David Benson's Unfinished Business
Telling the other side of the Lockerbie tragedy
This article is from 2010.
Award-winning performer David Benson talks to Steve Cramer about a powerful new piece of theatre that explores the Lockerbie tragedy from the point of view of a grieving parent
Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic froth at the mouth about the alleged involvement of BP in the UK government’s prisoner transfer agreement with Libya. Meanwhile, the US and UK media conduct a carrion feast on the relative longevity of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al-Megrahi, the only man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing and released on compassionate grounds by Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill in August 2009, having been diagnosed with terminal cancer. With such a furore going on it’s not unreasonable to wonder whether the facts surrounding this man’s conviction are being obfuscated.
Writer, actor and Fringe veteran David Benson is determined to unearth the truth amidst all the synthetic anger. ‘I think people who feel outrage about this either haven’t looked properly at the facts, or just enjoy feeling outrage,’ he says. ‘They’re still talking about Megrahi as “The Lockerbie Bomber”, and I wish they’d acknowledge the huge doubt about whether he actually did it. I just wish that could be factored in to the conversation. We should at least be aware of it.’
More contentiously, he adds: ‘I think there’s a gap between press and government on the one hand, and the people on the other. While they [the media and government] maintain the fiction, a lot of people on the ground don’t believe it. When I hear people saying, “Oh, I thought he had cancer, but he’s still alive”, I think “Sod off, let him live as long as he can in the bosom of his family.” He should never have been in prison in the first place. My feeling is the whole compassionate release thing was because they knew he hadn’t done it, so they just wanted it off their hands.’
The case Benson is putting in his Fringe show, Lockerbie: Unfinished Business is derived from an unpublished book by Peter Biddulph, Moving The World, which recounts the events of the Lockerbie bombing from the point of view of Dr Jim Swire, father of Flora Swire, one of the 270 people who died when Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over the Scottish Borders. Benson has created a theatrical monologue in which Dr Swire’s point of view – which accords with several families of British victims of the tragedy – is aired. Benson takes the role of Dr Swire and makes a presentation of the facts of the case, as well as exploring Swire’s share of grief in the catastrophe.
Theatrically, the piece represents a challenge for Benson. ‘I’ve got to distil not only all of these facts into a one hour show, but also this man’s life from 21 December 1988 to the present day. I’m not going to try to imitate or impersonate Jim Swire, I’m just going to represent him as a character – I’m interested in telling the story very clearly and with as much accuracy as possible. It’s a highly emotional story, but he has to repress emotions in order to put his case across. As an actor, that’s the challenge: to create a character dealing with massive emotions but not showing them. There has to be a lot of factual stuff, but it’s also going to be examining what it’s like to be getting ready for Christmas, making Christmas calendars in the kitchen, and hearing your wife call from the living room: “There’s a plane gone down, come and look”, and realising your daughter’s on the plane, she’s dead. I want everyone in the room to think, “What would I do?”’
Some commentators have dismissed Swire as a man driven mad with grief, yet Benson’s adaptation undermines this notion by clearly and accurately tracing Swire’s journey from trust in the prosecution’s case through scepticism to disbelief as the Lockerbie trial unfolded.
‘Jim Swire went into each day of the trial. He went into it thinking we’d got the right guys,’ says Benson. ‘The Lord Advocate Peter Fraser said they had solid evidence, a watertight case. But all the evidence was that they had a witness who actually saw them make the bomb, put it in a suitcase and take it to Malta Airport. It turned out that the guy was a CIA informant, who was threatened with being cut off by the CIA and hung out to dry. His whole family was under threat. During the trial, documents were produced from unredacted records and it was clear the guy was presenting evidence to save his own skin. He was repudiated as a witness. The judges, having more or less dismissed his evidence, then used it in the summing up, even though it was shown to be totally unreliable. It was a grotesque parody of justice, a disgrace to the Scottish legal system.’
Benson goes on to discuss other aspects of the case such as the dubious forensic evidence, and the peculiar switch of focus of the Lockerbie investigation from Iran to Libya, at a time when Iran’s cooperation was required as part of the ‘coalition of the willing’ in the first of our two recent wars against Iraq.
Whatever you may think about Dr Swire’s account of the bombing, it certainly seems convenient that well-founded suspicions against Iran should have been dropped in favour of the [at the time] more recalcitrant Libyan government. The Iranian’s one-off payment of $11 million to the terrorist group Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command two days after the Lockerbie bombing is difficult to account for in the established theory of Libyan guilt. It’s also difficult not to suspect the Iranian desire for revenge against the US after the shooting down – at the cost of 290 lives – of a civilian Iranian airliner by the USS Vincennes, particularly given that no one stood trial for that tragedy.
‘It’s ironic really, because these days they [the United States] would love to go into Iran with all guns blazing,’ says Benson. ‘One way to seek redress for grief is revenge. Both the Americans and the Iranians sought this violent way of doing things, but Jim Swire has sought simple justice.’
Benson’s admiration for the courage and stoicism of Dr Swire is clear. It might, along with some rather disquieting reflections on our governments and Scotland’s justice system, emerge as the best reason to see this important piece of theatre.
Lockerbie: Unfinished Business, Gilded Balloon Teviot, 622 6552, 7–30 Aug (not 18), 2.30pm, £9–£10 (£8–£9). Previews until 6 Aug, £5.
‘It was a grotesque parody of justice’