You couldn’t make it up. A small country with ideas above its station and an awful lot of debt decides it’s a major player on the world stage and invites public investment in a scheme to found a colony in Central America that will make it a major global power. The people buy into the scheme in a big way, and the foolhardy optimism that in part defines that little nation gets caught up in a swell of pride. The other thing that defines that country, alas, sees events run away with themselves as defeat is duly snatched from the jaws of victory. Even in 1698, it seems, Scotland couldn’t quite get over itself, and a few years later sold both its independence and its soul when it signed the Treaty of Union with England in 1707.
The grand folly of financial adventurer William Paterson might not get much of a mention in the history books these days, but any fool can recognise it as the source of the juiciest of materials for drama. As indeed we should see when former Spitting Image writer and ex speech-writer for Gordon Brown Alistair Beaton’s new play, Caledonia, opens this weekend in a co-production between Edinburgh International Festival and the National Theatre of Scotland directed by Anthony Neilson.
Given the subject of the play, Caledonia is already shaping up to be the most contentious home-grown drama for some time. Beaton’s background as a satirist has seen his TV films A Very Social Secretary and The Trial of Tony Blair chart the follies of New Labour via the downfalls of David Blunkett and the former Prime Minister respectively. Combined with Neilson’s reputation as a breaker of taboos, Caledonia is potentially skating on very thin ice in terms of how a play funded by the Scottish Government is dealt with by some of the country’s more parochial historians.
“I don’t care,” is Beaton’s cheerfully blunt response to such naysayers. “It’s my duty to be true to the spirit of the story, and you can’t make a drama without taking some liberties. In that respect this is no different from, say, telling the story of David Blunkett. You stick to the essential facts and you try and respect them so you’re not perverting the truth, but you have to harness them for your own use.
“I don’t doubt that somebody will come along and say ‘that ship didn’t leave on the 11th of may but on the 12th of May’ or something like that. But I wouldn’t be at all be surprised if the keepers of the flame of Scottish history, if I could be so rude, will take offence at some point, because I have to make out of all that the dramas I want to make out of it, and that won’t please everyone.”
As a writer, Beaton is someone who has consistently been attracted to the great political tragedies and farces, and hasn’t been shy of putting the noses of authority out of joint after starting an alternative to the school magazine while a pupil at Hillhead High school in Glasgow. A persistently scurrilous world view continued as one of the founders of BBC sketch show, Not The Nine O’Clock news through to Spitting Image and a recent version of Gogol’s satire on local government corruption, The Government Inspector.
“I’ve always been interested in politics,” Beaton says, “and at one point I even thought that I might become a politician, but if I had I’d have probably been caught up in some terrible scandal or something and have had to resign. I don’t think I’d have been very good at it. But I think the heart of what I do comes from a sense of outrage. I think we all get older going through our lives becoming more and more acclimatised to horrible things, and I think one of the purposes of a good piece of political satire is to say no, this is not alright. What you thought about this when you were fifteen, that was right. It takes you back to a raw simplistic childhood vision.
“A lot of the stories that really interest me are stories of nice, cultured respectable people, who are very nice to their families and to their friends, but who arrange terrible things, like Blair and the Iraq war, or like these merchants sitting in the comfort of the coffee houses of Edinburgh ordering up their fine clarets from France, sending out ships which no-one has sorted out the supplies for properly.
“So what interests me personally about politics is that sense that being increasingly involved in the process erodes the purpose of why people went into the public service to start with. And I don’t belong to the school that, especially with the expenses scandal, thinks that politicians are in it for themselves. I think the majority, in our culture and in America anyway, actually go in with some kind of vision. I don’t believe for a moment that Brown thought the war in Iraq was okay, but he was more bothered about whether a quick victory might cost him the Chancellorship, and that Blair would fire him, than he was about the deaths of thousands of innocent people. The fact that I worked on Brown’s speeches when he was in opposition, and the fact that he was a thoroughly decent man who ended up where he did, is part of what fascinates me about politics.”
Beaton didn’t originate Brown’s speeches, but was tasked to brighten up what one suspects were unfortunately moribund tomes. Neither was Beaton paid for his efforts, unless you count a regular bottle of House of Commons whisky as ample reimbursement. Beaton’s tenure with Brown stopped after a disagreement, and the whisky deliveries dried up shortly afterwards.
Despite the ridiculousness of the situation in Caledonia, Beaton insists he won’t be taking a Spitting Image approach to history.
“What interests me,” he says, “is this mass delusion that a whole nation can be swept into euphoria, whether it’s going off to fight a war in 1914 or let’s go off and be a great country, start a colony and control trade between east and west. The idea that a whole nation can be deluded fascinates me.”
Caledonia, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, August 21-22, 24-25, 7.30pm. August 22, 25, 26, 2.30pm.
Sunday Herald, August 21st 2010