[This is the headline over an article published on this date in 2010 in the online Edinburgh Festival magazine Fest. It reads as follows:]
When David Benson set about translating the story of Dr Jim Swire, the father of one of the Lockerbie victims, to the Edinburgh stage, he could not have predicted the whirlwind of renewed controversy. He talks to Joe Pike about an unexpectedly relevant piece of personal and political theatre
Flora Swire boarded a Boeing 747-100 named Clipper Maid of the Seas at London Heathrow. On 21 December 1988—the day before her 24th birthday—she was travelling to New York to spend Christmas with her American boyfriend Hart Lidov. Earlier that year she had graduated in medicine with a first-class degree and top of her class.
There was no touch-down at JFK. At 7.03pm, 30,000 feet above the Scottish town of Lockerbie, a bomb exploded on board ripping through the aircraft's fuselage. PanAm Flight 103 gradually disintegrated over two horrific minutes before impact on Sherwood Crescent creating a large crater and destroying homes. There were 270 fatalities.
Since the disaster, Flora's father Dr Jim Swire has fought to bring those responsible for the Lockerbie bombings to justice. Now he's now the focus of a play by writer and actor David Benson. When we meet in an office on a hot day in London's West End, Benson is nervous: “I'm feeling of course all that sense of anticipation, and fear that one feels when you have a new show that you're launching in that intense market place...Edinburgh is, for four weeks on earth, the most judgmental place you could be”.
Recent events have not helped to reduce the pressure. David Cameron's recent visit to Washington, along with the investigations of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations into last year's release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the man convicted of the bombings, have put Lockerbie back at the top of the news agenda. This renewed relevance won't hurt ticket sales, but the show wasn't planned to capitalise upon it. Applications for Fringe shows are finalised in May, months before the recent developments. Since then, Benson has received calls from newspapers across the world, yet his main concern remains learning his lines.
Lockerbie seems at first a curious choice of topic for a writer and actor whose most successful performances have explored the camp, comic and completely un-political lives of entertainers Kenneth Williams, Noel Coward and Frankie Howerd. When I suggest that his current show marks a departure from more frivolous entertainment, Benson seems offended citing that the focus of much his work is complex personalities: “I like to do something that challenges me and the audience."
Ironically, when deciding the subject of Benson's next production, his producer James Seabright was convinced he should create a solo show based on the war-time sitcom Dad's Army. That never happened because at the end of the 2009 Fringe when Benson was finishing his run of a show on Dr Samuel Johnson, he started investigating Pan Am Flight 103.
“I was doing some research online on the subject of Lockerbie, idly browsing news stories, and I came across the website of Dr Jim Swire. I saw he had written a book—as yet unpublished—giving his account of what had happened, written with a co-researcher, Peter Biddulph.”
“They had a note saying to leave your email address if you'd like to know when the book is published. So I sent them an email and had a message back very quickly from Biddulph saying 'I see that you're an actor and you write one-man shows. Perhaps you'd be interested in having a look at this unpublished text and seeing if there's anything you can do with it'.”
Even though the topic was not on his agenda, Benson replied. “I would love to read it anyway so he sent me a copy of it and I was absolutely transfixed.” Fascinated by Dr Swire's traumatic journey, his campaign of enormous courage, and his anger and grief at the loss of his daughter, Benson spent months reading up on the subject and secured a rare 90-minute meeting with Swire. “He answered every question I had. Thoroughly as he always does. And I felt able to go away and write a script that would tell his story and tell things that maybe he can't tell.”
Swire is an enigmatic figure. When I tried to contact him to for an interview, the intermediary said: “I haven't heard back from him. He does rather go to ground from time to time.” His dogged efforts to bring the suspects to trial led to him visit the Libyan leader Colonel Gadaffi three times. In an interview with The Herald in 2007 he said: "You might not think there was any common ground between a GP from the Midlands and an army colonel turned dictator based in an Arab country. But there was.” Swire continues: "He had lost his adopted daughter Hannah when she was just 15 months old, when the US bombed Tripoli in 1986. I took a book of pictures of Flora, making sure there was one of her at just that age."
When I ask Benson, now 48, if constructing his play has been emotional, he reveals it has generated anger above all else. He blames governments for “doing everything they could do block the Lockerbie relatives' path to justice. They had many reasons for not wanting the true story coming out and they very cynically produced a cover story that these Libyans were supposed to have done it. That is a horrendous, sickening insult to the grief of the people who are still seeking justice.”
Yet behind Benson's anger is deep sympathy for his subject, something he is not accustomed to finding in his work: “When I look at Dr Swire's story and realising how much he's lost, understanding the depth of his grief that I sometimes find it quite overwhelming in even speaking the lines I've written myself.
“He goes from being very formal and in control, giving out this information fact by fact about what happened, and then once in a while having to admit that his beautiful lovely daughter who he adored is dead, died in a horrible way and that he will never see her again. I think it's impossible not to be touched by that, and also to realise one has an awesome responsibility in telling that story to get it right. Because you're dealing with some of the deepest human emotions.”
[RB: David Benson is again performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year but in a very different play, Boris: World King, of which I have written “If there's a better Edinburgh Fringe performance than David Benson's in Boris: World King, I'll be amazed. This is a fantastic show -- screamingly funny, but also serious and sad. See it.” Details here.]