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10 November 2003

Mired in the Holyrood bog

To the delight of the doomsayers, the Scottish Parliament building is claiming a new scalp

By Ruaridh Nicoll

In a photograph that almost always accompanies articles about the Glasgow-based television producers Wark Clements, Kirsty Wark leans, hand on chin, her pupils slanted up towards Alan Clements. At first glance, she appears to be the good wife listening to her husband, but the Newsnight presenter could never pull off such an impression. Clements’s hands are thrown apart, palms upwards, and the picture yearns for a speech bubble along the lines of “I didn’t realise it was a strip bar!” or “You were saving that pie?”

If, however, that picture were to come alive and you were to mention The Gathering Place, a 90-minute documentary and four-part television series that Wark Clements is making about the building of the new Scottish Parliament, Wark and Clements would turn to you as one, their visages grim. Because, to their irritation, they have found themselves well and truly sucked into the Holyrood bog at the foot of Edinburgh’s Salisbury Crags.

Theirs is a very small-country problem, fought out over a very large pile of cash. Wark was asked by her friend Donald Dewar to sit on the panel that chose Enric Miralles as the parliament’s architect. At the same time, her company pitched to make the official record of the construction, receiving money from not only the BBC but also several public bodies. As the cost of the building rose, so did the cost of the films. Now an official inquiry into the overspend on the building has opened under Lord Fraser, and they are refusing to hand over their tapes.

All of which has led to a venting of outrage from Scotland’s politicians and commentators. The SNP’s Alex Salmond said that the “position taken by BBC Scotland management smacks of protecting the interests of the Scottish establishment for embarking on the ill-starred Holyrood project, for all the wrong reasons, in the first place”. By “establishment”, Salmond means Wark and Clements, among others. The Scotsman weighed in: “Kirsty Wark, who is making the programme about Holyrood, was one of the judges who selected the architect. It is a potential conflict of interest that gives rise to the suspicion that the BBC is hiding from scrutiny.” Clements has called the attacks a “sustained assault on my family, company and integrity”.

While I think The Gathering Place is a rather duff name for a film, smelling as it does of heather, thesps in kilts and spinning broadswords, there is also a teuchter reek to the criticism. In it lies that sneery glee at kicking a couple (professional marrieds being smug by definition), but also the fun of whacking Wark, the Newsnight interrogator who might have shown no mercy were the situation reversed.

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Yet many of the criticisms don’t stand up. For example, it is impossible to be Scottish and not fatally compromised as to one’s impartiality, in much the same way as our sports teams are fatally compromised by their inability. Everybody knows each other. And it really isn’t Wark Clements’s fault that the cost of the programmes has gone up. The original budget of around £373,000 has risen to £820,000, but then the project is running two and a half years late. Are they supposed to stop filming? Wark Clements’s fee of £60,000 is not unreasonable for five years’ work.

The more thorny issue, however, is this latest one. Lord Fraser’s inquiry is looking into how the parliament’s cost rose from the plucked-from-the-air figure of £40m to its current £400m. Although the tapes from The Gathering Place have interviews with all the main players, the BBC is refusing to let Fraser have even a private view, on the basis that it would compromise sources and therefore future programmes.

The BBC’s response seems weak. This isn’t Deep Throat, these are people on camera, and in two cases – Dewar and Miralles – key voices from beyond the grave. The BBC has 80 interviewees on tape. It would take only a morning to ask each for permission.

It is this quite strange decision – which Clements said he supports and has been consulted on – that has allowed the naysayers to attack his “family, company and integrity”. Many are enemies of the building itself, those anti-ambitionists who are blind to the fact that the structure rising from that bog is a symbol of the spirit that will separate Scots from the huddling self-interest of which they accuse Wark and which so often hobbles the country. It will be – I truly believe this – a piece of architecture equalling Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Sydney Opera House (which both had their construction problems).

God help Wark and Clements if their films aren’t just as good.

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