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Acting, and the art of reading between the lies

It seemed fitting that in the very week when a commercially-minded television mogul pleaded at the Edinburgh Festival for less regulation of independent television companies, a fresh wave of controversy should have broken out over a so-called "documentary". This one concerned the father-and-daughter team which was to have been the subject of an intimate family portrait on Channel 4. It was called Daddy's Girl, and featured the relationship between a youngish father and his daughter, a would-be model. At the eleventh hour, it hit a reef when the girl's real father phoned Channel 4 to point out that the "father" in their film was in fact his daughter's boyfriend: the television company had been taken for a painful ride.

Channel 4 executives were quick to retort that they felt "shocked and betrayed". A pity, since clearly what they should have said was that they felt ashamed and embarrassed. The scheme was, to be sure, partly motivated by the careerist ambitions of the girl herself. But it was fuelled also by the needy and voyeuristic itch of the documentary-makers, concerned less with the truthfulness of the story they were telling (they didn't check) than with its more sensational aspects. At one point they even persuaded "father" and daughter to pose in pyjamas, to show how unusually close they were. How the young lovers must have giggled afterwards. It must have felt almost like incest, or adultery.

There are hoaxes and hoaxes. Some are merely cynical or manipulative, though when Frank Sinatra's agent, George Evans, paid a dozen girls $5 each to scream and faint at a Sinatra concert (and then alerted the press) even he could hardly have expected the result. When his 12 trainees screamed and fainted right on cue, another 18 girls flopped on the floor for real - and a sensation was born.

But hoaxes can also be a form of creative rebellion, even a form of satire, an entertaining way of exposing the distorted expectations or bad habits of the powers that be. In 1967, an American prankster called Alan Abel produced a spurious press release announcing the arrival of the Topless String Quartet from France. He gave them intriguing names (Madeleine Boucher, Gretchen Gansebrust), and explained that they performed topless in an attempt to create "unhampered" music. The fish - the media - swallowed the hook. There were requests for autographed photos, and agents wanted to promote recitals. Sinatra himself tried to sign the Quartet to record for his Reprise label.

There have been many such capers down the years, from Piltdown Man to Clifford Irving's made-up autobiography of Howard Hughes to Tom Keating to the Hitler Diaries. When Doris Lessing tried (and nearly failed) to publish a novel under an asssumed name, she was teasing the book trade's preference for authors over books. At their best, these jaunts give us a blast of gleeful laughter, and draw our attention to the needs they seemed to be answering. The recent boom in crop circles, for instance, would seem to be what an economist would call demand-driven.

This week's father-and-daughter prank tells us little we did not know about people's love of deception, and their eagerness to be on television. But it tells us more than we wish to know about the desires on the other side - in television studios, and in the viewing public at large - that drove it along. The question is not why they did it, but why was it so easy. If documentaries persist in their willingness to bend inconvenient facts in search of larger effects, this week's news will become a familar story.

There have already been several instances of documentary-makers blithely assimilating the devices of fiction into their work. When they say "reconstruction", as often as not they mean "fabrication". Does it matter that the traffic warden wasn't quite a traffic warden? Do we care that even the most candid- seeming confessions on television are "acted out"? Everyone addressing a camera is acting, unless caught unawares. We are so often encouraged to watch performances parading as real life that we risk ceasing to mind which is which, so long as it is gripping.

Media recklessness is not new either. In 1896, William Randolph Hearst sent Frederic Remington to Cuba to photograph Spanish atrocities, only to be informed that there were none. "There is no war," he wired. Hearst's reply is famous (or should be): "You furnish pictures," he wired back. "I'll furnish the war." Remington did as he was told. The subsequent pictures incited hot anti-Spanish feelings, and when the American battleship Maine was blown up in Havana, the US government did indeed declare war.

This week's film drama won't lead to shooting. There has been, you could say, far too much shooting already. It might, however, be the saddest part of the story that we may never get to see the original film. It must be quite something: a troupe of amateur actors did well in tricky roles. Maybe it will live on as some kind of cult classic. And perhaps the daughter will have the last laugh, as well as the first one. After all, she was right: celebritics is the art of the plausible.