James Mossman was a star reporter for the BBC in the 1960s, an overseas correspondent known for his reliability in turning out a 12-minute piece to camera. In 1971, he killed himself, leaving a suicide note that implied he didn’t even know why. In this new play, by someone who knew him from a distance, Nicholas Wright, Mossman The Reporter investigates his decision to take his own life. Caroline Bishop attended the press night of Richard Eyre’s production at the National Cottesloe…
Ben Chaplin’s James Mossman is the suave, well turned-out face of the BBC in Vietnam, a man who remains cool and smooth-haired in the humidity of Saigon, cool to the point of cold-hearted in his personal life.
Wright’s new play attempts to investigate why such a man, a respected reporter with the Beeb in the 1960s, would kill himself in 1971, and it does so through Mossman himself, who leads the audience through the events preceding his death, beginning with his time as a Panorama reporter in Vietnam in 1963.
Though not a biography of Mossman, the play inter-weaves Wright’s own memories of Mossman (he worked as a Floor Assistant at the corporation in the 60s), with a dramatisation of his relationships with others, including his lover Louis, broadcaster Robin ‘cruel glasses’ Day and novelist Rosamund Lehmann. As a result, we see the depiction of actual events, like the distress of Floor Manager Joan Marsden, otherwise known as ‘Mother’, over Day replacing a seriously ill Richard Dimbleby as anchor of Panorama, and Mossman’s on-air verbal attack on PM Harold Wilson, which was the start of decline in his career.
Consequently, in analysing Mossman’s life, the play is also an intriguing shapshot of the workings of the BBC in the 1960s, when journalists were expected to be polite and Paxman-style interviewing was yet to be the norm. It is also a reminder of how ominously unchanged today’s world is, with PM Wilson claiming his ‘moral responsibility’ to support the US in a futile war.
But all this is a backdrop to the unanswered question of Mossman, a man whom his friends said they didn’t really know and who didn’t seem to know himself. He tells us he knows he is going to kill himself, and he plots it in eerily unemotional detail, but he can’t explain why, thus the cryptic ‘it’ of his suicide note. Wright gives many suggestions as to what led to ‘it’: Mossman’s anger over Vietnam, his struggle to report ‘reality’, losing his ability to write, the seven deaths that preceded his own, the guilt and shame over his homosexuality and treatment of Louis – in the most shocking moment of the play he decides he’d rather leave his overdosed lover to die than take him to hospital and risk the press getting wind of his sexuality.
Richard Eyre’s direction is brisk, flitting between the scenes in Mossman’s life and the eerie moments when the reporter addresses the audience from the grave, analysing his own actions. In the former, a cleverly simple set employs the device of a ceiling-to-floor curtain, pulled around like that of a hospital cubicle, upon which the scenes are projected. In the latter, Mossman stands alone in the dark, illuminated by Peter Mumford’s cold, harsh lighting, which makes the impenetrability of his mind even more pronounced.
The play cannot, of course, answer the question of why Mossman killed himself, instead Wright offers up suggestions, as far as he can, and it is for the audience to come to its own, never to be confirmed, conclusion.