For politicians, Alistair Beaton is a man to be wary of. The Glasgow-born writer has a dangerous reputation for producing satirical send-ups of the great and the good. He was the man behind The Trial of Tony Blair, the Channel 4 film in which Robert Lindsay played a prime minister struggling to face up to the legacy of war in Iraq. One commentator called the BAFTA-nominated drama a “vindictive fantasy”.
Two years earlier in A Very Social Secretary, Beaton took a wry look at David Blunkett’s scandalous affair with publisher Kimberly Quinn, taking great delight in lampooning the Labour administration’s love of the high life. Blunkett’s solicitors wrote to broadcaster More4 in advance, but transmission went ahead.
As a founder of Not the Nine O’Clock News and a song lyricist on Spitting Image, Beaton has been taking these kind of side-swipes at our leaders for three decades. “I like responding to real events,” he says. “I don’t think that’s quite the same thing as simply writing about them.”
In the Edinburgh International Festival, the facts he is responding to are of a different kind. Instead of satirising a topical event, he has gone all the way back to 1698. In Caledonia, staged by the National Theatre of Scotland, he tells the story of Scotland’s calamitous attempt to set up a colony in Panama, then known as the Isthmus of Darien. “It’s a drama with satirical edges,” he says. “It’s a rip-roaring tale.”
Leading the scheme was a financier called William Paterson who persuaded not only his wealthy cronies in the Company of Scotland, but also many much poorer citizens to invest in sending five ships to what would be called New Caledonia. He raised £400,000, a remarkable figure for the time. “I’m fascinated why a whole nation can be obsessed by the idea that it’s possible to get rich quick,” says Beaton. “It absorbed vast amounts of Scotland’s national wealth – maybe as much as half.”
If the expedition had been a success, perhaps it would have been worth the expense. It was, however, a terrible flop. For one thing, the would-be colonists were poorly prepared for the climate and suffered a wave of fatal illness. For another, the English were unwilling to offer assistance for fear of angering Spain, which had its own colonial ambitions in the region.
Paterson’s great project was a write-off within eight months, despite the best efforts of a second fleet of ships. The adventure had required bravery, enterprise and fortitude, but its failure led to a financial crisis so great that, a few years later, Scotland had little option but to sign the Treaty of Union with England.
Beaton has tended to write about the politics of today, but he was unable to resist a story with such striking repercussions down the centuries. “It has a natural dramatic shape, because it’s got vision, hope, energy, courage and it all comes to naught,” says Beaton. “It played a central part in the loss of Scotland’s independence as a nation. That’s a pretty big story.”
The audience, like him, will spot the modern-day parallels for themselves, not least in the fact that the directors of the Company of Scotland got more than their money back on the investment. “I want to tell the story of what happened in the 1690s, but I would be astonished if people didn’t leave the theatre thinking it has echoes of today.”
Caledonia, King’s Theatre, 21, 22, 24, 25 August, 7.30pm; 22, 25, 26, August, 2.30pm.
From £12, Tel: 0131 473 2000