The Times, 27th October 2008
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BBC to show ‘real life’ torture of Spooks actor who endured waterboarding for authenticity
Patrick Foster, Media Correspondent
The BBC is to push audiences to the edge of their tolerance for realism in drama as it prepares to show scenes of an actor in Spooks actually being subjected to a form of torture.
The popular series, which follows the fictional fortunes of a team of MI5 agents, will show the actor Richard Armitage undergoing waterboarding, an interrogation technique condemned around the world that simulates the sensation of drowning.
Waterboarding involves victims being placed on their backs, with their heads lowered, before water is poured on to a cloth blocking their airways, making breathing without inhaling liquid impossible.
The Government unreservedly condemns the process as torture - but in America this year a move by Congress to outlaw its use by the CIA was vetoed by President Bush, who claimed that it was a valuable tool in the War on Terror.
Armitage, previously seen on screen as Sir Guy of Gisborne in the BBC’s revamped Robin Hood, joins the cast as Lucas North, a British agent who has spent eight years languishing in a Russian prison and rejoins MI5, as part of a prisoner release deal.
Kudos Film & TV, which makes Spooks for the BBC, confirmed that the actor had been waterboarded, in a scene showing a flashback to his time in jail, “to ensure authenticity”.
Armitage told The Times that he agreed to do the scene because he had initially been convinced by consultants from the FSB, the Russian intelligence service, and the CIA that it was a psychological device, and “a humane way of extracting information without hurting people”.
After the experience, his view changed completely. “I was strapped to a pallet and laid at an angle with a cloth placed over my mouth,” he said. “My arms and legs were tied, and we had agreed a signal that when it became too much I would bang my arms on my legs.
“You start to breathe in and out, but when the water just fills everywhere up it just hits you. It changed my opinion completely.
“I realised that it really is a form of torture that shouldn’t be used. I only lasted five to ten seconds, and the sound of my voice crying out to stop isn’t me acting. The psychological damage of doing that to someone for even a minute would be indescribable.”
In the seventh series of Spooks, which begins tonight, Russia is regarded, along with Islamist terrorists, as the greatest threat to Britain’s security, reflecting the cooling of relations between Russia and the West.
One of the BBC’s most powerful drama series, Spooks prompted a large number of complaints from viewers in its first series after a female agent was thrust headfirst into boiling oil before being shot.
The drama has not previously gone to the lengths of allowing actors to undergo a form of torture, however, and the BBC is braced for complaints. Ofcom, the broadcasting watchdog, may be asked to study the waterboarding footage, to be shown in episode three of the series, on November 3.
The Broadcasting Code forbids the transmission of material that “glamorises violent, dangerous, or seriously antisocial behaviour and is likely to encourage others to copy such behaviour”.
A spokesman for Kudos said: “We consulted our health-and-safety adviser at length for this sequence and strictly adhered to his advice. On the day itself the adviser was present, as well as a medic.”
Armitage had been “at all times in control, and could stop the water at any moment. We only poured the water over his face for a short time and we shot it in slow motion so that it appears that Richard is under the water for much longer. We also had the room heated so that Richard was as comfortable as possible throughout the scene.”
An extreme survival show on Five, Unbreakable, is also planning to waterboard its contestants, in scenes to be broadcast next month.
The first episode of Spooks goes out at 9pm on BBC One, with the second instalment tomorrow. The episodes will portray the bombing of a Remembrance Sunday service, as well as the chaos caused when a rogue Russian submarine enters British waters.
Suffering for their art
Jackie Chan The martial arts star sustained serious injuries to almost every part of his body. His worst came while shooting Armour of God (1987). He fell out of a tree and landed head first, pushing a shard of skull into his brain.
Robert De Niro To prepare for his role as Jake La Motta in Raging Bull (1980), he entered three competitive boxing matches in Brooklyn. In some of the sparring scenes, De Niro and Joe Pesci are actually hitting each other, and one of Pesci’s ribs was broken by De Niro.
Tom Hanks Hanks took a year off acting to lose 55lb for his role as a survivor stranded on a desert island in Castaway (2000).
Lon Chaney The silent-era star was known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces” for the way that he transformed his features for horror parts such as Quasimodo. As well as make-up, Chaney contorted his face with wax, wire and plaster. He is even supposed to have pulled his eyeballs from their sockets with wires for The Phantom of the Opera (1926).
Source: Times archives
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