Rat in the Skull

Rat in the Skull ★★★

Whatever happened to Colum Convey?

The Northern Irish actor had a variety of memorable roles in the '80s and '90s, from Kenneth Branagh's mate in the Billy plays and the witless Alex in the Northern Irish sitcom Foreign Bodies to the brainiac Ceefax in Roughnecks, he was a familiar presence on our screens before disappearing in the last decade or so. Recreating a role he originated on stage, Rat in the Skull sees him star as a captured IRA men bearing the brunt of an oppressively physical and mental interrogation in a London police station. It was a performance that lodged in the mind of Jimmy McGovern, for whom Convey was first choice to play the role of Fitz in his acclaimed drama series Cracker.

Made by ITV in 1987, this is a deeply corrosive recreation of Ron Hutchinson's play for the Royal Court. Essentially told in flashback, the play opens with Convey's Roche being physically assaulted by visiting RUC man Nelson, played by Brian Cox. The vicious beating he doles out means not only that the case brought against Roche will collapse but also spells the end of Nelson's career, and it's left to Met detective Philip Jackson to piece together just what happened in the interview, with the help of Gary Oldman's young constable.

Hutchinson's play is populated by sardonic characters who spit razor blade dialogue against the backdrop of razor wire diplomacy - a suitably tense and claustrophobic, pessimistic experience. The flat, cynical estuary deliveries of Jackson and Oldman provide a neat contrast to the passionate polemics of Cox and Convey as, almost in microcosm, the British characters try to comprehend the Irish situation before them. Many have rightfully mourned the death of the TV play, but the demise of theatrical adaptations - once an intermittent but no less welcome fixture in our schedules - has been a slow and somewhat overlooked one. It's a great shame, as not every household can afford a theatre ticket nor indeed consider themselves theatre people. Works like this helped bridge a gap.

This is available to watch - complete with vintage 1987 ad breaks - on YouTube.

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