Black Watch play

WGGB joins authors to oppose ban of Burke play

WGGB has joined Scottish writers in opposing the ban of a play written by WGGB member Gregory Burke. The headteacher of a school in Angus recently banned the play Black Watch from the curriculum because of bad language and sexual content.

Her decision has generated controversy and column inches in a number of Scottish papers (including The Herald), resulting in an open letter from a group of writers and endorsed by Scottish PEN. The letter, co-signed by authors Ian Rankin and Louise Welsh and screenwriter Mike Cullen, calls for the ban to be overturned. They describe the text as an “essential piece of Scottish culture”.

Black Watch (pictured above), which explores the Scottish regiment’s time in Iraq, is based on interviews with soldiers and is approved by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA). The writers claim that the play “allows us to hear soldiers speak in their own voice about their lives and the effects of momentous political decisions… When we ignore those voices, we step away from an important dialogue about our society, and our understanding is worse for it.”

They say it is “more important than ever for our educators to highlight the fundamental importance of free speech and expression to a healthy society. But it is hard to set a credible example if the school itself feels the need to prevent its students from studying a piece approved by the SQA due to concerns about its content.”

WGGB General Secretary Bernie Corbett commented: “Education is not about being mollycoddled, it is about being exposed to facts, ideas and influences, however uncomfortable. This is the only way human minds can develop and evolve. A return to Bowdlerism would leave our young people ignorant and unprepared for real life. In the Western so-called democracies we are clinging on to free speech as if for dear life. Censorship in schools would be another battle lost in the perilous war against a new dark age.”

Lending his voice to the fray, former First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond told The Courier there could be “no blackballing of The Black Watch”. He said the play provides the definitive explanation of the Scottish attitude to warfare: “It explains why as a nation we can be pro-soldier but anti-war; why we understand that very good men can die for very bad reasons. Certainly, some of the language is choice. After all, it reflects the real-life experience of Scots squaddies. However, it would be unwise to ban plays on these grounds. It would rule out most of Shakespeare, for a start. And crucially, we are talking here about fifth and sixth year pupils – ie young people of the age who were entrusted last year with the vote about the future of their country.”

Accustomed to controversy over the play, Burke has remained steadfastly calm. However, he told WGGB: “I would like to thank Scottish PEN and the authors who have spoken out in support of Black Watch. I am also full of admiration for the determination the students have shown to study the play, despite the obstacles which are being put in their way. Hopefully, a resolution to the impasse can be found.”