Dickens Confidential - Why are we n Afghanistan by Mike Walker

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Dickens Confidential: Why Are We in Afghanistan? by Mike Walker, BBC Radio 4, 3 November 2009

This modern re-imagining of Dickens’ life cast the author as an ambitious newspaper editor, determined to chase after exclusives, no matter what the cost. The story, in this, was the British campaign in Afghanistan during the mid-nineteenth century, focusing in particular on the country’s rivalry with the Russians. The contemporary significance of this story was clear – just as the British army in the 1850s could not make sense of their role in Afghanistan, so the modern British army experienced similar difficulties.

The plot itself was a familiar one: Dickens (Dan Stevens) asks his two ace reporters Agnes Paxton (Eleanor Howell) and Daniel Parker (Andrew Buchan) to investigate a plot involving Russian spies and the British government. Agnes befriends a suspicious spy Nadia Durova (Rachel Atkins), and is drawn into a shady world of espionage in which nothing and no one can be trusted. Agnes is drugged and forced into admitting the truth of her actions. Just when it appears that she is about to be carried off behind the Iron Curtain (or whatever the mid-ninteenth century equivalent of the Iron Curtain might have been), it transpires that Nadia has actually been working as a double-agent for the British, endeavouring to discover the secrets of the Russian position in Afghanistan. Dickens and his reporters have been taken for a ride: although ostensibly supporting their investigations, the British government has used them as diversions, to deflect attention away from their real purposes involving Nadia Durova. Needless to say Dickens is outraged by this treatment, but he discovers to his cost that there is nothing he can do. Despite his fame as a novelist, he can never put a spoke in the wheels of government.

Mike Walker’s drama characterized Dickens as a thrusting ambitious type who, although possessed of an immense literary talent, spent much of his time trying to manipulate others in pursuit of self-interested goals – for example, a reputation as a crusading editor as well as a famous novelist. One of the ironies of this play was that, for all his efforts, Dickens was as much a pawn in the government’s schemes as anyone else. Clearly they did not want anyone to know “Why are we in Afghanistan,” as this knowledge would force the politicians – particularly the Prime Minister - to answer some awkward questions about their duplicitous roles in world affairs.  

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