Interview: David Benson - playwright
WHEN David Benson began writing a play about the Lockerbie bombing, he had no idea the issue was about to erupt once again.
• The release of Megrahi inspired David Benson to try to contact Dr Jim Swire. Picture: Graham Jepson
He started looking into the story, he says, after the furore which greeted the release of Al Megrahi on compassionate grounds. "What no-one could have anticipated was that an oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico would lead to this massive fall out," he says, referring to the recent rows between the governments of the USA, the UK and Scotland.
The latest headlines, though, make Benson's Edinburgh Fringe show, Lockerbie: Unfinished Business, all the more topical. The project sprang from a correspondence with Dr Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora was one of the 270 people who died on Wednesday, 21 December, 1988 when Boeing 747-121 Clipper Maid of the Seas exploded in the skies over the Scottish town.
"I started looking into it again after the release of al-Megrahi and I was seeing what the latest news was when I came across the website of Jim Swire - UK Families of Flight 103," Benson recalls. Benson contacted Swire and immediately got a reply from Peter Biddulph, who has co written a book with Dr Swire called Moving the World.
"He wrote back very quickly saying he saw that I was an experienced actor and writer and was there something I could do with this unpublished manuscript."
The resulting work is a monologue in real-time based on Jim Swire's experiences - from the moment he realised his beloved daughter Flora was on board the flight. "It was one day off her 24th birthday," says Benson. "She was the apple of her father's eye. She had just been accepted to study neurology at Cambridge. He was a family doctor in Bromsgrove. He was an ordinary guy, taking no interest in world politics when he was confronted with the worst thing he could have imagined happening."
Although best known for his comic plays built around impersonations of camp, dead comedians - including Kenneth Williams and Frankie Howerd - Benson has a pedigree in socially engaged and political drama. He was involved in the Grassmarket Project documentary theatre productions in the 1990s and in 1998 created Nothing But Pleasure - a satire about the funeral of Princess Diana.
The reaction to the decision to free Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi reminded him in some ways of the hysteria surrounding Diana's death. "At the end of last year when Megrahi was released there was a huge uproar. People were saying: 'How dare they release the Lockerbie bomber. There is a comparison to the Diana story - there is a parallel with the way people allow themselves to be stirred up without thinking for themselves."
For Benson the question of whether or not Megrahi should have been released on health grounds is something of a side issue. "If you really look into it the evidence that was presented against him in court was laughable," he says. "I think a different set of values come into place - and the issue really is 'Business comes first'."
The Lockerbie bombing is still the UK's biggest ever civil air disaster - 259 people on the plane died - as well as the most devastating act of terrorism on British soil.
Although Libyan secret service man Megrahi was convicted of the bombing in a Scottish court in the Netherlands in 2001, and the Libyan government agreed to pay compensation to the relatives, talk of a cover-up has persisted ever since. Whereas the American reaction has centred around the issue of whether or not Megrahi should have been released on health grounds, many of the British relatives, including Dr Swire, remain unconvinced he should have been found guilty in the first place.
After reading Dr Swire's manuscript Benson arranged to meet him in a hotel in Stratford.
"I was a little nervous. Knowing what he has gone through I did feel a huge respect for him and his daughter Flora - knowing that everything he does is in memory of her. And here was me, an actor best known for doing stories about dead comedians. I spent the first ten minutes telling him about my Kenneth Williams' play."
Lockerbie: Unfinished Business is based around Dr Swire's belief that the real bombers are still at large and that justice has not been done. Unpublished photographs of Flora, and a recording of her singing as a child, have been released for use in the performance.Dr Swire is also planning to attend at least one performance, and will use the opportunity, once again, to talk to the press about the attack. "All Jim Swire wants is that this story continues to be told and questions continue to be asked," says Benson. "In Margaret Thatcher's 1,000 page autobiography there wasn't a single mention of the Lockerbie bombing."
In the play Benson examines evidence which suggests that an Iranian backed group, the PLFLP-GC was really responsible for the bombing - as retribution for the downing of Iran Airbus 655, a flight bound for Mecca on which 290 people died when it was shot down by a US warship. In investigating this evidence, Dr Swire went as far as taking a plane trip to Libya to meet Colonel Gaddafi and even tried to smuggle a replica bomb on board a British Airways flight to prove that it could be done.
"He cannot rest knowing that justice will not be done and the people who did this have not been tried and are still at large," says Benson. "Talking to him it has become the focus of his life - somewhat to the detriment to his family - to whom he has been somewhat lost." In some ways Benson is unsurprised the issue has once again become front-page news. "I think because it is unfinished business there is always the possibility of new developments. It is a good thing in that it is bringing the story to the fore. For campaigners like Jim Swire it is great because it is keeping the issue in the public eye. His greatest fear is that people will forget about it."
Benson hopes Unfinished Business will challenge people to think again about the Lockerbie bombing and the investigation which followed it. But he also hopes it will make people think about the cost to people like Dr Swire. "He is an archetypal campaigner," says Benson, "who sublimates grief into a campaign for truth and justice.
"I want the audience to think - what would I do if one of the most precious people in my life was killed in this way? How far would I take the fight?"
• Lockerbie: Unfinished Business is at the Gilded Balloon Teviot, 4-30 August, as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
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