The Kennedys: Another side of Camelot

A $30m drama about the Kennedys, to be broadcast here next week, caused a furore in America. But does it deserve all the criticism? Sarah Hughes finds out

It cost a fortune to make, featured an all-star, awards-bait cast including Greg Kinnear, Tom Wilkinson and Katie Holmes, tackled one of America's most iconic periods, and was supposed to reposition America's History Channel as having more to offer than Second World War documentaries and reality shows about alligator hunters in Louisiana.

Instead The Kennedys, which airs in the US this Sunday, will do so not on the channel which originally commissioned the glossy eight-part mini series, but on the little known cable network ReelzChannel, which paid $7m for the US rights after a number of bigger names turned it down.

So what went wrong? On paper, The Kennedys, which cost $30m to make, had surefire-hit written all over it. The Kennedy family remains a source of fascination throughout America, with documentaries still clogging up the TV channels and magazines such as Vanity Fair continuing to dedicate acres of coverage to the doings of the 35th President, almost 50 years after his death, and an era popularly known as Camelot.

Yet the first sign that all was not right came before production had even begun, with complaints ranging from the banal (the casting of US tabloid favourite Holmes as Jackie) to the rather more serious (issues surrounding the script's accuracy). Concerns about the latter saw the left-wing documentary maker Robert Greenwald, best-known for his attack on Fox News, Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism, attacking the script's most questionable scenes on his website, Stopkennedysmears.com. Greenwald was also among those who raised concerns regarding the political opinions of the series' executive producer, Joel Surnow, the man behind 24 and that rare thing, a Hollywood conservative.

From then on, the troubled production was rarely out of the news. President Kennedy's long-term advisor and scriptwriter, Theodore Sorensen, appeared shortly before his death in October 2010 in a video made by Greenwald in which he stated: "Every single conversation with the President in the Oval Office or elsewhere in which I, according to the script, participated, never happened."

A report in The New York Times suggested that the two historians asked to vet the show for accuracy (Steve Gillon, author of The Kennedy Assassination: 24 Hours After and retired history professor and Pulitzer Prize nominee Robert Dallek) had concerns about the final product and had raised those concerns with History. (The production team behind the series have strongly refuted the Times piece, with Surnow calling suggestions that Gillon or Dallek were unhappy "a fiction").

Then in January the History Channel dropped the project, their first attempt at a scripted drama, announcing, rather portentously, that: "this dramatic interpretation is not a fit for the History brand" and referring to it as "historical fiction".

By now, rumours were flying about pressure from the Kennedy family, most notably from John's daughter Caroline and her cousin, Maria Kennedy Shriver. In particular A&E Television Networks (AETN), History's parent company, was rumoured to be worried about upsetting Caroline, who is currently editing a book of interviews with her mother, Jackie, for Hyperion Books, an offshoot of Disney, who part-own AETN. Those rumours only intensified after cable channels Showtime, FX and Starz also passed on the project, leaving the barely known Minneapolis-based Reelz to pay $7m for US broadcasting rights.

"I don't know if that's the case; I've heard the rumours, but that's all that they are, and I doubt that the Kennedys had the show pulled," says the series director Jon Cassar, who worked with Surnow on 24. "The fact is that any true story is going to have people who like it and people who object to it, and a true story about politics is even worse because people can not help but take sides. It's just instinctive, especially here in the US. It happened with the Reagan miniseries [which was dropped by CBS following complaints by conservative pressure groups about bias and eventually picked up by Showtime] and with the recent The Path to 9/11. People condemned them, a lot of times without even seeing the finished product."

The bullish Surnow, however, has little doubt that, Kennedys or not, his involvement ultimately led to the History Channel's refusal to show the series. "Because I am a known conservative, it appears that I was deemed unfit to be the person to produce this miniseries," he told The Hollywood Reporter last week. "I am a proud American, proud of the Kennedys for their accomplishments and their place in history, but none of that was given voice. I wasn't Emmy Award-winning Joel Surnow; I was Rush Limbaugh's and Roger Ailes's [President of Fox News Channel] friend Joel Surnow. And that's all that mattered."

Cassar strikes a more conciliatory note. "You have to realise that Greenwald was using a very early script to draw his conclusions. Do I think that Joel's political beliefs fuelled accusations of bias? In any true-life political story accusations of bias will come into play, but the thing that people should remember is that this programme was commissioned by the History Channel. We had two respected historians checking every detail and were making script changes to ensure accuracy right up to the 11th hour. It was important to everyone involved that we made no mistakes with the subject matter."

So what of the end product? Early reviews have been mixed. The right-leaning New York Post called it "one of the best, most riveting, historically accurate dramas... that has ever been done for TV", but Newsweek's senior writer Ramin Setoodeh was more dismissive, calling it "a strange production... not very believable," before adding: "You kind of roll your eyes at some parts, because it's really cheesy."

The truth, as so often, falls somewhere between the two views. Kinnear gives a strong performance as John, Wilkinson is suitably reptilian as paterfamilias Joe, the always watchable Barry Pepper excels as the conflicted Bobby and Holmes certainly looks the part as Jackie, although the feeling persists that she was cast more for her resemblance to the former First Lady than anything else.

As to the accuracy or otherwise, there are a few controversial scenes: Joe is shown engaging in sharp practices to ensure that his son wins a congressional seat and meeting with mob boss Sam Giancana to swing the Presidential election in his son's favour; John receives amphetamine injections for debilitating pain and spreads his famous charms widely, if not always that wisely. More surprisingly, Sorensen no longer features, his dialogue split between John and Bobby (to keep the focus on the main characters, according to the series makers). Most likely to enrage Kennedy sympathisers are the sexual scenes – apparently considerably toned down from the original script – including a moment where Joe gropes his secretary in front of his sons and another where he fondles an aide as his long-suffering wife, Rose, looks impassively on.

But even these are hardly bombshells and the worst you could say about the series is that it's a little soapy at some points and a little stilted at others. Indeed, as Kinnear told Entertainment Weekly: "I don't think there's anything in there that you can't read in my daughter's school library."

Certainly the furore in the US has done little to put off foreign investors. The show will air on the UK's History Channel on 7 April before being repeated on BBC2 in either May or June and has also been sold to France and Canada. Meanwhile, proving that the Kennedy's erstwhile glamour still exerts a tug on American hearts, the tiny Reelz, whose owner Stan E Hubbard comes from a prominent Minnesotan Republican family, has seen its subscription rates increase from three million to over five million since they bought the drama.

Ultimately, despite the problems associated with bringing the series to the small screen, Cassar is pleased with the finished product. "I think people will be surprised," he says. "They are expecting some sort of soap opera affair and it isn't that. There was a lot of press coverage about the casting of Katie, but she gives a great performance. I couldn't have asked for more. All the actors put in a lot of work. They read round the subject, they did the best that they could to present an accurate picture of the relationship between these people at this particular time. And I'm proud of that, I'm proud of what we've achieved."

'The Kennedys' is broadcast on 7 April at 9pm on History

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone