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[casi] For your attention

Bert Gedin spotted this on the Guardian Unlimited site and thought you should see it.

Note from Bert Gedin:

Eureka-I've found it!

To see this story with its related links on the Guardian Unlimited site, go to

Ollie: Another fine mess you've gotten me into, Saddam
£1,000 a day lured British actors into Iraq's desert war. Oliver Reed kept the party going, 
reports  Jason BurkeIraq: special report
Saturday February 26 2000
The Guardian

Saddam Hussein lured stars of British stage and screen to Iraq to make an epic propaganda film. But 
events took a farcical turn even before they landed in decrepit Baghdad.

Oliver Reed, John Barron (C.J. in  The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin ) and a number of other top 
British actors accepted roles in the film,  The Great Question, at a time when London still viewed 
the Iraqi dictator as a 'good guy'. The film told the story of a revolt by the Iraqis against 
British colonial rule in 1920.

Unlimited funds were provided by the Directorate of Cinema and National Theatre and Saddam's agents 
were   sent out to hire the best available cast and crew. They approached Edward Fox and 
representatives of Vanessa Redgrave. Both turned them down.

However, many others accepted - not least because the Iraqis were offering £1,000 for a week's 
filming. The actors and technicians were flown to Baghdad to start filming, which took place in 
1980-81 - during the eight-year Gulf War between Iraq and Iran.

Once over Iraqi airspace things started to go wrong. The first inkling came when the actors found 
their plane flying with no lights into an unlit airport. The precautions had to be taken to avoid 
missile attacks, the cabin staff explained. Most opted to drive for 14 hours across the desert to 
Jordan on their way out.

There was only one decent hotel in the Iraqi capital at the time - the al-Mansoor - but it did not 
have enough rooms for all the actors and technicians. Many found themselves in various 'half-built, 
cockroach-infested ruins'. Nor was the food very good. 'I survived for weeks on end on dates and 
orange juice,' said Nicholas Young, who starred in children's sci-fi serial  The Tomorrow People. 
Half the cast went down with diarrhoea.

They also faced shortages of   everything from salt to heating oil. Water supplies were 
intermittent so actors who had just spent 12 hours filming in the desert frequently had to go 
without washing.

John Barron, who played General Haldane, commander-in-chief of the British troops, remembered noon 
temperatures in the hundreds and freezing nights spent huddled around open fires.

'We were wearing 1920s Army uniforms and suffered as they must have done.'

It was too much for many. 'Dozens of the technicians just walked off the set. There were quite a 
few nervous breakdowns,' Young said.

All the British actors wore moustaches to distinguish them from the Iraqi rebels, who wore beards 
and were played by massed regiments from the Iraqi army. Frequently, however, real war interfered 
with the shooting schedule. Barron remembered one scene being cancelled when the soldiers were sud 
denly ordered to the front to stem an Iranian offensive.

Being in a war-torn capital of a Muslim country did not stop Reed, who played another senior 
British officer, getting up to his usual antics during his five-week stay. These included entering 
into an impromptu 'table lifting' competition in a Baghdad restaurant.

'The idea was to lift a table up by one leg with everything on it,' Barron said last week. 'He was 
rather noisy in the   restaurant but when he was led out and driven home to be put to bed he was as 
quiet as could be.'

Others remember how, after the supply of alcohol to his hotel room was cut off by Iraqi security 
men, Reed took the lift to the ground-floor bar to protest, stark naked.

Though he never visited the set, Saddam's henchmen kept a close eye on their guests. Some actors 
were roughed up when passing checkpoints on the bus that took them to the   desert for shooting. 
Others had films ripped from cameras

The film, which runs for several hours, has never been shown outside Iraq. It was skewed to portray 
Saddam's Ba'ath party regime as somehow linked to the ragged religious and tribal rebels who led 
the original revolt after the First World War.

At the time of filming, Western governments were well disposed towards Saddam, despite his 
reputation for brutal violence.They saw him as a   bulwark against the fanatical Islamism of Iran.

For the cast, the whole experience was odd. 'It was very, very interesting,' said Barron. 'I 
haven't done anything like it before or since.'

Young remembers looking around the set in the desert with bewilderment. 'It was never entirely 
clear which Great Question the film title referred to,' he said. We asked our own of course - what 
on earth are we doing here?'

Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited

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