Ambassador memoirs put officials on edge

Few things sell a film better than intrigue and curiosity. Good news for director Michael Winterbottom. Bad news for the British government...

Winterbottom has just optioned Murder in Samarkand, the as-yet unpublished memoirs of Britain's former Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray.

The interest is heightened by Winterbottom's seemingly odd assertion that the book is "very, very funny" and his proposed casting of the colourful comic Steve Coogan as the ousted ambassador.

For a book that contains descriptions of torture, ranging from people being boiled alive to those who had their children beaten to a pulp in front of them while they are chained upside-down, this surely has to be seen to be believed.

Murray's book, which, court-wrangles permitting, will make his denunciations of the government's foreign policy available from bookshops everywhere in June, alleges complicity on the part of Number 10 and the Foreign Office with the torture and corruption Mr Murray claims he witnessed while on duty in the former Soviet state.

Murray is now a prominent critic of Western policy in the region.

The government has, of course, denied the allegations, and is threatening legal action on the grounds of libel, Crown Copyright, breach of confidence and the Official Secrets Act.

Following the relative ease with which the memoirs of Sir Christopher Meyer, Britain's erstwhile ambassador to the US, made it into the public domain last November, it is rumoured that attempts to block Murder in Samarkand's publication will be especially forceful.

This is eminently credible, but more because Murray's book is primed to be rather more damaging to the people who would have it censored, than because of any feeling of 'missing out' last time.

But with a film now due, attempts to obstruct Murray's book could well backfire, generating publicity the publishers, would no doubt be delighted with.

Partners in Crime

Like Mr Murray, Mr Winterbottom is no stranger to controversy.

His latest film, The Road to Guantanamo, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February, tells the story of three British Muslims who were held in the infamous American naval base for two years before being released in March 2004.

The film made the headlines not just for its content, but also because when the actors returned to Luton airport from Berlin, six of them were stopped and questioned under the Terrorism Act.

It is something prospective actors for 'Murder' might want to bear in mind when work starts on the film in 2007.