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Legion Hall Bombing, The (1978)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Legion Hall Bombing, The (1978)
For Play for Today, BBC, tx. 22/8/1978
90 minutes, colour
DirectorRoland Joffé
ProducerMargaret Matheson
Transcript edited byCaryl Churchill

Cast: David Kelly (judge); Robert Kavanagh (first accused); Ewen White (prosecuting counsel); Niall Toibín (defence counsel); James Duggan (third witness/bomb expert); Jim Norton (detective sergeant)

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At a trial in Belfast in 1976, two men are convicted of a bombing purely on the basis of contested verbal confessions.

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The Legion Hall Bombing made detailed use of court transcripts to document a trial of suspected terrorists in Northern Ireland. However, this factual basis did not prevent the BBC from making cuts to the play, to such an extent that writer Caryl Churchill and director Roland Joffé removed their credits in protest.

A voice-over introduction established that the trial depicted, with no jury and an acceptance of confessions obtained during intense interrogation, was typical of terrorist trials following the 1972 Diplock Commission. Parts of this introduction had been cut by BBC executives, who claimed to have removed Churchill's editorialising personal opinion to leave a stronger, purely factual, account. The executives also removed a voice-over conclusion, arguing that it had been intended to lead into a discussion programme which had not subsequently been made.

Although these changes prevented the play from heightening flaws in the trial or in the post-Diplock judicial system, these ideas remained implicit in the matter-of-fact depiction of prosecutions which were gained in spite of witness statements, questionable police procedure and a lack of evidence other than alleged verbal confessions. Therefore, the play's refusal to embellish upon its transcripts with dramatic or stylistic flourishes worked in its favour, despite a mixed response from newspaper critics, some of whom were bored by its unwillingness to name protagonists or signpost dramatic tension. Recording entirely on video in the studio, Roland Joffé respected the innate power of the documented evidence and subtly built atmosphere through visual claustrophobia and measured performances, including that of Jim Norton as a Detective Sergeant, who prefigures Norton's obstructive RUC officer in Hidden Agenda (1990), Ken Loach's film on Britain's alleged shoot-to-kill policy in Northern Ireland.

Like Loach's film and many other television plays and films, The Legion Hall Bombing fell victim to a prevailing nervousness over representations of terrorism and the 'Troubles' in Northern Ireland. In a review in The Listener, David Wheeler compared The Legion Hall Bombing with his own research into transcripts of the Widgery inquiry into Bloody Sunday for a BBC project which was not ultimately made. With this in mind, and the increasing censorship around BBC drama on other controversial issues - including the recent bans for Brimstone and Treacle and Scum - The Legion Hall Bombing seemed fortunate to survive. However, this climate ensured that the play was edited and transmitted in a much later timeslot than was usual for Play for Today.

Dave Rolinson

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Video Clips
1. Eyewitness (2:55)
2. Police evidence (2:02)
3. The accused (2:31)
4. Verdict and sentencing (3:05)
Joffé, Roland (1945-)
Drama Documentary
Legal Drama