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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 6 - Byers besieged in a Byzantine conspiracy

I HAVE never been a follower of soap operas. Who shot JR (Ewing) in Dallas has never raised an interrogative connection in my mind’s circuitry. I would not watch East Enders, let alone invite people like the often less than salubrious cast to tea and the saccharinal depiction of Australia’s manners and mores in Neighbours, leaves a yawning gulf between me and it.

I feel no dramatic deprivation. I have seen the curtain-up and descent on real-life dramas that kept me from the chimney corner and the four-ale bar in an ecstasy of interest while newspapers, radio and TV swept the populace in a blizzard of revelatory material. Thus, I have enjoyed the latest London production, A Very Un British Resignation, with a polished cast that included urbane civil servants, enterprising and inaccurate journalists, spin doctors as whirling as dancing Dervishes and an embattled minister, of Teflon non-stick characteristics.

The plot is Machiavellian and Kafka-esque, riddled with Byzantine conspiracy, about as complicated as a labyrinthine intelligence test for rats and features a will-o’ -the-wisp Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions e-mail about not burying bad news along with Princes Margaret, underhand dealings in overdrive, back stabbings, lies, half-truths and a sinister government smear machine continually clanking out high-grade, refined innuendo and hostile briefings.

There are also astonishing revelations about the DTLR, a government satrapy apparently run roughly on the lines of the Greek homicidal tragedies of antiquity, full of fine cadences and, metaphorical corpses, intrigue and illusion, disclosures, general and particular which included a scissor-tongued, tormented and tormenting, crash-helmeted, bike-riding, bad-news-burying dominatrix.

I thought the show’s pace was impressive and the mystery about whether the pallid, Hamlet-like Martin Sixsmith, the former BBC television correspondent and former DTLR communications director, had resigned or merely resigned himself to resigning, was tossed about with the vigorous grace of children playing with a balloon.

For me, the show was marred by an episode, shocking in its intensity and risible in its detachment from the Augustan refinements of civil service life. I refer to the scene in which Sir Richard Mottram, whose fiefdom includes the DTLR, uttered a torrent of comment about the phantom Sixsmith resignation, using the "f" word no less five times - a labial fricative delivery of doom that would have soured the departmental sherry in the crystalline decanter of Yes Minister’s Sir Humphrey.

Flipping heck; we are expected to believe that a grand mandarin, at the height of his intellectual and communicative powers, would descend, through his finely-chiselled, bureaucratic teeth, to the language of a pirate’s parrot.

I have known many civil servants, ranging from those who spent their departmental days compiling statistics about white fish landings at Rockall to others who were big in collating figures about the denaturing of wheat in the Hebrides as well as, by office telephone, researching the latest Test match scores, and to a man, their oral decorum, beyond the occasional discreet sibilance, was impeccable. To be cleanly-impartial in thought, word and deed is part of their triplicatory conduct code.

Still, there were some distinguished dramatic performances, not least of which was that of Stephen Byers in the part of the DTLR minister: a demon king popping up through the pantomime floor to petrify any presumptuous principal boy and squawking, subversive chorus, a Dracula, slipping out of his sarcophagus to frighten the merrymaking peasants of journalists plotting to drive a stake through his ambitions, a ministerial Caligula with a hint of Dr Crippen: cripes, angels and ministers of grace defend us. Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned? He was all these and more.

The role of Sixsmith, whose flaccid performance ranged from the flummoxed to the furtive, could have been developed, but the boy has potential and we shall hear more of him. The great enigma in this robust and riveting production was Jo Moore, former special adviser to Byers and bad news burier, whose own political interment - "not a drum was heard, not a funeral note as her corse to the back door we hurried" - was revealed.

What is to become of her? I have grave reservations about her fade-out. She could return as a rollicking revenant, spiritedly exerting her influence in another new Labour farce. Could there be the ghost of a chance?

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