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TV UK, 7 August

From the Edinburgh Fringe: Falklands nostalgia, the war on terror, and painting Saddam.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

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This time the flat doesn’t even have a TV. Never mind – it’s become a tradition that I miss the last two episodes of 24 on account of the Edinburgh festival, and at the end of the day (if you’ll excuse the pun) it’s no big deal. As Kim Bauer reminds us, there’s always something else going on.

I spent most of last weekend at the Traverse, where the classier new plays are staged. The Straits, Gregory Burke’s eagerly anticipated follow up to the global hit Gagarin Way, is set in Gibraltar during the Falklands War, where a group of teenagers are coming to terms with life on the fringes of empire, both geographically and historically.

I’ve been debating with the critics whether or not The Straits should be considered a ‘political’ play. In a way it’s inescapable – the parallel drawn between the war against the Argies, and the kids’ own war against the local ‘spics’ is not subtle, but the very fact that the protagonists are kids, with little understanding of politics or history, gives the story a different complexion.

One critic suggested to me that The Straits is a bit like I Love 1982, with the sinking of the Belgrano and the Sheffield as triggers for an odd kind of nostalgia. There’s definitely something in that, and the staging, with the actors pogoing about to ‘God Save the Queen’ adds to it. Imagine a British, more politically cynical Wonder Years.

Speaking of TV (ahem), another big hit at the Traverse, The People Next Door, makes cute references to both Only Fools and Horses and High Road. The latter is in the person of Mrs Mac, the aged Scottish neighbour of the hero. It’s nice to see mince and tatties join samosas and West Indian chicken and rice in the pantheon of ‘multicultural’ dishes.

The hero is Nigel, aka Salif, a mixed-race loser with a smack habit and a disability allowance, who is unwillingly drawn into the ‘war on terror’ by a corrupt detective. This could have meant a long and boring investigation of ‘national identity in multicultural Britain’, except that the writer Henry Adam has cottoned on to what the war on terror really means to most people. Nigel and Salif would both rather watch Only Fools and Horses. Cushtie.

Nine Parts of Desire, by the Iraqi-American playwright Heather Raffo, is about those for whom questions of identity, political and otherwise, are unavoidable. The main protagonist is a female artist in Baghdad, who must paint portraits of Saddam in order to continue with the female nudes that really interest her. How can she stay? How could she leave? If all the artists and intellectuals left, who would inspire the people? There is something appealing about that kind of arrogance.

This representation of Iraqis not as cowering peasants but as real people with bourgeois expectations and recognisable aspirations and pretensions is very refreshing. The doubts and dilemmas experienced by the various characters are neither exotic nor mundane but simply believable. Most of all, the artist’s absolute (if insufficient) refusal to accept a choice between oppression by Saddam and domination by the West rings true.

If Yusuf had survived past the early hours in 24, he might have approved.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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