Temple is a former British police officer who is now an administrator in the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad. How come?
Because Stephen Butchard says he is! The story is set in the power vacuum that existed in Iraq after the fall of a totalitarian regime that ruled for 35 years. What will replace it? Who will get to write the story of “Free Iraq”?
In my head, Temple’s worked in the public sector for a long time, has his ear close to the ground and he’s nobody’s fool. He sees an opportunity for power and influence and to do things his own way - and who knows, maybe to do some good. I’ve been thinking of him as a sort of fief. There’s something feudal about the set-up: because you’ve got this military occupation, one realises how thin civilisation is. In such extreme circumstances people can start to behave in a slightly medieval way.
What is his attitude towards the Iraqis?
I think he’s compassionate, curious and keen to understand their culture. He knows that, to do good policing, you have to value the community you’re serving. He’s a career public servant with a genuine sense of duty to society — and no small opinion of himself because of it. He likes to cast himself as the “good cop”, balancing what he sees as the more hawkish extremes of the Americans — as we see in his relationship with Parodi (played by Corey Stoll). He believes in the project of the “coalition of the willing”; he thinks he can leave the country in a better state than he found it, and he found it in an awful mess.
What was your way into the character?
I found it difficult to find the keys at first. Stephen’s writing is wonderfully elliptical and spare: he keeps a lot of the doors locked. It’s a detective story, so you’re discovering the world with your protagonist, Khafaji (played by Waleed Zuaiter). Stephen makes the audience work really hard, and the actors as well – filling in the blanks and putting flesh on the bones. But that’s the fun of it.
Did you get any action sequences?
Yes, although I can’t say much without giving the plot away. But I enjoy that stuff — and carry the scars!
How exciting was it to work with such a diverse cast?
Incredibly so. We are used to seeing stories set against the backdrop of conflict in the Middle East, but which centre on a British or American hero. Protagonism is privilege, so it feels important that this story is told from the perspective of an Iraqi family and told by such an incredible cast from all over the world. It was exciting, when we all met at the readthrough, to hear so many different perspectives on the region and its politics: Jordanians, Iraqis, Palestinians, Brits — each of us with our own stories and angles.
Has there been material in it that surprised you?
My favourite line in the show is spoken by an old neighbour of Khafaji as they look out across the ravaged city: “Civilisation was born here”. And with the world on fire around him, Khafaji finds solace in poetry. I find that deeply moving — it speaks to the resilience of the human spirit in terrible adversity. But it’s wry as well. There’s something about the juxtaposition of nobility and barbarism that speaks volumes.
To what extent can you draw a straight line from the events of 2003 to today?
Things don’t move in straight lines, but there’s a kind of fascia connecting everything, isn’t there? Our military and diplomatic interventions in the Middle East have massively impacted the geopolitical status quo — going right back to the Balfour Declaration in 1917. It’s the crucible of so many global interests and competing spheres of influence. But it’s shocking how easily the attention of the global news cycle can wane.