Pecksniff takes on Howard role

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The Independent Online
Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, is to have his troubled career immortalised on film by the BBC.

It will not be a flattering portrait. He is being "played" by Tom Wilkinson - last seen in BBC 2's production of Charles Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit as Mr Pecksniff, the oily hypocrite who hides his greed under a thick coat of moral platitudes, and gave the English language the pejorative adjective "Pecksniffian".

The BBC was keen to emphasise that the home secretary in its new play, A Very Open Prison, is a fictional character, not a protagonist in a drama-documentary.

But alert viewers may recognise scenes not at all dissimilar to the surreal recent history of the prison service. The fictional home secretary hides the real state of the prisons by talking tough on crime. But just as he is about to push through a controversial plan to privatise the jails, disaster strikes.

The country's most notorious murder suspect hangs himself in his cell before he can be brought to trial. Then three killers escape from a maximum security jail where the guards spend most of their time going out to supermarkets to buy gourmet meals for the inmates. After this exercise in stark realism, the plot takes a more fictional turn. Even prison officers who have seen Group 4 take over prisons, the suicide of Frederick West and the Whitemoor and Parkhurst escapes may find the second half of the drama a little fanciful. But then again . . .

The fugitives hole up in an orphanage and take the children hostage. They also capture a visiting Tory MP, who is desperately needed in the Commons where the Government is facing a no-confidence vote on Europe.

"Well, we can't base the home secretary entirely on Michael Howard," Guy Jenkin, the author, said. "We don't want everyone switching off."

The hour-long play is being rushed through in record time by the BBC drama department in an attempt to see if it can respond to current events while they are still fresh in the public memory. It should be shown next month, if all goes according to plan.

Mr Jenkin did not want to give away what finally happens to his fictional minister. "Let's just say that this home secretary gets over all his problems, only to find that new troubles beset him."

Pretty true to life, after all.