Media: OK, so we don't always get it right

An army of consultants ensure accuracy in TV drama. Just as well. The public is hard to fool. By Meg Carter
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The Independent Culture
pity the humble TV drama producer. On his or her shoulders rests the power to wreak good or ill across the land. Apparently. In recent weeks, they've been coming under fire for letting dramatic licence get the better of reality. And this despite their growing reliance on specialist consultants and research.

Once, Brookside was the only TV drama with editorial researchers on the payroll. Today, think of a high-profile drama and chances are, there'll be specialist advisers involved. The Bill? Two ex-police officers work alongside scriptwriters; a third is dedicated to story development. Silent Witness employs a pathologist. Peak Practice has a Derbyshire-based fundholding GP and Kavanagh QC a practising criminal barrister.

In spite of this, not everyone thinks the programme-makers get it right. Last month, the British Medical Journal claimed TV soaps are frightening mothers by putting sensationalism above realism. At a British Medical Association conference, Peak Practice was among drama series criticised for misrepresenting the doctor-patient relationship. Meanwhile, others stand variously accused of misrepresenting countryside life, family values and the dotage of judges.

Reality has a central role to play in TV fiction. Get the facts of a situation right and an audience's belief in what they are seeing can be sustained. Get it wrong, however, and the illusion can be shattered as the eagle-eyed and pedantic reach for the phone. The fine line between fact and fantasy in TV drama, however, is a precarious one to walk.

"What ends up on screen should be as realistic as practicable. If you're producing a drama, I can think of no good reason for showing something that's wrong when by showing something that's right you could enhance the story and make it more believable," says pathologist Dr Ian Hill, pathology adviser on Silent Witness.

David Etherington QC, legal advisor on Kavanagh QC, is equally pragmatic. "Problems can arise when producers want to create drama. A classic example is the order in which witnesses and defendants are called during trial," he says. "Often I'll say something is permissible because I want to be sympathetic to the drama. It is drama, not documentary, after all."

Etherington says he keeps in mind at all times the image of a retired circuit judge sitting at home with his hand on the phone. "'Will he ring?" I ask myself. I try to stop grave errors - lawyers watching would lose all confidence and enjoyment and the series would lose credibility."

The best specialist advisers are those who are both experts in their field and understand storytelling, says Tony Virgo, producer of Peak Practice. "You may be a leader in your field but if you don't realise what a drama requires, you'll be of little use," he says. "We need someone not only to say 'No' but to be able to come up with an alternative."

Some advisers already have editorial experience. Graham Harvey, The Archers' agricultural story editor, has a background in farming, journalism and scriptwriting. "I find out about the real working lives of farmers and consider everything from a script point of view," he explains. "We need farming issues to come through strongly."

Others go one step further. Ex-detective inspector Jackie Malton, now a story developer and police adviser for The Bill, has worked on numerous series. Not only is she a regular collaborator with Lynda la Plante, she's also now developing her own programme ideas.

"The challenge is to get the required drama into a story," she says. "There are always certain areas of potential conflict producers like to play up - such as between uniform officers and CID." But you have to know when to treat something properly. "The public aren't stupid. A drama must reward an audience - you can't let them down, fool them or present something that's totally contrived."

Dr Tim Parkin, medical adviser on Peak Practice, adds that he would never sanction medical inaccuracies. He is less rigid on certain procedures, like how long it takes to get a blood sample, though. "What a lot of people don't realise is you have to put faults in: that's real life. Not every doctor diagnoses everything right first time. Nor does every patient exhibit text-book symptoms."

Peak Practice does get complaints, he admits - "usually for being emotive. When we had a character with meningitis, some families who had suffered it felt we shouldn't have touched it. It can be highly subjective."

Mersey Television's chairman, Phil Redmond, agrees. Accuracy in tracking important issues is critical but putting this into practice can be problematic. "What quickly became apparent on Brookside was that because it's drama you're not dealing with objective, corroborated factual data but subjective views and conflicting opinion."

One issue, Redmond says, is growing demands from pressure groups and lobbyists eager to have their cause featured in a dramatic storyline. His response is to listen and always take more than one opinion, but not blindly follow the advice.

"TV drama is not generalisation but what happens to specific characters at a specific moment in a specific situation," he explains. "Given that every complaint must now be responded to in detail, the danger is we go down the CPS route - with producers expected to show a clear research trail and plotline dossiers - when, in fact, much comes down to common sense."

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