Andrew Billen - Hidden truth

Television - The dreaded dossier isn't the only thing lacking credibility. By Andrew Billen

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Interviewing the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, very recently, I was surprised to discover that mentioning the forever-linked names Kelly and Hutton did not bring him out in a rash. He told me not only that he planned to watch this dramatisation of the death of the Ministry of Defence weapons expert Dr David Kelly, but that he had seen and approved of Panorama's narrative of the event, compiled by John Ware in January last year.

I can't imagine that Hoon would have thought so highly of this one, and not simply because it made the government look so sleazy. The Government Inspector (9pm, 17 March) lacked almost as much credibility as a Downing Street dossier.

Hoon will certainly have winced at the technical howlers, such as the beautiful British spy handing Kelly an entire set of satellite surveillance pictures in a Baghdad hotel room. Andrew Gilligan has already condemned what he insists is the invention of an incident in which he messed with the notes he took during his conversation with Kelly. For the rest of us, the low point surely came when Hoon was on the phone to the PM, asking whether or not the MoD should release Kelly's name to the press. As Hoon (played by Jay Villiers) looked for a decision, Blair was on speakerphone plucking out a tune on his guitar, asking Hoon what he thought of it. The conversation was terminated when Cherie called him (to do the dishes?).

Such moments, and Jonathan Cake's memorable performance as the manure-mouthed Alastair Campbell, pointed to how Peter Kosminsky's drama might more effectively have gone in the direction of satire. Such an approach was not open, however, simply because the events are still so raw and disputed. Instead, the two-hour film weaved in, out and around the known facts, inserting a few false ones to improve the overall texture. Occasionally, a deus ex machina character called Qassim - a figure created by Kosminsky, as far as I know, for dramatic convenience - materialised to tell Kelly the unlikely truth that Saddam Hussein really had got rid of his weapons of mass destruction.

In The Project, Kosminsky's not very good film about new Labour's back-room boys, such fictionalisation was understandable because all the main players were inventions. Here, it did not seem to me he had such licence. Kosminsky is not Shakespeare having fun with the 100-year-old story of Richard III, but nor (although he once worked on Panorama) is he an investigative reporter in the John Ware mode. So what is his role? Does he dramatise facts or use facts to make drama? Such a criticism can be made of David Hare's recent political re-enactments on the stage, but at least his drama-journalism holds the stage. Kosminsky's work is much more variable, and this was simply not one of his best.

Apart from Cake as Campbell, almost everyone struggled to fill the shoes of the real people they were impersonating (James Larkin was a particularly unconvincing Blair). Playing Gilligan, Daniel Ryan got the stuffing-his-face-with- chocolate bit well enough, but not his loner obsession and ambition. Nor could Mark Rylance bring Kelly alive. He looked wrong - too thin and too young (not his fault) - but also seemed to base his characterisation on the shy, timid figure who appeared before the foreign affairs select committee. At home, he meekly cooked lasagne for his poorly wife and went on soppy walks with his daughter to point out a new foal. Yet a man who could count a Sunday Times journalist a friend must have had another, clubbable, side that we simply did not see.

If the two-hour film failed as a study of character, it did not work as a play of ideas either. Kosminsky's theme was truth and what loyalty people have to it. In ascending order, the spin-doctors had zero loyalty, the politicians not much more, and the civil servants some but not enough. Among journalists, Gilligan was trashed and Newsnight's Susan Watts was exonerated. But the only disinterested pursuer of the truth was, in this account, the Bahai- worshipping weapons in-spector, brought down by rival colonies of fibbers.

Yet though Kelly may have placed an exceptionally high value on truth professionally as a weapons inspector, in that other, nebulous part of his job - the feasting with journalistic panthers part - he was careless. Having been caught being careless, he lied to his bosses and to parliament. Kosminsky suggested reasons for this: that he was angry at the government's spinning, cross with his own department for messing up a visa, unable to take the pressure of a televised hearing and, finally, susceptible to ministerial blackmail that he must keep to his original story or lose his job. But the film withdrew from the obvious conclusion: that he was no hero.

Dr Kelly's suicide was a terrible waste of a life that had still, in both public and private, much to give. Tragedy, however, demands that a hero be brought down not by circumstance but by inherent flaws. Kosminsky's film, ready enough to caricature everyone else's flaws, tiptoed around Kelly's. As a result, even in this semi-fictional recreation, he remained as elusive to viewers as he was to the Commons committee that wretched day in July.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times