Stephen Biko inquest provides powerful docu-drama for TV

Sept. 12 is the anniversary of the death of Stephen Biko, a martyr to the anti-apartheid cause in South Africa. American cable television joins the international battle against apartheid by marking the anniversary with a reenactment of the government-ordered inquest into his death while in police custody in 1977. Showtime, the nation's second-largest pay-cable service (HBO is No. 1), with 5.4 million subscribers on 3,200 cable systems in all states, is presenting this televison adaptation of one of theater's most powerful docu-dramas about the death of the black activist leader, The Biko Inquest (Thursday, Sept. 12, 8-10 p.m., check local listings).

A few months ago, HBO premi`ered ``Sakharov'' in the midst of the controversy about this Russian dissenter's fast. It was timely, appropriate. Now Showtime is following suit with another example of cable relevance in ``The Biko Inquest'' at a time when the apartheid struggle seems to be reaching new crescendos.

Albert Finney is both director and star of this straightforward record of the 1977 inquest. He does both jobs with such taut underplaying that it comes through as almost antidrama. But the final effect upon the viewer is stunned disbelief at the casualness of the magistrate's ruling.

Arrested in Port Elizabeth in August 1977 for handing out ``seditious'' pamphlets, Biko was interrogated for three weeks, then transported in manacles to Pretoria Prison, where he died. To appease international as well as national outrage, the government was forced to order an inquest in which the police and doctors involved were, as anticipated, exonerated.

Transcripts of the inquest were smuggled out of South Africa and resulted in staged versions in New York and London in 1978 and 1984. This TV version is a tape of the 1984 London production by United British Artists, produced by Cecil Clarke. Graham Evans served as special television director.

According to actor/director Finney, who plays the prosecutor retained by the Biko family, ``The words needed no acting help to tell the harrowing story.'' So, the transcript was simply read with minimal histrionics. According to Finney, the play works because it manages to convince audiences that, rather than watching performers, they are actually watching lawyers and witnesses questioning and answering each other. The set seems very much like the real setting, which was a local house of worship. If the

action does not appear to follow legal procedures, it's because the drama represents an inquest rather than a trial. As might be the case in a real-life inquest focused on medical testimony, the production tends to be stagnant, although the vitality of the issue manages to keep it always fascinatingly pertinent. At times, however, it does sound a bit like a malpractice suit in which doctors are accused of unprofessional activities.

Facts are repeated determinedly in order to make it clear that Biko was the victim of what appears to be politically influenced improper conduct. As a matter of fact, in July 1985 the New York Times reported from Johannesburg that a panel of the South African Medical and Dental Council ruled that the two white physicians who examined Biko before his death in detention were ``guilty of improper conduct and that one of them displayed `disgraceful behavior.' ''

``The Biko Inquest'' is not docu-drama of the sort we have learned to expect from television -- facts used as the basis for soap opera. ``Biko'' is rather the ultimate courtroom drama -- a simple reading of the transcript (edited down, of course, to manageable length) with no attempt at melodrama. The pathos of reality and relevance is quite enough to make ``The Biko Inquest'' an unforgettable experience. Additional Showtime play dates: Sept. 22, 3:30 p.m. and 3:10 a.m.; Sept. 26, 8 a.m. and 1 a.m. Chec k local listings.

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