Sunday, November 2, 2014

1971 - The Days Of The Last Ditch


Though normally very reticent about cinematic depictions of the Ulster Troubles, I found the recent 71 to be a superb recreation of the times as well as being a very well-paced thriller in its own right. Released last month, it is written by Gregory Burke who was mentioned some posts ago in light of his earlier Black Watch play performed by the National Theatre of Scotland across the UK.

There were a handful of historical inaccuracies such a "pig"-style Royal Ulster Constabulary vehicle which never existed and reference to an Ulster army regiment that was defunct by the year that the drama was set. I would perhaps also question the scale of bricked-up and abandoned buildings that would have been in existence at such an early stage of the conflict though the threatening chill of the silent Seventies Belfast night was captured to perfection. Likewise for the muddied morality of political violence and the labyrinthine security stratagems surrounding the Troubles. 

October also saw the end of the re-run of the late Stewart Parker's acclaimed Pentecost at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast - arguably one of the greatest works in Irish theatre and set forty years ago exactly during the Ulster Workers Council strike of 1974. It focuses on the interplay of five lost souls - four metaphorical and one literal - in the last remaining house in a terraced street long given up to urban decay, interface violence and population flight. Incidentally Parker's collection of rock album reviews for The Irish Times between 1970 and 1976 as compiled as High Pop are certainly worth investigation as well.

I have also recently finally got around to reading The Last Ditch - an entertaining 1982 thriller written by former Ulster Unionist politician Roy Bradford. It looks at the political fallout surrounding the Westminster withdrawal of security powers from a Northern Ireland government with some barely disguised portraits of Vanguard leader William Craig, the Reverend Ian Paisley and the last Northern Ireland Prime Minister Brian Faulkner. Bradford was a Stormont MP himself in an East Belfast constituency, served as Minister of Commerce and Minister of Development  and also was a member of the 1973 Northern Ireland Assembly - he was a member of the power-sharing Executive itself in charge of the Department of the Environment. A graduate of Trinity College Dublin he worked in Army Intelligence in France and Germany during the Second World War. At one point he co-owned a Covent Garden restaurant in London with film director John Schlesinger and co-wrote a biography of SAS legend Blair Mayne with the writer Martin Dillon. He died in 1998 some months after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. 

The most famous literary portrayal of the Troubles still remains Gerald Seymour's Harry's Game which was published in 1975 and made into a highly successful ITV television drama in the early Eighties starring Ray Lonnen who died during the summer. This story was about an undercover British army officer sent into Belfast to find information on a leading IRA gunman. Of the vast sweep of other fiction on the conflict four particularly stand out in my opinion - Maurice Leitch's Whitbread Prize winning Silver's City from 1981 about a veteran loyalist paramilitary commander sprung from imprisonment, Brian Moore's 1990 Lies of Silence about an IRA assassination attempt on leading Protestant militants, Eoin McNamee's 1994 Resurrection Man which was based on the Shankill Butcher killings of the mid-Seventies and Glenn Patterson's incredibly moving The International from 1999 on the daily life of a central Belfast hotel soon to be touched personally by the mounting waves of civil disorder and terrorist violence. 

All reflections of desperate times, grotesque political miscalculation, undiluted hatred, wasted years and a wrong war.

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