A TV drama written and directed by Sir David Hare, produced by Sir Nicholas Hytner and starring Ralph Fiennes would be expected to excite any broadcaster. But the award-winning playwright has accused the BBC of rejecting it under the mistaken assumption that the public has no appetite for its subject: the Covid-19 pandemic.
Hare said: “The basic difficulty is that everybody is absolutely convinced that nobody wants to know anything about Covid-19. If you talk to, for instance, people at the BBC, they will just say: ‘Oh, give me drama on any other subject but Covid – people are not interested in Covid.’ There is absolutely no evidence for this.”
He added: “Everyone was very keen on the show at the BBC until it went upstairs. Suddenly, mysteriously, something they were very keen to show, they became less keen to show.
“Anyone who saw Jack Thorne’s film Help, about the care home crisis, will know that actually you can make very timely and urgent work about Covid-19 and people will want to watch it. So it’s just complete nonsense.”
Help, starring Jodie Comer, attracted a consolidated average audience of 3 million viewers, making it Channel 4’s second highest-rating one-off drama. It was also All 4’s biggest-ever drama launch.
Hare’s drama, entitled Beat the Devil, is an autobiographical monologue during which he relives the debilitating effects of the virus, which he contracted on the day the first lockdown was announced in the UK, and his doctor’s fear that he would not survive.
Hare writes of delusions that made him believe he was “several separate identities which all sleep in the bed together side by side” and terrors that included struggling to breathe, constant vomiting and all food tasting of sewage. From his sickbed, he could only despair over the government’s response to the pandemic, listening to ministers as they “stuttered and stumbled” on the airwaves.
Hare said: “It strikes me as so derelict. I just have absolutely no idea what the BBC now thinks it’s doing if it is absolutely determined to avoid anything which is remotely contentious because it simply then isn’t fulfilling its function as a public broadcaster. In drama, it’s now just crime series and police series – and it won’t take on anything like this.”
It was directed by Hytner, a former artistic director of the National Theatre, who is the producer of a screen version Hare has adapted and filmed in his own studio in north London. Hare described himself as “absolutely thrilled” that it will air on Sky Arts – available on Freeview – on 11 November.
Hare’s productions for stage, television and film have won multiple international awards, including an Olivier for Racing Demon, his masterpiece about the Church of England in crisis, and he has earned Oscar nominations for The Hours and The Reader.
The response from those who saw the stage version of Beat the Devil and found it “revelatory” convinced him that audiences would watch a Covid-19 drama.
He described the virus as “a dirty bomb thrown into your system”, where “you don’t know what the effects are going to be”. His drama explores his illness, recovery, survivor’s rage and, ultimately, just being “glad to be alive”.
In the play, he takes aim at the prime minister and cabinet ministers and their systematic failings, including “the lack of personal protective equipment, which has led to mass infections and the deaths of several nurses and doctors” and the “mass slaughter” that resulted from transferring infected patients from hospitals into care homes.
He said of the play: “People complain that this is a cabinet of mediocrities. But this does violence to the word. Mediocrity suggests middling ability. You and I are mediocrities. These people are incompetents. Ministers like… Helen Whately, the hapless [former] minister of state for social care, who comes across like a quiz contestant who’d forgotten the name of the fourth Beatle – such people do not begin to merit the word ‘mediocrity’.”
Hare said: “Boris Johnson has deliberately surrounded himself with second-raters because he wants to shine among them and dominate them completely… I’ve never seen a cabinet like this before. I’ve never seen people who you most certainly would not have running a theatre that you were involved in. You wouldn’t trust them on a film set.”
With Mike Eley as director of photography, the drama was filmed over three days in a former artist’s studio, where Hare has worked for more than 30 years – a tight space packed with furniture and books.
Asked about the surreal feeling of watching “himself” in his own environment, Hare said: “Everyone says that Ralph Fiennes has picked up my mannerisms, but I’m completely blind to my own mannerisms. As well as being a great actor, he’s also the most superbly capable actor – meaning he will just wolf down huge hunks of text and give them back to you perfect on every take.”
The BBC declined to comment.