Out of Turkey: Comic who puts the torturers on the rack

ISTANBUL - The tragi-comic side of life in Turkey started to imitate art as we reached the ante-room of Levent Kirca, the country's most popular comic actor. An old man sitting in wait appealed for help. 'You know how to dress up so well,' he said, peeling bandages off his head to reveal a horrible cavity where doctors had cut out the middle of his face. 'Could you possibly spare me a nose?'

Kirca, fresh off a film set in baggy Ottoman costume, calmly called for his make-up boxes. The old man tried on one nose suitable for The Merchant of Venice, then another for the child-catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. 'Take whichever one you like,' said Kirca gently. 'But don't you think you need something a little more permanent?'

A few minutes later, at his cast's communal lunch on a ping-pong table piled with props and pots of kebabs, Kirca could harumph with laughter at the craziness of the real-life scene. But, as in the comic sketches that have made his show hugely popular, not a hint of malice crossed his moustachioed, flexible face.

Such openness is a great achievement in a country of 60 million people increasingly riven by religious and ethnic tensions. As a critic of social manners, he may be a Turkish equivalent of John Cleese, but Turkey has more worries than a Ministry of Silly Walks can laugh away. Death squads, police torture and blood feuds co- exist with the country's fabled hospitality, economic dynamism and tourist beaches.

'We wanted to do a sketch about wife-beating,' said Kirca, the 44-year-old son of a painter and a teacher who started his theatrical career after leaving secondary school at the age of 14. 'Then we realised that beating was not just for wives, but for soldiers, pupils in school, even for children by other children.'

Liberated by Turkey's new wave of private television stations, trenchant sketches mocking military coups and thick-headed secret policemen are seen every Thursday night by more than half the country. They sow deeper doubts in village minds than hundreds of articles on human rights in the Istanbul press. That's how the Kirca team want it to be.

'We have to have a message. Mel Brooks's slapstick is not our style. We want to teach as well as to entertain,' said Kirca, whose powerful comic presence makes even his interviewers weep with laughter.

Kirca is lead actor, director, producer and writer, but his company of 35 is more like a collective of Turkey's best acting talent. It includes his wife and lead actress, Oya Basar. Scriptwriters are recruited in the press and trained for up to two years before joining the main writing team.

Everybody helps out on an intimate, laughter-filled set loyal to the group's origins in the theatre. Lines are rehearsed and learnt in minutes. There are no demarcation lines. Cameramen are pulled round for walk-on parts. As we watched, the props maker was pressed into service as a sheep.

The studios are deep in a Dickensian industrial suburb of Istanbul, both to keep down costs and to provide an instant backdrop for scenes from the heart of modern Turkey, where slick imported cars jostle with death-defying old trucks amid mud and axle- breaking potholes.

Hospitals like slaughter houses, the follies of the ignorant, the nepotism and idiocy of the bureaucracy are all ridiculed. One sketch rings true: a man sets out in his pyjamas to buy a morning loaf of bread and only gets home after 20 Kafkaesque years in prison.

Funnier still were the Turkish policemen sitting around at the station discussing the more esoteric points of Marxist theory. Their superintendent walks in and oafishly orders them to stop, demanding to know 'How many times do I have to order you not to read the books we confiscate?'

One of the bravest sketches this season was about a police festival, imitating folk celebrations staged up and down the country but this time set in the interrogation cells. One inmate is ordered to sing and the rest to dance, hanging upside down in chains with their shoulders rippling as the electric current is switched on and off in time with the beat.

Torture may seem a strange subject of comedy in a country with one of Amnesty International's worst human rights records, but the very appearance of the subject shows a growing consensus that torture should stop. Banned writers have often had their first airing on Kirca's show.

Issues such as Kurdish nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism are still avoided by Kirca, even though many in his group believe religious rabble-rousing is the gravest threat Turkey faces. Kirca wants everybody to get his jokes, still enjoyed equally by all classes and all regions.

'We don't want to be misunderstood,' he said. 'We want Kurds and Turks to live together, we are trying to collect . . . the whole country under one roof.'