Bored with biopics

Life stories are taking huge chunks of drama budgets – but they are largely safe and unchallenging television, says Gerard Gilbert
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The Independent Culture

Enid, Margot, Gracie, Mo and Mrs Mandela (why the sudden formality? Even Mrs Thatcher's dramatised life story, Margaret, was on first-name terms) – TV is awash with biopics at the moment. We've just had Sophie Okonedo's bravura Winnie Mandela; this Sunday sees Julie Walters wearing a bald wig as the cancer-stricken Northern Ireland minister Mo Mowlam in Channel 4's Mo; and John Lennon is about to get the biopic treatment yet again with BBC Four's Lennon Naked, this one starring Christopher Eccleston as the endlessly fascinating Beatle (the period covered is 1967-71).

But that is nothing on Her Majesty the Queen, who was portrayed by five different actresses on Channel 4 last autumn, just a few years after we thought Helen Mirren had given us the definitive version. Does Mrs Thatcher, with only two to her name, suffer from biopic envy?

Enid (Helena Bonham Carter as Enid Blyton), Margot (Anne-Marie Duff as Margot Fonteyn) and Gracie! (Jane Horrocks as Gracie Fields) were part of a BBC Four season called Women We Have Loved (I guess "Women We Have Heard of, But Couldn't Put a Face To" wouldn't have been punchy enough). An earlier BBC Four series of biopics was titled The Curse of Comedy and featured dramas about Harry H Corbett and Wilfrid Brambell (The Curse of Steptoe), Trevor Eve as Hughie Green, David Walliams as Frankie Howerd and Ken Stott as Tony Hancock. Did we learn anything about these frustrated/neurotic/unhappy geniuses that we didn't know already? A little.

Evidence to support my growing sense that the biographical genre was becoming a default position of BBC drama seemed to come with the announcement that the BBC was scrapping its ambitious £25m drama project about the 1980s, Decades. They were stripping it back to just three dramas, it was reported: an adaptation of Martin Amis's Money, Abi Morgan's Royal Wedding and a third drama, which is "expected to be a biopic". Whose would it be? "Arthur", with Sean Bean as miners' leader Arthur Scargill? What fun they could have with the comb-over hairstyle. "Captain Bob"? Oh, yes, we've already had David Suchet making a splash as Robert Maxwell. It always helps when the subject is dead.

Compare this to the real 1980s, when BBC drama managed to engage with the times through the likes of Alan Bleasdale's Boys from the Blackstuff and Troy Kennedy Martin's Edge of Darkness (the Mel Gibson movie version of which opens in cinemas today). Both invariably make it on to Top 100 lists of the best TV dramas ever made. Apart from The Naked Civil Servant – and that wasn't a conventional one in the slightest – which biopic has ever made such a list? That's not to say you can't see what is in it for everybody involved.

Asked by a reporter why she had agreed to play Famous Five writer Enid Blyton in a low budget BBC biopic, Helena Bonham Carter, an actress more at home these days in Hollywood than Wood Lane, opted for irony. "I did it for the money," she replied, although the BBC controller of drama, Ben Stephenson, got closer to the truth when he said that "The focus is on a single, central performance... which makes them incredibly attractive from an actor's perspective. The main actor or actress is on screen for pretty much every scene."

But does a peachy script from an actor's point of view translate into a good viewing experience? There's no doubting that audiences seem to like these biopics: 1.28 million people (well over ten times BBC4's average weekly audience share) witnessed Bonham Carter putting on a Celia Johnson voice for Enid – in a drama that took just 15 days to film, cost the licence fee payer a modest six-figure budget and I bet will earn Bonham Carter a Bafta nomination. Isn't that a win-win situation?

And biography is popular. I like biography – reading it, that is. But I certainly wouldn't read one that began with the words (as Margot did) "The following drama is based on real events, although some scenes are the invention of the writer". Which scenes? The one where Fonteyn sleeps with Rudolf Nureyev? I know, I know... the dictates of drama, and all that. That's why I'm not sure that biography is a good source of drama, although it can be if the biography is at the service of a greater dramatic cause. Alan Bennett's A Question of Attribution, for example, contains that splendid scene where Bennett imagines a meeting between the Queen and the spy-cum-curator of the royal pictures, Sir Anthony Blunt, where the Queen ambiguously quizzes Blunt about forgeries.

That scene will endure. By contrast, the scoop in this weekend's Mo Mowlam drama, Mo – that Mowlam knew that her brain tumour was terminal at the time of the 1997 general election, and lied about it to Tony Blair – has already been in the newspapers. And who wants yesterday's papers? But if biopics are cheap and popular fun, what is the problem?

Well, now I think it's time we started playing catch up with the Americans. The gulf between US drama and UK drama becomes wider with each passing season of Mad Men, or each new show like Glee or The Good Wife.

Of course biopics are by no means all that BBC drama produces, but it does seem that they are all that BBC Four drama produces, and it's on BBC Four, , where we ought to be upping our game.

The channel should engage with the here and now, rather than examining past lives.