TELEVISION / Skating on thin ice: The scandal, the stories, the movie. Jasper Rees on the 1-2-3 of speed TV

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The Independent Culture
Usually when you watch a drama on television, it couldn't matter less how long it took the reach the screen. The one field in which this isn't so is the drama based on a true story - or, to be more precise, the drama based on a news story. Here, the project's speed out of the blocks is as valuable a feature of the entertainment as how good it's looking at the tape. Never mind the quality; taste the haste.

The story of the skaters Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding was perceived by the American media as a simple tale of good versus evil, and therefore ripe for instantaneous dramatisation. Their final showdown, at the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, only happened this year, and yet the TV movie is already upon us. Actually, two are upon us, from NBC and ABC, and both were commissioned and scripted long before the real-life drama finished.

True to the genre's obsession with premature explanation, Tom and Roseanne Arnold's marital breakdown is already in the making, and they haven't even reached the divorce courts yet. O J Simpson goes on trial next week, but sundry dramatisations were hatched as soon as whoever it was killed his ex-wife. Expect these soon after the jury retires.

Divorce and knee injuries are relatively upmarket and unique subjects in this field. If you're not already famous, the quickest route into TV movies is murder. The Menendez brothers, who killed their parents and pleaded provocation, have been the subject of three. So has Amy Fisher, who last year was convicted of murdering the wife of her boyfriend. Early this year, the films all appeared: ABC's Beyond Control (with Drew Barrymore), ACI's Lethal Lolita and Columbia's Amy Fisher's Story.

The TV movie doesn't have to be trash. It's just so much easier to produce trash quickly. Of the Fisher films, Beyond Control is regarded as much the best, while the inferiority of the others contributed to a navel-gazing debate in the American industry about the morality of pouncing on murder stories while the corpse is still warm. But then O J hit the headlines, and qualms were buried even more quickly than the victims.

Proof that what you gain in immediacy isn't always sacrificed in quality is available in Granada's eminently watchable dramatisation of the fall of Mrs Thatcher, The Final Days, broadcast 10 months after the events it described. But then evidence that the British manage these things better was not furnished by BSkyB's The Fall of the House of Windsor, the movie of Andrew Morton's book. In common with the dramatisation of the royal separation, Tonya and Nancy: The Inside Story presents itself as a scary fairytale. By using the character of a scriptwriter to tell the story as he creates it, it also attempts to distance itself from other contributions to the genre by behaving like a meta-TV movie, a dramatisation of a dramatisation. It's up to its audience to decide whether this works.

Here's something to help you make up your mind: 'Every happy family resembles one another,' says the scriptwriter, who knows his literature. 'And most unhappy families are unhappy in their own way. I wonder what Tolstoy would have thought of Tonya's life. Much war and little peace.' It's too easy to be snooty about the TV movie, but sometimes they give you no choice.

'Tonya and Nancy: The Inside Story' is on BBC 1 on Friday at 9.30pm

(Photograph omitted)