Reconciliation and reality: beyond the reach of TV drama?

“Do movies about the Troubles help?” was Kirsty Wark’s surprisingly basic question on Newsnight Review last Friday. That question prompts a more important one: does the often maligned “reconciliation industry ” help? Both questions were raised in the BBC’s “Five Minutes of Heaven” shown on BBC2 last night but premiered as a movie in Belfast weeks ago. My answer to the first question is, probably not much. Earnest protestations of true story telling tend to surrender to the thriller romp aspect, as I suspect (though I haven’t seen it yet) in “Fifty Dead Men Walking.” Northern Ireland is case-hardened to media depiction. In many of our darkly cinematic communities, learning to play the media game became almost as fundamental a part of life as working out a modus vivendi with the paramilitaries. The place became a gigantic Truman Show, like that movie about the nightmare of the ultimate reality television programme which covered every detail of the life of a boy growing up in the ideal island suburb, where all the nice people are film extras and the horizon is the cyclorama of a film set.

Five Minutes of Heaven is about the staging of a TV encounter between Alistair, a convicted UVF killer, now an international peace messenger ( Liam Neeson) and Joe, the brother of his innocent Catholic victim (James Nesbitt), who as a child witnessed his brother’s murder 30 years previously and had the blame for it transferred to him by the frantically grieving mother. Joe is the sole survivor of his destroyed generation, though he now has two daughters of his own. In the present, his bitterness is aggravated, for he remains an egg box maker while the Neeson character struts his stuff on the world stage.

As the Times critic points out, Five Minutes of Heaven tilts at the documentary maker’s version of “truth. ” It recalls for instance, Michael Stone’s encounter three years ago with one of the victims of his Milltown massacre, chaired lugubriously by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In today’s more febrile and uneasy atmosphere I doubt if it would be attempted.

In this film, we are thankfully spared the simplistic taking of sides. Indeed these days, ambivalence is all. Yet Five Minutes of Heaven also falls between two stools on the reconciliation question. Alistair, despite his world role, is a hollow man while Joe is consumed with revenge underneath the familiar Nesbitt Jack the lad veneer. We are let in on the secret that his “five minutes of heaven” are his plan to murder Alistair on camera ( or does he really mean it?). Revenge is messily aborted and the film ends sentimentally and unsatisfactorily with – guess what? – a reconciliation therapy scene.

On question one, I doubt if drama speaks as much of the truth that is often claimed for it. So often, its conventions are obstacles, are as human documentary’s. Five Minutes of Heaven uses slightly out of character soliloquies to wrestle with the issues, but in the end defers more to the need to build up tension. As each day passes, the Troubles legacy appears more complex and ambivalent. It will take a remarkable dramatist to catch up with it – and a notably intellectually brave TV commissioner actually to get such a breakthrough drama made and aired.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London