The BBC is hardly short of enemies – and it may be about to make another. A new Radio 4 satirical drama is set to raise eyebrows in the art world by light-heartedly suggesting the millionaire collector Charles Saatchi was a potential suspect for a blaze which destroyed £40m of Britart.
The May 2004 fire which swept through the Momart arts storage depot in East London destroyed around 100 works which were part of Saatchi’s collection.
Significant pieces lost in the fire included Tracey Emin’s Don’t Leave Me, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-95 tent, and Jake and Dinos Chapman’s Hell, which the advertising guru commissioned for a retrospective at his gallery.
Police believe the fire was started after a burglary at a neighbouring industrial estate. No one was ever prosecuted for the suspected arson attack, and there has never been any suggestion that Saatchi was involved.
After years of legal wrangling Momart, which ran the warehouse, paid out tens of millions of pounds in damages to leading artists, collectors and insurance companies.
A satirical Radio 4 drama, Burn Baby Burn, broadcast this week, follows the insurance investigation into the blaze and mischievously asks which of the leading figures associated with the Young British Artists movement might have had something to gain from the conflagration.
In the play, written by Sean Grundy, a pair of investigators from AXA insurance, question Saatchi at the site of the incinerated warehouse. “He’s the one waiting for the big cheque. His finances might be worth looking into,” says one of the investigators.
Saatchi says the fire is terrible. “You need to find the bastards.” When asked if he has a lot to gain financially, he replies: “That depends on the man from the Pru.” Voiced by Carl Prekopp, Saatchi urges: “Don’t go cheap on me, man from the Pru.”
When asked to account for his actions the night of the fire, Saatchi is affronted to be considered a suspect.
He says he was: “Helping [ex-wife] Nigella with her latest cookery show. Roast duck with raspberry glaze. I burnt it.” “Do you burn a lot of things, Mr Saatchi?” Jacqui, one of the investigators, inquires.
The collector insists he loves art and is not “in it for the money”.
He diverts the insurance team to Tracey Emin, who he says has “previous” after once setting fire to her own work. Emin, played by impressionist Ronni Ancona, says: “I could never burn my work again,” and suggests they look at the Chapman Brothers, who have an affinity with fire in their some of their work.
Damien Hirst is also approached as a potential suspect in the play which is narrated by Jon Culshaw as Brian Sewell, the late art critic who despised most of the work produced by Britart’s leading lights.
Grundy said BBC lawyers had taken a close interest in his narrative. “It’s in the satirical genre, there’s less chance of being sued. I kept it mostly comic because you can direct more punches with satire. The play is written in the deconstructionist spirit of the YBAs.” Grundy added: “Charles Saatchi made a good suspect for the fire. Some people hate Saatchi but he did love the art.”
The play, liberally sprinkled with swear words, might cause a stir among Radio 4’s afternoon audience. “It should cause some offence. It’s difficult to tell the YBA story without swearing. It’s in all their interviews. We had to pull back a bit for the afternoon slot but we got away with it,” the playwright said.
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