Mrs T and sympathy

Television - Andrew Billen on the BBC play that took 15 years to reach our screens

My mother, one of millions of intelligent Tory voters who saw their side lose the culture wars even as it was winning the battle of economic theory, used to complain that there were never any right-wing plays on television. She did not question the abilities of writers such as Colin Welland and directors such as Ken Loach, only their politics. I used to tell her that pro-establishment plays, siding with authority against the individual, were inherently undramatic. She'd say this was not what she was talking about.

As a teacher, she just knew there was a play to be written about, say, an academic working-class boy ignored and reviled in a rowdy mixed-ability class presided over by trendy-lefty teachers. I wish she had lived to see Ian Curteis's The Falklands Play (10 April, 9pm, BBC4), which has taken 15 years to be broadcast. To summarise: in 1982, soon after the Falkland Islands were recaptured for Britain, Curteis was encouraged by the then director general of the BBC, Alasdair Milne, to write a play showing how, at cabinet level, Britain got itself into a military conflict with Argentina. Milne was considered by Thatcherites to be a dangerous pinko. Nevertheless, in his memoirs, he wrote that he admired Curteis's previous play Suez 1956, which was pro-Eden, and knew he was likely to get something similar from him about the Falklands. Yet the play's production was first delayed - allegedly because of the imminent 1987 election - and then cancelled.

Its burying harmed everyone. Curteis lost work because people assumed he had fouled up. The BBC's reputation for political balance was further tarnished. Another nail was tapped into the coffin of Milne's career. Who was in the right? In a documentary accompanying the play's broadcast, Peter Goodchild, the BBC's head of plays at the time, said he thought the script needed reworking to "orchestrate the changes of mood sufficiently" - the mood in question being Mrs Thatcher's, from belligerence to tearfulness. Curteis, in the Daily Mail on 6 April, maintained that he had wanted much more rewriting, the removal of all scenes showing Thatcher in a sympathetic light and the insertion of dialogue suggesting she weighed electoral considerations before making military decisions. The middle position is occupied by Milne, who liked the play but saw creative differences as normal, even healthy, in his boisterous BBC. There was "not a word of truth" in Curteis's belief that there was "a monstrous left-wing plot afoot to dish a pro-Thatcher play".

Last year, three DGs on, Greg Dyke finally sanctioned a serious version of the play, on film, with high production values and a terrific cast led by Patricia Hodge - who (physically, at least) made an utterly believable Mrs T. Finally, we got a chance to see if, on its merits, The Falklands Play deserved to be made.

Its title came out of a black screen representing the darkness of 15 years. Then we were back in 1980, with Nicholas Ridley aboard a plane returning from Argentina. Ridley knew decisive action was needed on the Falklands issue. It wasn't taken. In this telling, the villains of the piece were the Foreign Office (with the exception of Lord Carrington), Carrington's successor as foreign secretary, Francis Pym, and the drunken Argie negotiators. The goofy Americans - led by a lazily befuddled Reagan - provided what humour there was. A comic sub-plot starred an exhausted post- coronary-operation Al Haig, whose peace plans were ignored by the Argentinians and patronised by the British diplomats Anthony Parsons and Nicholas Henderson. These two, along with Carrington, Michael Havers and Willie Whitelaw, represent the best of Britain's ruling class: wise, honourable, twinkly, willing to fall upon their own swords, and witty. I have never seen patrician Tories portrayed so sympathetically on TV. Thatcher, meanwhile, is shown as determined, single-minded and hard to get through to. Henderson (Jeremy Clyde) says to Parsons (Robert Hardy): "She is quite the most wonderful and quite the most impossible human being I have ever come across." More interestingly, she is also vulnerable and wracked by guilt over the sinking of the Belgrano. At one point, she bursts into tears.

This is not the way we usually think of her. It may not be the way she was. By 1982, the heartless monomania may have already set in. But did Curteis's portrait make sense psychologically and dramatically? Yes, it did. The Falklands Play is no masterpiece - its humour (such as Reagan never remembering the name of the islands) is heavy-handed, its main characters are hard to identify, and there is hardly any domestic political context - but it makes you believe, for its duration, that this was roughly how things were. Also, as Milne conceded, it was a "thumping good yarn". As the affair of Peter Sissons's tie has proved, the Daily Mail is a petty and obtuse critic of the BBC, but in this case it, Curteis and my mother were each right. It was simply not possible in 1987 for the BBC to transmit a play that suggested Tory politicians behaved honourably. The Falklands Play's politics, not its quality, kept it off the air.

What might once have been a respectable, if not uncontroversial, contribution by the BBC to the understanding of a closing chapter in our imperial history, can now be seen only as an exhibit in the gallery of samizdat art.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard