Kelly flees to the seaside with his wife. There, he laments to her: "I don't think this is anything to do with me and Andrew. The Government started a war with the BBC because they can't find any weapons in Iraq, and I'm being sacrificed as some sort of diversion."

Of course, no film-maker can bring such a story to life without compelling actors, and Kosminsky is lucky enough to have recruited one of our finest to play the lead. In the scene where Kelly appears in front of the FAC, Rylance exactly captures the hesitant, pitiable air of a man supremely uneasy about being caught in the headlights of publicity. It is no surprise to learn that, in preparing for that sequence, Rylance watched footage of the original hearings more than 50 times.

The director enthuses: "Although we have had precious little opportunity to see Mark on television, he's the most subtle observational actor I've ever come across. Kelly was a quiet, contained man who dealt in nuance, and Mark is the perfect actor to portray that. Some sequences I shot about the minutiae of the BBC ended up on the cutting-room floor because of Mark's extraordinary performance. Thanks to Mark, I think, by the end, viewers will feel they have got under Kelly's skin."

For his part, Rylance was anxious to bring out the troubled nature of the man he was incarnating. "I connected with Kelly's feelings of low esteem, which are obviously part of the reason why he committed suicide," he reflects. "When he was a weapons inspector, he did remarkable work as an interrogator. He was a great one for encouraging people to take a moral stand. But in the drama, he becomes an Oedipal character, because all that is turned on himself. He is forced to do the very thing that he has spent his life encouraging others not to do. That's a terrible, terrible blow for him.

"He is suddenly too frightened to resist the pressure. He has the feeling that his employers are trying to prevent him from saying what he knows is true. That's clearly a danger point."

The film is meticulously researched. Although Kelly's family declined to co-operate - "They were extremely polite and heard us on three separate occasions, but on each occasion decided not to participate," Kosminsky says - Kosminsky and his team interviewed 120 people connected to the story. The director is coy about exactly who he interviewed at the BBC. "I'm not going to confirm who I spoke to, but let's put it this way: there were no glaring omissions."

He was not so fortunate with the Government. As Kosminsky attempted to collect background material from civil servants, he says he was blocked at every turn. "We phoned to ask Alastair Campbell if he'd talk to us," he recalls, "and he just put the phone down on us. And not a single person from the Ministry of Defence or Armed Forces was allowed to talk to us. We weren't even allowed to film on government property." He sighs and continues: "I've been making films for quite a while now, and you get weary of being boxed round the ears and constantly shut out. It's incredibly important to make mischief, but it would be nice occasionally to be welcomed rather than seen as an unexploded bomb."

Kosminsky was subjected to the same experience of having the government door shut in his face while making The Project. "I would genuinely rather make a film about the Labour Party where Alastair Campbell would talk to me," he contends. "I would make a better film if I were able to gather all the evidence. I think it's a grave mistake to say a blanket 'niet'. If the Government is so hostile, you're forced into the arms of the disaffected and the people it has pissed off.

"One of the people I most admire is David Hare. He was allowed access to the Labour Party under Neil Kinnock. They may not have liked the finished product - the play The Absence of War - but they gave him the right to free expression, and he was allowed to create a drama that will still be read in a hundred years' time. I would rather be in that situation than be viewed as an enemy to be stopped at all costs."

Even so, Kosminsky is at pains to stress that The Government Inspector does not take sides. "We didn't set out with the intention of doing a hatchet job. Not all the right lies on one side - the BBC made mistakes, too. We've tried to be balanced and not shrill and not portray any of the characters as cardboard cut-out villains. It's a complicated subject - and I think that's why it makes for good drama."

Despite the lack of official co-operation, Kosminsky has still managed to create an absorbing piece about the sometimes dubious ways mighty institutions conduct themselves. As Peter Dale, head of documentaries at C4, puts it, the film is "an important opportunity to examine an event that forced government and the media to wash some of their dirtiest linen in public".

Rylance, an appealing, passionately intense man, hopes we may draw some wider lessons from The Government Inspector, especially about the rectitude of the war in Iraq. "We've had centuries of this idea that war is the best way to solve problems. But there is increasing evidence - in business, in families and on the streets - that you can resolve a conflict peacefully. It's bullshit to say that the only way to resolve a conflict is to go in and kill a lot of people."

The actor stresses that the film proffers other universal messages, too. "Dr Kelly was a man of very high ethical standards," he says. "Iago has this idea that conscience is merely a fantasy, but that's wrong. Conscience is a very real thing in human beings. This is a story that shows that if you force someone to do something against their conscience, it can be mortally perilous - like a heart attack or a brain tumour. It's a lesson to managers about pushing employees to do something that goes against their conscience. And for the David Kellys among us, it shows that one mustn't be naive about the lengths to which the Establishment will go to defend its position. He just didn't realise how much trouble all this would cause."

Kosminsky, in turn, wishes to emphasise what the example of Kelly can teach us. "I hope people come away from this film with compassion for him. His mother committed suicide, too, you know. His is a tragic story of a guy full of human failings yet ultimately admirable. His hubris was that he didn't like being usurped as a weapons inspector. He did make mistakes, but then we all do. It's just that this guy's mistakes were plastered all over the television for us all to pick over."

What is Kosminsky up to next? "I'm making a drama about the Daily Mail," he reveals. "We've already spoken to around 50 journalists who have worked there. The paper has a huge influence politically - it's read by an extremely powerful section of British society. But the people who read the Daily Mail may be quite surprised to see behind the curtain and find out how the paper is put together."

So is the film likely to whip up another storm? "I certainly hope so," Kosminsky replies, with just a hint of a smile. "Otherwise, why bother doing it?"

'The Government Inspector' is on Channel 4 on Thursday 17 March