Dr David Kelly, dressed in a perfectly pressed tropical suit, neat white Panama hat on his head, is meeting a potentially helpful member of the Iraqi Special Security Organisation on a weapons inspection in Saddam’s Baghdad. “I suppose I should be used to being lied to by now but I’m not,” he froths. “I, will return to this Godforsaken country and if necessary tear down the Special Security Organisation , brick by brick!”
It was at this point, a long hour into Peter Kosminsky’s David Kelly docu-drama, that I finally knew the game was up; finally realised how little even so good an actor as Mark Rylance could do when confronted with a script that required him to speak lines like that. In the face of such precision-guided clunkers, Mr Rylance was an infantry soldier without body armour.
Those of us who knew David Kelly, however superficially, know that he – very seldom wore perfectly-pressed tropical suits, and certainly not in Iraq, where the work was hot, the conditions dusty and the work deeply unglamorous. Even in anger, he never believed Iraq to be a Godforsaken country.
Like so many of us who had known intense experiences there, in a funny way he loved it, and was fascinated by it, and would talk for ages about it, even to relative strangers, like me, who shared his feelings about the place.
Above all, the most elementary study of David’s character suggests that he was not a man for theatrical outbursts, especially not on a vital mission and towards a vital source. Perhaps it was written in for the American market; but David was not a Hollywood figure.
The tragedy of this production is not, as it supposes, in the well-known story it charts of David’s wretched and unnecessary death; but in its failure to bring him back to life. Here was a matchless opportunity to present to the country the first flesh-and-blood portrait of the man I and many others knew with a œ3 million budget, purportedly exhaustive research, some very fine actors, and time and distance – more than a year after the dust, and the scores, had settled.
Instead, the sounds of axes grinding gently in the background remain, and we get a principal character perhaps best described as David Telly, the traditional heroic but fairly one-dimensional political symbol already familiar to viewers.
RYLANCE superbly captures David’s qualities of watchfulness and silence, his incommunicability But there was another side to the David Kelly I knew, a man who was eager to share his knowledge and loved talking about his work, the man some of his friends have described.
David’s work was the obsession of his life, and I’m not sure this came across clearly enough in the film, where he was often seen sitting on sofas or sipping drinks at tables.
In fact, he almost never stopped working; and it was the possibility of being prevented from working that perhaps helped drive him over the precipice.
Even though I, like almost everybody apart from David, am cast as a bad guy in this film, I can sympathise, a little, with Peter Kosminsky’s predicament. Here you are, given a great deal of the advertisers’ money to create a piece of event television, but the events you must describe are already known to everyone in the country, a kind of political fable that has come to underpin part of our understanding of who we are, arid what our government is.
Universally known, too, are many of the characters? Alastair Campbell a foul-mouthed bully, Tony Blair disconnected from reality (and surprisingly little seen in this film). Politics is one of those pieces where people do sometimes become their own caricatures.
So, a little like, say, the authors of a government dossier, you, the director, desperately need to come up with something sexy, something new.
My own preferred option might have been to try to address some of the questions about David, the one person in this we still know too little about. Why did he feel the only way out was to kill himself? What had gone so badly wrong? What were his relationships with those around him? David’s rich personality comes across very little in this film. No real attempt is made to give proper characters to any of the rest of us who appear, either, beyond the usual (in my case) Coke-and-crisps clichés. Only Jonathan Cake’s Campbell, memorably bollocking some hopeless subordinate, stands out.
Kosminsky fought shy of this, perhaps out of respect for David’s family. Despite the director’s attempts to claim the film as a “tribute” to their father and husband, they refused to co-operate and never wanted it made. But if looking into David was impossible, Kosminsky could perhaps instead have examined wider human questions – tried, for instance, to say something interesting about how people
behave under pressure, given some sort of idea hat it felt like to be in that position.
He could have done that; or he could have done what he in fact did do in an attempt to get something new, which was to concoct a false allegation that I tampered with the notes in my persona] organiser,
I tried to point out, as patiently as possible, to the Kosminsky Inquiry that one of the two things they accuse me of making up has in fact been confirmed as true by the Foreign Secretary; that both of the things I am alleged to have fabricated had also been said by David Kelly to the BBC’s Susan Watts at the same time as he was saying them to me; and that a look by their computer expert through the few documents available on the Hutton website was no substitute for the weeks that the inquiry computer experts spent looking through the actual data on my actual organiser, finding nothing whatever amiss.
I was angry at first about this outrageous claim; but very few people seem to have taken it seriously, and at Kosminsky obviously saw as his publicity Exocet has turned out to be a bit more of a. pop-gun.
Having now seen the film, I’ve come to understand that the part about me is only one of many things it gets wrong: the personality of Dr Kelly, the tactics of weapons inspections (MI6 spies do not hand over their satellite intelligence over cups of tea in Baghdad hotel rooms), the sequence of events, and even many of the most important quotes.
To give it its due, the film does try to provide some explanation of David’s suicide. A former Iraqi weapons scientist called Qassim turns up in London just after the war to tell David there never were any WMD, thus (argues the film) contributing to his despair and death. There is only one problem with this: it is completely fictional and David never knew or met anyone, of the sort. Indeed, the idea that even MI6 would allow a senior Iraqi WMD scientist to wander freely round London within weeks of the end of the war is, to put it kindly, absurd.
It’s not the first time Kosminsky’s research can be accused of being less than adequate. A few years ago, his “true story” docu-drama about an abused child, No Child of Mine, was described by the Association of Directors of Social Services as a work of “fiction”.
The director of social services where “Kerry”, the child depicted in the programme, had lived and been in care, said that as an adult Kerry had admitted repeatedly fabricating claims that she was abused as a child and had “a proven track record as a liar”. The Department of Health also issued a statement saying that there was “no evidence” that the programme’s claims were true.
Kosminsky claimed to have “exhaustively corroborated” Kerry’s allegations, but admitted that ,this exhaustive corroboration had not, in fact, included any approach to the local authority or police
His latest production’s claim to our attention is its assertion to be true; indeed, Kosminsky has described it as “pedantically factual”. What it actually shows is just how tricky and dangerous a TV genre is drama documentary, where fiction mints fact – and fact taints fiction too. The Government Inspector ends up falling between two stools: neither adequate journalism, nor adequate drama. The Government Inspector will be shown on Channel 4 on 17 March.
Courtesy of Robert Henderson and Rowena Thursby