BBC Radio 4, 24 July 2010
Set in the early 1950s, The White Chameleon was an autobiographical
piece about a young boy (Harvey O'Neil) growing up in 1950s Alexandria, at a time when Britain still believed that it had
an empire. The son of an engineer working for Cable and Wireless, he travelled from place to place, depending on where his
father (Alex Jennings) got posted. Young Christopher grew up in the cocoon-like world of the expatriate - neither fitting
into the host nor his home culture. In Egypt he was regarded as a white boy amongst Arabs; in Britain he was dismissed
as a "wog-lover." Although difficult at the time, this experience helped him develop a scepticism and a distrust
of moral certainties (patriotism, class, race) which stood him in good stead during his subsequent writing career.
Christopher's family were typical expats, with attitudes and values
strongly reminiscent of the British community in Forster's A Passage to India. Father was well-meaning yet ineffectual,
trying to help the locals yet realizing that his work was basically colonialist, while Mother (Amanda Root) made
the best of her existence, even while realizing that she was fundamentally superfluous. The two of them tried their best to
sustain a facade of normality, to such an extent that they were reluctant to tell Christopher anything about the gradually
worsening political situation. The early 1950s was a time of considerable strife, as the Egyptian president Nasser fought
for self-government while endeavouring all the while to force the British out of his territory. On several occasions the lives
of the expat community were in danger, but Christopher seldom knew why.
At the same time The White Chameleon showed how colonialism blighted the
lives of everyone, even well-meaning Britons like his parents. All of them treated their servant Ibrahim (Mido Hamada) as
a second-class citizen: Father expected a whisky-and-soda to be prepared each evening, while Christopher watched Ibrahim preparing
food each day, in the belief that it was the servant's bounden duty to do so. Ibrahim himself claimed to be pro-British, with
a deep and abiding love for "Mr. Churchill," and a healthily critical attitude towards "Mr. Eden's" handling of the Suez Crisis.
However it was clear that he was simply parroting sentiments that he had overheard, either from his employer or from the radio;
he never had the chance to reflect on them. The only means of escape from drudgery was through alcohol, even though he claimed
to be a practising Muslim.
Listening to Ibrahim speak, I couldn't help but sympathize with him, as a victim
of a colonial world which (for the British at least) seemed eternal. Hampton himself - who narrated the play - seemed somewhat
guilty while recalling Ibrahim, while realizing that this was the way in which people behaved in the early 1950s.
Such contradictory feelings were characteristic of the play as a whole.
At once elegaic for a lost childhood yet simultaneously aware of its shortcomings,
The White Chameleon told us a lot about the difficulties of "in-betweenness" - not knowing which cultures one belongs
to. The director was Polly Thomas.