30 November 2011

Setting Hampstead Ablaze

Checking a link for a recent post about the Iraq Inquiry, I read again the story in the Observer on 16 October which had predicted the Inquiry’s report being postponed to summer 2012. It also said:
Intriguingly, Chilcot is known over the summer to have attended a performance of Loyalty, a play about the build-up to the Iraq war that was performed at the Hampstead Theatre. Written by journalist and author Sarah Helm, the wife of Tony Blair's chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, the play provided a rare insight into the psychology of those involved.
Some scenes, including a phone call from Rupert Murdoch to Blair on the eve of the war and another suggesting British officials harboured doubts about the sources behind claims that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD, are close to the truth, say Whitehall insiders.
Private Eye magazine reported that Chilcot had demanded to review some of the evidence presented to his inquiry after attending the play.
Loyalty ran from 14 July to 13 August, so some time had elapsed before Private Eye ran its story (see below) in the 14 October issue. The Hampstead Theatre seats about 325 and there were, it seems, 30 performances including matinees, so only about 9750 people at most saw the play. By comparison in September BBC2’s Page Eight (MI5 as envisaged by David Hare) was watched by nearly four million (high for that channel, but ITV’s hit Downton Abbey series was getting about 11 million). I wasn’t one of the 9750, so I decided to buy a copy of the text, published by Oberon Books, and read it.

It doesn’t take long for the main challenge presented by Helm’s play to emerge: not so much one of loyalty as of veracity. On the cover Loyalty is described as “A fictionalised memoir”, and, on page 7, a Note states: “This play is a work of fiction”. The Foreword, written by Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles (who has appeared in this blog before), sets out to clarify this:
Sarah Helm's remarkable play …
… documents real events of great historical importance. Of course, it is a play, it is fiction. Yet it is also a roman à clef in which we all know that Laura is really Sarah Helm, Nick is her partner Jonathan Powell (Tony Blair's Chief of Staff), Tony is Tony, Alastair is Alastair (Campbell), and Jack is Jack (Straw), and so on.
So in one, and perhaps the most important sense, it is an upclose, insider's, account of what it felt like to be living with the daily agonies of deciding to invade Iraq, and then finding out that the original justification for the war - that Saddam Hussein had Weapons of Mass Destruction - did not exist, and had been based on false intelligence.
… Even if the plot is not literally true, the characterisation is authentic - alarmingly so.
and closes with:
The first and last question most people will ask about Loyalty will be 'Is it true?' Only Sarah Helm herself can answer this. But my guess is that Loyalty must be at once true, and not true, and somewhere in-between. Not everything in it can be literally true - it is not a documentary - though many or most of the details are remarkably accurate. Paradoxically, however, it uses fiction to get at some much deeper truths, about the reality of the Iraq war, and about how human beings relate to each other.
One could well imagine some of the assessments of Saddam’s WMD capabilities as having been equally categorical.

As for the play itself, the reviews seem a bit lukewarm on the whole (aggregated at the Omnivore, and ongo.com ). In any case, reading the text is a poor basis for judging how it might have seemed on the stage. The first Act is set in LAURA and NICK’s home (like the text, I will put Characters names in capitals) in early 2003, and reminded me of the domestic scenes in BBC R4’s Clare in the Community, as if scripted by Hare. Most of the second Act is set in 10 Downing Street in September 2004. Although no-one should expect cinematic realism on a stage, after a while that feeling of observing a parallel universe set in, often induced by Hare or Stephen Poliakoff dramas. The anomalies eventually undermine the required suspension of incredulity. For example, the RAF has no decoration called a “DFO” (page 80). The PM’s Outer Office has “a vast TV screen showing Sky News” (page 79) whereas Jonathan Powell, no less, describes it as having several (The New Machiavelli, page 48). In the civil service the job title “Clerk” doesn’t always involve clerical duties (or Secretary, secretarial ones, come to that).

But rather more disconcerting is when, in Act 1 Scene 3, LAURA tells us:
At one point a BBC reporter, called Andrew Gilligan, thought he’d got a scoop on the intelligence but instead he botched it up; and there were tragic consequences (page 46)
PETE, “an unidentified government figure”, announces on page 47/48 that “Andrew Gilligan”’s source, “Kelly”, was “A junior official” and “Too junior to have known anything”. Why this “Andrew Gilligan” and “Kelly” are brought in at all in March 2003 is unclear. Curiously for a roman à clef, there are no clues as to the identity of PETE, but he can’t be ALASTAIR, the Press Secretary.

Later, in Act 2 Scene 8, DAVID (C), the "Head of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6)", says “Look I told the inquiry all this” (page 99), perhaps referring to Lord Hutton’s [Report of the] Inquiry into the Circumstances Surrounding the Death of Dr David Kelly C.M.G. Dr Kelly died in late July 2003. Or was he referring to Lord Butler’s 2004 Review of Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction? In the real world the Chief of SIS gave evidence to both. Then on page 100, C says “It wasn’t me who wrote that dossier”, which the reader has to conclude must be the September Dossier of 2002, never mentioned by the omniscient LAURA (in whose world there seems to be no Joint Intelligence Committee).

Also in Act 1 there was no end of business with “the Brent”, NICK’s special secure phone (“very antiquated in appearance”), forever being unpacked and put away. In fact, it’s Laura’s listening-in on the phone’s second earpiece which makes her so well-informed about affairs of state. But something odd happens in Scene 4 when Nick and Laura listen in to a conversation between PM TONY and RUPERT, “a newspaper proprietor”. On page 50, at the beginning LAURA “sits up next to [NICK] and hears on the ordinary landline. We hear the conversation with TONY is already underway”. At the end, NICK “Puts the phone down. NICK starts putting it back in its box.” So was RUPERT on “the Brent” or not? And if so, where was he, having been “speaking today to Rumsfeld”?

In the end, the MacGuffin is not “the Brent” but an intelligence source with the codename Daisy. Sarah Helm is the author of A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE, published in 2005 (and LAURA, of course, had been working on something similar, page 36). One can’t help thinking that Daisy sounds more like one of SOE's codenames than, say, Curveball.

But is there any point in spending time on these or other minor, or not so minor, details and discrepancies? Well, many of the Hampstead theatre-goers, and most of us who will ever read the play, inevitably find themselves lost in a no man’s land between Cowper-Coles’ “not literally true” and his “many or most of the details [which] are remarkably accurate”. We are hardly helped by him also telling us:
Naturally the details of the play's plot are fiction, and have to be, not least for legal reasons.
so we are left to our own devices in trying to make any sense of it all.

There is an unprecedented amount of official and other documentation in the public domain about the Blair government and Iraq to pore over, even before Sir John Chilcot’s report next year. Not only is Powell’s own book available (and several of LAURA’s narrations align with incidents he describes less dramatically), but Lord Hutton’s Report can easily be downloaded, and similarly Lord Butler’s Review (and, of course, evidence to the Iraq Inquiry). Lastly, Gordon Corera’s well-regarded, The Art of Betrayal: Life and Death in the British Secret Service, might provide rather more insight into what went on than Loyalty, which, come to think of it, is the opposite of Betrayal – shame Pinter got there first.

Alongside this welter of information, Loyalty may be doomed to fail as a roman à clef because it tries hard to get close, but inevitably ends up being tangential. In the end it’s neither documentary nor metaphor. Adam Lang, the subject of Robert Harris’s The Ghost, is Blair-like, but in neither his book nor Polanski’s film are we left in any doubt that we are engaging with a fictional thriller, from which we can draw wider moral lessons about the nature of modern politics if inclined to do so.

If forced to draw conclusions, I would be reluctant to accept that Jonathan Powell habitually breached the rules for custodianship of official secrets like Nick Beeching did. I’m also uncertain as to how much credence to give the Observer and Private Eye stories about the effect on the progress of Chilcot’s inquiry of a play which clearly declares itself to be a work of fiction. On the other hand, Powell in The New Machiavelli mentions “my future brother-in-law, the journalist Toby Helm” (page 68) who may be the same Toby Helm as the Political Editor of the Observer – if so, things become even less clear. To be honest, like I suspect nearly everyone else, I’m in the same position as Alexander Armstrong’s Geordie window cleaner, the one who always concludes his monologues with "but what do I know?":

PRIVATE EYE 14 October 2011 (Issue 1299, page 5)
When Sarah Helm’s play Loyalty opened at the Hampstead Theatre this summer much was made of the fact that she is married to Tony Blair's former chief of staff Jonathan Powell. Since the drama featured Downing Street discussions before the invasion of Iraq, as the Observer noted*, “the question that will be asked in Whitehall is to what extent the play is art mirroring life”.
Sir John Chilcot seems to have asked himself the same question when he saw the play in August. Certain scenes - such as a conversation between Tony Blair and MI6 chief Sir Richard Dearlove - included details that hadn't been mentioned by Dearlove himself when he gave his testimony (in private) to Chilcot's Iraq War inquiry. After his night at the theatre Sir John asked Whitehall to supply him with more secret files, even though Dearlove and co had supposedly already handed everything over in a spirit of full cooperation.
Chilcot has now obtained the new files - and they confirm what Helm revealed in Loyalty. Although the play was billed as fiction for legal reasons, it appears to have been rather: more informative than some of the evidence from the spooks!
*“as the Observer noted” is a reference to an article on 15 May written in advance of the staging of Loyalty.

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