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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