Revealed: The Inspiration for Kenneth Branagh's Iconic Portrayal of an Iraq War Colonel in a Major New TV Drama
Daily Mail, 9 March 2008
**Thanks Jude, Terry
The director said they were planning on asking Paris Hilton to play me. I said I'd prefer Cate Blanchett, but he didn't think she did cameo roles. So in the forthcoming BBC drama "Ten Days To War", I'm played by Kate Washington. Heard of her? Me neither. But I don't care.
She has a swishy ponytail, first-class shorthand and gets to look knowingly at the camera. Above all, she stakes my small place in history. In 2003, as a reporter for The Mail on Sunday, I joined Colonel Tim Collins as he led our troops to war in Iraq. Kenneth Branagh plays Colonel Tim giving his historic eve-of-battle speech; Washington plays me writing it all down.
Last year the BBC approached me about the project. They said they were planning to broadcast a series of mini-dramas to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Creator and producer Harshad Mistry intended to weave together different storylines culminating in the invasion. It would not attempt to explain why we went to war, but simply tell us how it happened.
The eight films, played out in Whitehall, the UN, the House of Commons and the desert, will be shown on consecutive nights on BBC2. As well as Branagh, they star household names such as Juliet Stevenson, Tom Conti and Harriet Walter.
Colonel Tim's is the final one. Written by Irish novelist Ronan Bennett, it was shot on location in Jordan with a motley crew of extras standing in for the 1,000-strong Royal Irish battlegroup.
The finished film makes compelling viewing - although my ego has a couple of small quibbles. First, the ponytail. I didn't wear one. If Saddam had unleashed weapons of mass destruction I'd have had nine seconds to get my gas mask on: I wouldn't have spent eight letting my hair down.
And in the film I'm smartly dressed and wearing a white shirt. I was in desert-encrusted khakis by then and never left my tent without morphine shots hanging around my neck and a respirator on my waist. Scared? Me? You bet.
On the small screen I also look relaxed taking notes of Tim's oratory, whereas in reality I was panic-stricken. Both my pens had stopped working - a dust storm had clogged up the ballpoints - so I had to rummage in the pocket of an Army photographer for a retractable pencil.
Clicking down through the leads, I wondered what would come to an end first, one of the greatest speeches in history or my ability to record it.
Commentators on the speech drew favourable comparisons with the Agincourt address given by Shakespeare's Henry V.
So it was no surprise to learn that Kenneth Branagh, the greatest Shakespearean actor of our generation, was to play Tim, the commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, the Royal Irish Regiment.
I was with my young son when Branagh called. Rather than have the theatrical legend in stereo with Bob The Builder, I blushingly asked him to ring back. "I'll do that very thing," he said in a lovely luvvie-ish way.
When he did he was apologetic. He was sure, he said, that I'd been asked all these questions many times before but he wanted an insight into Tim's character. He hoped to portray him as a man of contradictions: both masculine and sensitive, energetic but thoughtful, an SAS veteran and dealer in death (his words) who had risen to command his regiment with all the responsibilities that entailed. I said this was a fair assessment.
He told me he'd been surprised by Tim when they'd met. "He made me laugh," said Branagh. "He's a naturally funny man. I was conscious that it was a faintly weird experience for him, meeting a director and actor who was representing himself, but it helped me get a sense of him."
Mostly, though, Branagh wanted to know about the speech. What was the tone and force of Tim's delivery? Was he over-sentimental or matter-of-fact? Was there a sense of theatre? And was I aware of the importance of Tim's words or too wrapped up in the requirement to write them down?
Then we had to work on the voice. Was Tim trying to lift his voice? "No," I said, "he is naturally always at full volume."
He sampled a few varieties of Irish accent on me. Did Tim sound like that? "Er, no." How did he sound, then? "Rhythmic, lyrical, like someone who had the right to make you behave, maybe your dad," I ventured lamely, when what I ought to have said was: "Like Ian Paisley on nuclear form in a Belfast pulpit."
Branagh wanted to get to the essence of Tim's leadership and to know what his men thought of him. I said they were loyal and respectful but also quite familiar - Tim's leadership was so unquestioned that he did not need the buttons and badges of his rank to command it.
Branagh displays this perfectly in a scene where an aggrieved soldier bursts into Tim's tent. He's swearing at his commanding officer for busting a Ranger who has declared himself too scared to go to war. The soldier demands Tim rescind his decision and spare the refusenik and his family from humiliation. Tim lets the insubordination pass, knowing that the furious Ranger will ensure his friend voluntarily rejoins the battlegroup in a way a CO never could.
Would Tim have handled that incident in that way, asked Branagh. Yes, I said. He was not above manipulation to get what he wanted and while he was sentimental about his family, he was clinical when it came to fighting and perhaps dying.
On screen, Branagh is a good Tim. He uses the now iconic props of Ray-Bans and Simon Bolivar cigar to brilliant effect. However, his rendering of Tim's speech is delivered in a lower key than the original. It's more reflective, the poetry does not soar as it did in the desert and it's a lot less bossy. But then, if he had been as theatrical as Tim he would have been nailed for overacting.
He does, however, portray many of Tim's character traits well: his volcanic temper, his spluttering hatred of bureaucracy and health and safety, his sense of purpose and, above all, his sense of comedy.
Branagh is blackly funny: when he arrives at Division Headquarters to be given the order to invade, he shouts to a bemused bunch of senior officers: "You're all saved, the Paddys are here."
Later, he examines the bottom of his mug and says to Regimental Sergeant Major Doug Beattie: "My tea leaves are telling me we're going on a long journey in a foreign land." To which the RSM replies drily: "That wasn't funny when you said it as we were heading for Sierra Leone, sir."
Almost five years later, the words of Colonel Tim's speech are still resonant. I think I know why. His historic and humanitarian idealism stood in bold contrast to months of political chicanery in Downing Street and Washington. Those tentatively supporting the war suddenly had their poster boy, while those against it were reminded that the men and women charged with fighting Saddam's forces were not responsible for the geopolitics that had put them there.
But I also think the words have endured because there is no videotape or audio soundtrack of the speech. I was embedded with a television journalist but, because the speech was given without fanfare, his cameraman was absent.
So the speech was only recorded the old-fashioned way, in shorthand. My dusty notebook from March 19, 2003, bears the sole trace of an unscripted address that became a global phenomenon.
Since returning from Iraq I've been contacted countless times by enraged television researchers telling me they can't find a tape of the speech. They are incredulous when I reply there isn't one.
Except now, thanks to the BBC and Branagh, there finally is.