Elle (UK), September 1992, by Andrew Billen

The Beating
of McCarthy

Following last year's climactic release of Western hostages
in Beirut, a controversial new docu-drama beats
John McCarthy to his own story. Andrew Billen talks to
actor Colin Firth about his role as the captive journalist.


During the long incarceration of the Western hostages in Beirut, we must all have asked ourselves the same questions. Could we have coped? Would we have lasted the course, and if so, what shape would we be in at the end? Would the truths we had learnt about ourselves not have shattered that fragile arrangement of instincts and artifice that our friends and family recognise as our personality?

The loneliness, the sensory deprivation, the physical torture of beatings, the psychological torture of not knowing from day to day whether you were going to be released or executed made the ordeal of hostages a late 20th-century version of hell. Except that the cells they were held in were deep in a city that, strafed by two decades of civil war, was already a paradigm of hell.

When it comes to portraying Hades, these days we do not hang about for a Milton or a Dante. We wait only for television, a remorseless manipulator and interpreter of our dreams, or in this case our nightmares. And we do not have to wait long. This month comes Hostages, a co-production between ITV’s Granada and America’s cable channel HBO. It is that most controversial of genre hybrids, a docu-drama, detailing the captivity of John McCarthy, Brian Keenan, Terry Waite, Tom Sutherland, Terry Anderson and Frank Reed. Although it has been almost two years in the making, it has beaten the hostages’ own accounts into the public domain, and some, like Keenan and McCarthy, are unhappy. McCarthy has said through his literary agent: ‘I am distressed that anyone should be trying to portray my story when I haven’t been able to tell it myself.’

Colin Firth plays the young English television journalist captured by Islamic terrorists and held for 1,943 days until he emerged, seemingly unscarred, last summer. (His girlfriend Jill Morrell will be played by Natasha Richardson.) My meeting with Colin Firth is dominated by the amiable but insistent assertion that John McCarthy is wrong.

‘I think if I was John McCarthy, a professional story-teller, I’d say “hands off” too,’ he says. ‘I’d be amazed if he said anything else, quite frankly. But people have got to be able to tell stories. The professional storytellers of this world, be they journalists, novelists, singers or actors, are always going to tell stories about events which are provocative, inspiring, uncomfortable or capture the imagination in some way—as this certainly does.’

Colin’s point is that since the hostage crisis was not something lived through only by the hostages, its interpretation cannot be left exclusively to them either. ‘It’s not just that you put yourself in their place,’ he says. ‘It had a bizarre way of relating to things in people’s lives. When you dig a bit, people compare experiences of their own to being a hostage: the traps imposed by our own fears of daring, of change, of losing people, our careers or our security.

‘I’m constantly going through my life wondering what my traps are, wondering what I am choosing to do and what I am doing because I have always done it—both in my career and personal life.’

He does not elaborate, but it becomes clear that Colin is almost neurotically anxious not to be trapped, for example, by Hollywood. His private life is not entirely his own. He lives in Hackney, east London, but has a two-year-old son Billy who lives in Vancouver with Colin’s former partner, actress Meg Tilly, whom he visits frequently.

We meet in London four weeks after Colin has completed Hostages. The 1988 BBC drama-documentary Tumbledown, in which he played Robert Lawrence, a career soldier crippled in the Falklands, has just been repeated, but he is well-known anyway as the clean-cut lead of A Month In The Country and Valmont. At 31, he has the sort of good looks designed by nature to fascinate women more than men. Asked earlier if she minds Colin using her office for the interview, a Granada press officer says she would quite happily let him sit on her lap throughout.

Arriving slightly late, dressed in a baggy pink and grey T-shirt and jeans, he does not look like a man who has returned from hell, although some of the physical indignities he underwent during the filming sound hellish enough.

‘The hostages were wrapped up like mummies in grey parcel tape from ankles to nose. They were transported for eight hours like that in coffin-like drawers in a lorry. It nearly killed them. Jean-Paul Kauffmann, the French hostage, was there for more than 10 hours and asked them to kill him,’ he says.

‘It wasn’t until the tape was wrapped above my hands, which were by my side, that I realised how trapped I was beginning to feel, and it wasn’t till it got past my neck and chin that I realised it was going to get even worse. It robs you of your physical sense of yourself...’

He breaks off, aware of how he might be sounding: ‘I know it always sounds terribly precious when an actor talks like this. Someone has been through this for five years and an actor does it for the cameras and says, “Absolutely horrific, I must go into therapy.” But it gave me a clue. And you apply your imagination, so you are not thinking about going off and having a shower back at the hotel. You are thinking: what would I be feeling now if it was for real?’

The magic of acting is to summon before an audience a life that has normally never existed. The voodoo is more not less in conjuring one that still does. Like everyone else, Colin had seen McCarthy on television after his release, ironic, composed, exhilarated, speech slurring from the drugs he had been given. But it was very little on which to base a performance. The John McCarthy he plays is a product of three imaginations: his own, director David Wheatley’s and writer Bernard MacLaverty’s, all based on perceptions of a man they never met.

When Colin played Robert Lawrence in Tumbledown, Lawrence was on set almost all the time. It had not always, he says, been helpful. As it happens he feels slightly closer to McCarthy because he can imagine himself being a journalist while he would almost rather die than be a soldier.

Yet he has less in common with him than you might guess. McCarthy’s public school sangfroid and undergraduate larkishness do not come naturally to Colin, who is alternately defensively jokey and gravely passionate over serious issues (over lunch later we plunge into pacifism, Thatcherism, penal reform and the tabloids). Although he is always playing public school types, he is a secondary modern boy who failed the 11-plus and went to school in, rather than at, Winchester—though programme notes sometimes fudge it. His education was completed at drama school, not university. If he had been thrown into a Lebanese cell, he would have brought with him a different set of psychological and social baggage.

‘Quite frankly,’ he says of McCarthy’s captivity, ‘I don’t think I would have been as brave.’ Nevertheless, in the film John McCarthy, normally composed, breaks down at an early point. Stripped, manacled, hit on the face by fist and rifle butt, he ‘freaks out’. On another occasion he cracks after seeing cockroaches in his cell. The scenes sound distressing to act and distressing to watch and remind me of the only part of Tumbledown that made me uneasy: where Lawrence is in bed with his former girlfriend and loses control of his bowels. In the case of Tumbledown, however, the justification was absolute, for Lawrence himself insisted that the scene should stay.

Portraying McCarthy’s hysteria, Colin says, does not impugn his courage; it is the greatest bravery of all to be shaking and in tears and still be polite and help others and to recover. Nevertheless, we have no way of knowing if McCarthy will mind until after transmission. The best we can say is that Granada believes McCarthy’s collapse did actually happen. Alasdair Palmer, a former World In Action researcher who worked on a previous docu-drama on Lockerbie, spent 18 months researching Hostages before handing over the facts for MacLaverty to do dramatise. He spoke to all the hostages except Terry Anderson and Terry Waite, even briefly to Keenan and McCarthy, and his major sources were Frank Reed and Tom Sutherland. Granada’s press officer Barbara O’Brien, who for some reason chaperons Colin during our discussion, insists every scene is factual although dialogue has been invented.

‘I was very, very concerned when I found out that McCarthy wasn’t endorsing it,’ Colin says. ‘I was very concerned they were making something so soon after the event and if I hadn’t found myself reconciled to it all in the end I wouldn’t have done it. I think the script is honest and the only things that have irritated the shit out of me so far have been the aspersions on the integrity of the people involved.’

Hostages sounds promising. In place of a facile TV-movie message about the indomitable human spirit, Colin promises a focus on the ‘extraordinary nature of human relationships—everything compressed into a little room: the dynamics, the love, the rejections, the irritations. Someone described it as like fives years’ enforced group therapy.’

He confesses, however, he has no real idea of the programme will succeed. He is worried that much of the humour, particularly between the Irish Keenan (‘a voice in the wilderness character’) and McCarthy (‘the most popular boy in the school’) was cut even before it could be shot. In the past he has been unable to predict the reception his work will receive. A Month In The Country, bedeviled by a wet English summer, felt like a disaster and yet it worked. Tumbledown, a film in which he invested everything emotionally, disappointed him.

There is, nevertheless, one judgment on Hostages Colin will not be prepared to accept: that of the real John McCarthy. ‘I couldn’t possibly afford to,’ he says. ‘I know that he’s going to say it wasn’t like that, and it won’t have been like that. But it’s some sort of ghost we are raising, a dream image for our understanding of a shared experience, just like the Falklands. I really don’t see this as pure entertainment. It’s more like a need, a need to scratch an itch.’

Hostages will be shown on ITV at the end of September.

Article courtesy of SusanR

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