The Long Road to a Cure

It’s been a long road to the Amazon Kindle Store for my play A Cure for the Common Cold.

I first became aware of the story of Ronald Maddison back in 2003. The UK press were reporting on the opening of an investigation (named “Operation Antler”) by the Wiltshire police force into the death of Mr. Maddison at the Porton Down chemical warfare establishment in Wiltshire, more than 5 decades after the fact. Although the inquiry wasn’t able to find sufficient evidence to proceed with a criminal prosecution, their findings were given to Lord Chief Justice Woolf at the time, who then moved to quash the original inquest (held in secret) and open a new one.
Leading Aircraftman Ronald George
Maddison (c. 1933 - 6 May 1953)

The tragic, ghastly tale of what befell this innocent, trusting young man affected me quite profoundly and I wanted desperately to write a play about it. However, at that time I simply didn’t feel equipped as a writer to do it justice, daunted as I was by the scale and complexity of the story. After all, this wasn’t just about Mr. Maddison’s dreadful fate, there were a host of other mitigating factors such as national security, the Cold War arms race and the existing geopolitical situation that had to be taken into consideration and somehow woven into the plot.

Some years later, however, I saw a production of Equus on Broadway (starring Daniel Radcliffe), and afterwards I began to realize how I could at last begin forging this story into a theatrical work. The economical yet ingenious staging of Equus showed me that I could encompass everything I needed to include without a cast of thousands or a multitude of elaborate sets. And so I set to work.

I spent a vast amount of time on research, much more than I’d ever done with any other play up to that point – or since. There was so much to do: The facts of the story itself (both sides of it); what was happening in Britain and the rest of the world at that time, both politically and culturally; understanding the particular dialect that working class people from County Durham would have spoken; and, of course, the advancements that were being made with biological and chemical weapons.

I should also point out that back in 2003 when I was doing some preliminary research into the story, I came across a website put together by a number of surviving Porton Down “guinea pigs” from the 1950s and beyond, detailing the terrible ailments they’d suffered throughout their lives as a result – allegedly – of their participation in similar experimental trials. All claimed they had never been truthfully informed of what exactly had been used on them during those experiments, and they had created the website to let their voices be heard and to seek some form of compensation. However, when I began writing the play several years later, there was not a trace of that website to be found. It was as if it had never existed. I do know that a number of volunteers were compensated after the Maddison case, so I can only assume that part of the settlement was to agree to have their online protest airbrushed out of existence.

When at long last I finally completed the play, I felt a level of satisfaction I’ve not had with anything else I’ve written. That’s not to say I feel any less proud of any of the other plays I’ve written – I don’t. But this particular story affected me on such a personal level and stayed with me for so long (to this day, in fact), that it also felt like something of a personal victory. Having wanted to tell this story for such a long time, I’d finally done it. And in doing so, I felt as though I’d perhaps given just a little more importance to the brief life of a young man which the powers that be at the time did not.

Alas, despite the monumental marketing effort that followed, and sporadic attempts sine then, the play has not yet been able to secure a staging. I had several major Off-Broadway theatres express great interest in it, along with a number of UK theatres, but ultimately none went that (big) extra step to mounting a full production.

However, I have every confidence that it will receive its premiere in the near future; it’s just a matter of when. In the meantime, I’m very happy to have had this play published and available to be read by a wider audience, and in doing so, helping pay tribute to one who trusted too much in a higher power.

“In those days you trusted the authorities and didn't ask too many questions. You kept yourself to yourself.” –Eyewitness Alfred Thornhill

Purchase "A Cure for the Common Cold" on Amazon here.


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