TV UK, 18 March

The Government Inspector: a sentimental morality play.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

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In an age of CGI and other hi-tech special effects, it remains a mystery to me why nobody can produce a convincing fake beard. Somehow the line against the face always gives it away. Or perhaps the eyes reveal somehow that the wearer is unused to a beard. Whatever. So it is with Mark Rylance as Dr David Kelly in The Government Inspector (Channel 4, tonight).

Peter Kosminsky’s dramatisation of the events leading up to the biological weapons expert’s death is itself something of a dirty bomb, designed to cause a stink in the run up to the general election. Kelly was named as the source of the BBC’s claims that the government had ‘sexed up’ intelligence reports into Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, in order to justify the war, and many commentators have suggested that the government was in some way responsible for his subsequent suicide.

No doubt Labour’s spin-doctors will squirm, but really the drama is an indictment of politics as a whole rather than a party political intervention. Kelly is portrayed as a noble and honourable man caught up in the sordid world of politics and the media. BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan comes off nearly as badly as Tony Blair’s bruiser of a press secretary Alastair Campbell, while various minor characters also have a hand in Kelly’s demise, and the result is reminiscent of the Passion story, with an army of Pontius Pilates staining the much-featured Thames with their grubby mits. I almost expected the legend at the end to read, ‘His blood be on us and on our children’.

If The Government Inspector were pure myth-making, a straightforward modern morality play, it wouldn’t be so bad, but the drama deals very closely with recent events that still have a bearing on political life. It is the film’s political and even documentary pretensions that mean the dodgy beard matters. The story is actually quite complicated, involving disputed facts about who said what to whom at various times and places. As the story unfolds, and especially as the various characters seek to justify their actions, there is often a temptation to rewind and check what really happened. But of course, the drama doesn’t tell us what really happened, only what Kosminsky imagines based on the available what evidence.

Sometimes this is playful, as when Tony Blair is shown riffing on his guitar during a phone call with Alastair Campbell, but various real-life ‘characters’ have already disputed Kosminsky’s account. His take on the controversial ‘sexed up’ claim seems to be that Gilligan was a bit sleepy when he made the report and paraphrased because he couldn’t find his notes. This is probably not a bad guess as it happens, but Kosminsky plays it for tragedy rather than pointing to the absurdity of the phrase taking on such political significance. For all that he has made his own drama of the story, he has done so entirely in the terms established by the media circus.

If Shakespeare’s history plays transformed mere events into something greater, politically motivated docudrama tends to get bogged down in the minutiae of events as they are already understood, and The Government Inspector is an extreme example of this. It neither establishes an authoritative account of what actually happened, nor gets to a greater truth about the nature of politics or the human condition. Instead Kosminsky has fashioned current political prejudices into a sentimental morality play that never shakes off the smell of artificial beard adhesive.

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