Article from the 5 March 2000 Independent on Sunday
Submitted by Birthe
Cash for TV Drama
The High Court battle between Neil Hamilton and Mohamed Al Fayed a sizzling romp brimming with sleaze, ambition, passion and intrigue could have been made for television. Now it has been. Hester Lacey watched it happen.
The tussle between disgraced Tory MP Neil Hamilton, supported by his formidable wife Christine, and Mohamed Al Fayed, the owner of Harrods, made headlines on all of the 26 days of the trial last December. The allegations were serious, but at the same time there were many farcical moments, tears, tantrums and tirades, all of which helped to keep the nation enthralled. Among the highlights were Mrs Hamilton stoutly denying that she had ever eaten a Harrods sausage; Mohamed Al Fayed calling Neil Hamilton a homosexual and a prostitute (before the judge shut him up); and Hamilton claiming he could have received cash by the Harrods van-load had he been corrupt.
Hamilton had launched his claim for damages for libel after a Channel 4 Dispatches programme in January 1997, in which Al Fayed claimed Hamilton had asked parliamentary questions on his behalf, in exchange for cash, gift vouchers, and the notorious free holiday at the Ritz in Paris, where in six days the Hamiltons ran up an extras bill of more than £3,000 at today's prices, including copious amounts of champagne.
Al Fayed, defended by George Carman QC, won the case; Hamilton's libel action was rejected and the presiding judge, Mr Justice Morland, ordered Hamilton to pay Al Fayed's estimated £500,000 legal bill in addition to his own costs. A triumphant Al Fayed emerged smiling, ordering "hampers and champers all round"; the Hamiltons faced financial ruin.
All the juicy allegations, counter-accusations, insults, defiance, rage and upset were recorded on 7,500 pages of court transcripts "a mountain of paper", says producer Richard Fell, who had to wade through it all to prepare the dramatisation. The script was composed entirely of word-for-word extracts from the transcripts, but in order to avoid any legal problems, Fell had to be careful to produce an unbiased piece of work.
"We worked in very close collaboration with the BBC legal department to make sure we stayed within the boundaries of the law," he says. It was a mammoth task, and Fell began immediately after the trial. "I was locked away with the transcripts over Christmas and the Millennium Eve. But it wasn't tedious at all; in fact, it was a riveting read." The resulting script condenses the trial into 90 minutes.
Speed was of the essence. "It was important to get it to the audience while there is still a large amount of public interest," says Fell. It took less than three days to transform the council chamber at Chiswick town hall into a facsimile of courtroom 13, blocking off windows, adding a false floor, erecting fake panels, hanging velvet curtains, installing lightweight, easily movable replicas of the actual furniture, plus legal files tied with tape, bottles of ink and pens and paper.
Filming was completed in a breakneck six days that began at 8am and finished at 7pm a gruelling schedule for the actors, who include Charles Dance as Neil Hamilton, Belinda Lang as Christine, Nadim Sawalha as Al Fayed, Kenneth Cranham as George Carman QC and Robert Hardy as Mr Justice Morland.
Day three of filming found the cast working on the opening sequence, on the deliberately claustrophobic set. The small Chiswick council chamber, says Fell, is comparable in size to the real courtroom, and the Hamiltons and Al Fayed had to sit within inches of one another, just as the actors did during filming. Lang bore no resemblance to her well-known character Bill from BBC1's 2Point4 Children. With blond, backcombed, sculpted bob firmly in place, she wore a defiantly bright red suit and serape. A grave Dance, his ginger hair greyed, blotted his makeup between takes. Sawalha swept in with appropriate expansiveness, flirting with the staff in the court, stainless-steel flask in hand. There were 11 takes before the welcome cry, "That is a wrap. Thank you very much," echoed around the room.
"Mrs Hamilton" and "Al Fayed" in particular have an uncanny physical resemblance to their real-life counterparts. "We weren't going for 100 per cent mimicry or a lookee-likee thing," says Fell. "But it helps the audience if there is some resemblance." (And the actors too; understandably. Lang says that when she put on her wig the part really began to come alive for her.)
Sawalha, familiar from his role as Dr Hamada in Dangerfield, is delighted with his role. "I had always seen Mohamed Fayed as a person of great interest...as a marauder, an interloper, an intellectual invader. It is wonderful to be as broad, big and open as that. When he came here [to England], he refused to abandon his Egyptian personality."
Sawalha's wife, he says, advised him that he couldn't do better than think of his own relatives to get under the skin of the part. "When I knew I was going to play him, I felt a great release of energy," he says. "Someone like me has developed a veneer. I wish I could explode like that volcanic anger that comes out of him. I'm delighted to do it for the camera."
After filming, it took Lang half an hour to wash away Christine's face and hair, helped by the makeup team. "We're not trying to do impersonations, but Christine Hamilton can't be divorced from her hairstyle and clothes," she says. "My face shape isn't a million miles from hers, which helped."
She has become something of a fan of the feisty Mrs Hamilton. "Her strengths are a pleasure for an actress; she didn't go in like a wilting lily. I think she has a pretty good sense of humour and I certainly don't think she's a fool. When it was all going on, we all had such fun going round saying 'Aren't they awful!' but I don't feel the same now.
"Whether they did it or they didn't, and I don't know and I'm none the wiser, they were brave, they didn't take anything lying down."
Tory ladies in the classic Hamilton mould, says Lang, are a breed apart. "People think anyone like that is a disaster, which is the legacy of Mrs Thatcher, but in fact most of them aren't in politics and they do a lot of good, they are the kind that form committees and get things done."
She believes that Justice in Wonderland will contain plenty of fresh material. "There is a lot that you didn't get from the newspaper coverage. For example, I didn't know that Edwina Currie was called in, though she never actually appeared in court. She was here the other day, playing herself. And she had been prepared to speak for Fayed, not for the Hamiltons! I gather she really disapproved of the whole cash-for-questions thing."
As for Fell, has he developed a sneaking affection for the characters he has lived with for so long? "I don't have any feelings for or against Neil Hamilton. My sense of Mrs Hamilton is that she's devoted to her husband. They're an impressive couple. She doesn't come across as a battle-axe from the transcripts, she seems to be simply telling it as she sees it. We haven't set out to sensationalise, we have tried to produce a fair, accurate and balanced account. After all, we have as much responsibility to Neil and Christine Hamilton and Mohamed Al Fayed as we do to our audience."
He has never met the Hamiltons or Al Fayed and they did not contribute to the programme. In fact, they have been reticent when asked about it, though Mr Hamilton confessed recently that he had never heard of Charles Dance and added rather pointedly that he felt that "taking part in the real soap opera of life has made it unnecessary to watch fictional versions".
Despite this, it's a fair bet that the Hamiltons and Al Fayed will be glued to their televisions: how could they resist? And what will they think of what they see? Lang and Sawalha agree that it's an odd experience playing a real, living person who will probably be watching their performance.
"You can't think too much about that, or you'd never be able to do the part, you'd be too self-conscious," says Sawalha. "I think they will be amused," he says, "though at other moments they will probably be thinking, 'That's not fair', or thinking we've done them a disservice."
Lang is equally cautious. "The Hamiltons might not like it, though I don't think they'll feel betrayed, because the script is so very accurate. But it will be good publicity, and they don't seem too averse to publicity."
© 2000 Hester Lacey for The Independent on Sunday
Photo © Joss Barratt