The Mummy returns to the Beeb

After 16 years of squabbling, the BBC is finally showing The Falklands Play. Its writer, Ian Curteis, tells James Rampton about the 'liberal conspiracy' that kept his work off the screen
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The Independent Online

The BBC producer Jeremy Howe is already bracing himself for the storm that is about to break around his head. He is responsible for Ian Curteis's The Falklands Play, a work guaranteed to whip up controversy when it is broadcast for the first time in the coming week.

"It's not going to go out quietly," Howe says with a wry chuckle. "But there again, that's what parapets are there for – putting your head above."

This play has got quite a bit of "previous". In 1986, the BBC pulled the plug on the original production; Curteis protested very publicly, and the most almighty row erupted in the press. Like this week's furore over the television coverage of the Queen Mother's death, it gave the tabloids a convenient stick with which to beat the "lefties" at the BBC. Plus ça change...

The official Beeb line about The Falklands Play was that "the script, as a drama, was not yet good enough for the investment of the £1m necessary for production". However, rumblings from within the corporation suggested that there were other reasons for the play's cancellation. It was allegedly viewed as far too sympathetic towards Mrs Thatcher, with executives reportedly dismissing it as "a turkey" and "jingoistic rubbish".

Now, some 16 years later, Curteis has made his case to Greg Dyke, the Director General, and the BBC has performed a smart about-turn, producing not one, but two versions of The Falklands Play. Underlining the extent of its rehabilitation within the BBC, the drama will be broadcast in two different media – on Radio 4 tomorrow and BBC4 on Wednesday – to mark the 20th anniversary of the start of the conflict. Meticulously researched, it is a robust account of the forceful way in which Mrs Thatcher (played by Patricia Hodge) led her war cabinet during the conflict. It also shows her human side, as she weeps at the news of the sinking of HMS Sheffield.

The Falklands War is a subject that never fails to stir up controversy – look at the brouhaha in the papers this week over the Government's refusal to sanction an official commemoration of the 20th anniversary. So this play is bound to get up some noses.

Despite the fact that The Falklands Play is now being welcomed with open arms at the BBC, Curteis is still disgruntled about his treatment two decades ago. He claims that the original decision to shelve it all but destroyed his career. The writer of more than 80 television plays up to that point, including such well-regarded productions as Churchill and the Generals, Suez 1956 and The Onedin Line, he suddenly found that he couldn't get work.

A twinkly, silver-haired man who is as smartly dressed as a retired colonel from Tunbridge Wells, the 66-year-old Curteis takes a brief break from watching the filming of the play at Goddeson Place. This is a stately home near Hemel Hempstead whose elegant dining room is acting as a pretty convincing double for the war cabinet room at No 10 Downing Street.

"The cancellation of the play put me absolutely in the cold," sighs Curteis, who at the time was married to the author Joanna Trollope. "I was completely blacklisted. My income dropped to one tenth of what it had been before. Blacklists are never overt, but it was a question of 'you're not one of us, mate, you've upset too many people'. It was a very hard time for us. We could only afford to have the central heating on when the children came home for the Christmas holidays."

But are these just the outpourings of an angry old man, or does Curteis have reason to be upset about the way the BBC handled his play? He certainly believes that his grievances are justified – and once he gets into his stride on this subject, he's a hard man to deflect.

"I was more melancholy than angry that an institution as great as the BBC once was could appear to become corrupt – in the sense that fruit becomes corrupt. It seemed that people within the BBC were grinding their own axes rather than following the terms of the Royal Charter under which they receive £3bn of public money every year to be even-handed.

"In the 1960s, the BBC did away with traditional drama. There was a great buzz in grabbing headlines with works like Cathy Come Home, but many people grew up thinking that the only form of drama was to be in opposition to the Establishment. Fifty-one per cent of TV drama should be critical of the status quo and 49 per cent should be celebrating it. But that 49 per cent got squeezed down to one person – and that was me!"

Looking back, the writer feels he was a victim of what the Tories then called the "reds under the bed" who were running the BBC. "I think there was a liberal conspiracy against me," he asserts. "There was an enormous hatred of Mrs Thatcher within the broadcasting industry. I have seen otherwise reasonable people go bananas at the very mention of her name. There was a general loathing of her. BBC executives couldn't stomach a play that was sympathetic to her and admired certain aspects of what she did. That's the key to their rejection of my play."

Curteis reckons that there was something rotten in the state of the BBC. "The whole incident told me where the BBC was going at the time. Collectively, the organisation was thinking of itself as the unelected opposition. Instead of saying, 'we'll be even-handed', it saw its function as acting solely as a critical force against this wicked, wicked government."

For all that, how does Curteis respond to the charge that his work is jingoistic? "I am tarred and feathered as a right-winger – and I don't think that's fair," he declares. "I represent the middle line, and broadcasting stands to the left of that. I think I voice what a hell of a lot of people think, but in broadcasting that voice is regarded as hopelessly to the right."

To back up his argument further, Curteis adds: "I've just finished a three-year stint as President of the Writers' Guild of Great Britain – not exactly a hot-bed of right-wing activity. I've also adopted a West Indian son – which can't be seen as particularly right-wing, either."

Howe chips in with a robust defence of the writer. "Henry V was quite jingoistic, but that doesn't mean that it's not a good account of what goes on inside a king's head when he's about to go to war. The Falklands Play is tub-thumping, but that doesn't mean it's bad."

Warming to his theme now, the producer continues: "I don't think the play is too favourable to the Tories at all. It's the inside story of what happened in Thatcher's Cabinet, and she comes out if it well. After all, she won the war. If she'd lost, she'd have been consigned to the dustbin of history."

Howe contends that the play – which has the approval of all those portrayed – is an accurate reflection of a pivotal event in our recent history. "Before the war, Mrs Thatcher was the most unpopular prime minister of all time," he continues. "After it, she won a 'khaki election' on a tide of approval. She didn't put a foot wrong during the conflict. She was put in a difficult situation and managed it perfectly. That's not to say the play is pro-Tory, per se."

Leaving aside all the controversies and the conspiracies, why is it worth reviving this play now? In Howe's opinion, it is a work that has taken on added significance in recent months.

"It's now incredibly relevant," he maintains. "George Bush must have gone through similar Cabinet scenes in the aftermath of 11 September. The play asks: how does a democracy justify going to war? Just change the names."

Curteis concurs: "I think it will have more impact now. The theme is so topical – it's about the necessity to resist the armed violence of a fascist regime. The failure to do so sends out the wrong message. I'm not celebrating war, but the national values which say 'we must stand up to this'."

But after a decade and a half of struggle that has radically altered the course of his career, doesn't he feel it would have been easier just to forget about The Falklands Play and get on with his life?

"I couldn't have lived with myself if I'd just accepted it," Curteis says, resolutely. He pauses, before concluding in a softer, almost wistful, voice: "But I'm sure my life would have been much simpler if I'd just kept quiet."

'The Falklands Play' is on Radio 4 tomorrow at 2.30pm, and is televised on BBC4 on Wednesday at 9pm