It’s been a while since I worked with Ed Leigh, so I’m excited about the project we’ve been slowly trying to get off the ground. It’s an idea for a TV series, and we’ve been working on a visual treatment over the last month or so. Last week I went up to London to meet one of the people we’re hoping to work with on the project, Craig Murray – below.
Craig’s an interesting man – an ex-career diplomat, he is most famous for being relieved of his duties as ambassador of Uzbekistan following a rather public disagreement with the Foreign Office over human rights abuses the Uzbek regime was (and is) involved in. He wrote a fascinating book about this murky episode, Murder in Samarkand.
I came across this book after myself, Johno Verity, Adam Gendle, James McPhail and Scott NIxon travelled to Uzbekistan in February 2007 on a snowboarding trip for Whitelines magazine. That was a great trip (click here or the image above to read the story I wrote about it for the now sadly defunct Future Snowboarding magazine) but when I read Craig’s book I sorely regretted not reading it before we’d visited the country, as it put our trip in a welcome new perspective.
Craig’s book also set me off on a very enjoyable reading trail, in which I became fascinated by the history of the country and region and tried to find out as much as possible about it. It led me to a particularly interesting character, FM Bailey, who’s book Mission to Tashkent soon planted the seed in my mind that led to the entire concept of The Lost Heroes of Empire – the project myself, Ed, Johno and Gendle are now working on.
I’ll probably explain more about the Lost Heroes thing in another post: suffice to say Craig is now involved in the project and I met him in London to discuss it and find out what he’s been up to since he wrote Murder in Samarkand. As I say, he’s an interesting man – the book has recently been made into a radio play written by David Hare and with David Tennant in the lead role – Craig himself. I asked him what he’s been up to, what attracted him to our project and how it feels to be played by Doctor Who.
What project are you working right now?
At the moment I’m working on a biography of Alexander Burnes, a great explorer who died in the First Afghan War. He was the first European for generations for generations to penetrate into Bokhara which was at the time a famous closed Muslim city – a very famous centre of Muslim civilisation. Burnes was a fascinating character – a young British Army officer who left his native Montrose to become an East India Company cadet at the age of 15. Like so many of these extraordinary builders of Empire, he was an incredible polyglot, he managed to travel through Central Asia disguised as an Armenian horse trader. He spoke different native languages. And he made friends with Ranjit Singh, the great, much feared ruler of the Punjab. He made friends with Dost Mohammed with the Amir of Afghanistan, he made friends with the Shah of Persia. He had this great facility for getting on with people. He was an absolutely fascinating character and is now completely forgotten. He tried to prevent the First Afghan War, he was strongly against the idea of deposing the first Dost Mohammed to install a puppet ruler on the Afghan throne. But when his policy advice was rejected, he went along with it and sadly was killed in the disaster that ensued.
When will the book by out then? How far along are you with it?
Well, it’s overdue at the minute. It should have delivered to the publisher six months ago. I’m hoping it’ll be out within a year.
What did you think of the radio play of your book David Hare and David Tennant produced?
I thought the radio play was great. I really enjoyed it no end. I had to detach myself though. I had to think that David Tennant wasn’t playing me, he was playing a character based upon me, if you see what I mean. I did think it was a tremendous piece of drama, and it worked really well. Certainly the reviews it got were great, and it seemed to make quite an impact as a radio play, although obviously it didn’t have that big an audience.
Did you meet him, or advise him on the best way of playing ‘you’?
Sadly I didn’t get to meet him. He wanted to meet up, but I was in Africa at the key period. I did send him some advice via email, but the extent to which he took it or not, I don’t know. I thought he did a super job. And it was a part that calls for an enormous emotional range. From, if you like, stirring public speeches, to intense diplomatic negotiation and socialising in strip clubs. And then intense nervous collapse. That’s a lot to portray, so I thought he did a fantastic job.
Were you disappointed that the original plan didn’t come off, to film the book?
The film has been a nightmare. Originally Michael Winterbottom acquired the film rights. At the time we had a choice of about seven or eight serious offers for the film rights, and I chose Michael Winterbottom because I liked him when I met him. he then sold the rights on to Paramount on the condition he was retained as director. Paramount brought in David Hare to do the script, because they were looking to put in a big budget, and they wanted to have a film script they could be confident to carry the budget. It was a big project, and they paid David Hare to write the script. A great deal of money actually, a lot more than I got for the film rights, but unfortunately, David Hare was Paramount’s choice, not Michael Winterbottom’s. So they said to Michael ‘Yes you can direct, but you are going to be working with David Hare’. And un, Michael and David just didn’t get on. They didn’t see eye to eye at all. They have different personalities, they had different ideas on what the film should be. And it just all went wrong. I mean, David wrote the script, Michael didn’t;t like it. They couldn’t agree on the extent of changes, the kind of changes Michael wanted David wasn’t prepared to make.
And then in the middle of all this, Michael did another project with Paramount with the same production team, which was A Mighty Heart starring Angelina Jolie. And that was her and Brad Pitt’s call, they wanted to do that. I should say that Brad Pitt was down to be Executive Producer on Murder in Samarkand. It was very much the same team that then went on to do A Mighty Heart. Which was a flop, commercially. I mean, it was a worthy – tragic storyline, very well acted and all the rest of it. But why would you want to go and see it? You know how it ends, there’s little action of dramatic development, and frankly it seemed to me a strange choice for a fairly large budget film.
But when that flopped, Paramount lost faith in the Murder in Samarkand project using the same team. So they shelved it. David Hare managed to salvage the script he had written, and turned it into a radio play. And this was a fairly light-hearted adaptation of the same film script.
So there is a possibility of Paramount releasing the film again now?
I wouldn’t work with Paramount again, I didn’t like them. But they no longer have the film rights. They still have the rights to David Hare’s scripts, but yes, there’s nothing to stop the film being made with a different script. And in fact we’ve been in very deep discussions with Julian Temple. Steve Coogan was slotted in to play the lead role – to play me, in effect – and he remained very keen to do it. In the last couple of weeks he’s been meeting with Julian Temple and with Don Macpherson the script writer. They’ve been discussing the film and how it would work, and they seem a very good team. So it looks like we’re about to set off again back on the road again. We’ll be back in a period searching for finance. The frustrating thing is that the Winterbottom thing did have finance with Paramount, but the problems with the script screwed it up. So we’re having to start again.
Do you miss your old career?
I do at times. I miss being close to the centres of power, being able to make a difference. I deliberately chose to work in obscure parts of the world, partly because I enjoyed it. I liked living at the edge, in that sense, but also because if you work on Ghana, Uzbekistan – you can very much dictate policy. Or suggest policy that is going to be adopted, because nobody else is really working on it, so you get left to your own devices. I liked the autonomy of it. So being able to make a real difference, I do miss that. I don;t miss being a civil servant, I was always very uncomfortable with the structures of that. And I;d be lying if I said I didn’t miss some of the things that come with the role. I miss having servants. For twenty years I’d never done the washing up or hoovered the carpet. Not having a chauffeured car any more, all that hurts. I don;t suppose it will kill me though.
So any highlights of your recent travelling career?
I’ve been spending a great deal of time in West Africa – Ghana, Nigeria, Togo, and some time in Russia as well. My favourite memory of recent travelling career was going to look at a cemetery in Ekaterinburg in Russia. Id been drinking vodka quite heavily with a Russian friend, and he said you must come and see this fascinating cemetery. I was struggling to understand why, what with the vodka and because my Russian is rusty – I haven’t spoken it in years. So I asked him why, to look at the old monuments? And he said I had to go and look at the new monuments. It really was astonishing – there’s a cemetery that is patronized by the Russian mafia, the wealthiest oligarchs. And they have these incredible monuments – often they have these shiny granite ones in which they laser etch photographs of themselves into the monument. I saw one in which they inset all of his jewelry in there – his rings, his diamonds, even his gold teeth. And they have 24 hour guards, because there must be twenty or thirty thousand quid’s worth of jewelry in the headstone. There’s another one where there’s a statue of a man holding his Mercedes Benz car keys which are in the stature. And to be wandering round this bizarre cemetery while drunk was absolutely fascinating. Ekaterinburg is the ones where they really, really went to town.
As a writer, who are your creative inspirations?
It sounds very presumptuous, but I try to model myself on Graham Greene. I think stylistically, he’s really a great writer. And in many ways, the things Iw rite about inhabit a similar wold. What you might call the sleazy side of international relations, and the more obscure outposts of foreign governments. These were areas in which he was particularly interested in exploring, and in which he had a certain professional interest himself. If I have a model, I suppose it’s Graham Greene. I’ve never really had the confidence to go into fiction. I would like to – I have plenty of stories from my own life that I think give fascinating insights and that I think could be developed by fiction into something broader and more interesting. Episodes that started but weren’t;t finished, but could be by the fictional imagination. But I feel confident with none-fiction, because I feel that you’re not judged as harshly. You’re judged very harshly on the quality of your fiction. I may pick up the courage to do it later.
So what interested you in the Lost Heroes idea we’re talking about?
Well, I’be always been fascinated in these people. All of the peopler mentioned in the project – Mungo Park, FM Bailey, Fred Burnaby, I’ve read their books, years and years ago, and read books about them. I think it is genuinely a great shame that these people are forgotten. They were tremendous personalities, and there are many others such as Richard Burton and Alexander Burnes. These people showed levels of courage which are almost impossible to understand. The sheer physical courage it took to go into the unexplored, and move among people who feared British imperial expansion. If you think about it, they spent their time moving among the margins of Empire, looking at place we may push in next. And they people they met understood that, and had every reason to have them killed off. And there are plenty more heroes who never quite got to become a hero because they were killed of so early. Their courage, their resourcefulness, their extraordinary talents as well also impress me. Fred Burnaby spoke seven languages, Richard Burton spoke 32 languages. And yet nowadays, we are the least polyglot nation in the world. The extraordinary courage, intellectual accomplishments also impress me. They could all write a good book as well. It was just that they were capable of travelling through minus 40 on a horse, cutting their way through jungle, negotiating with a prince, fighting their way in hand to hand combat, killing other people. They could all do all of that – but they could also write best selling books as well. The range of accomplishments of these guys is just astonishing.