Conor Dignam On Broadcasting: The so-called 'Maddie movie' could make compelling television
Monday 14 January 2008
The media's strained and ambivalent relationship with Gerry and Kate McCann was highlighted again last week by the reaction to news that they were in talks about turning the story of their daughter's disappearance into a film.
The tone of some reporting suggested that this so-called "Maddie movie" would be some sort of Hollywood-style production, with big-name stars playing the role of the McCanns. There were questions about whether they might receive money for this movie.
The message, either explicit or implicit, was that here was yet another example of the McCanns, in some strange and unsettling way, seeking the media spotlight for themselves.
The truth, of course, once you got past the "movie" headlines and innuendo, was nothing like that.
The idea was being supported by Channel 4, working with the independent production company Darlow Smithson, which has a sterling reputation for its factual features, such as the award-winning Touching the Void.
This is the company that made The Kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart, updated and re-shown on Channel 4 over the Christmas holiday, which tells the story of the 14-year-old American teenager who was abducted from the family home in Salt Lake City in June 2002.
Anyone who watched this excellent documentary film will have a clear idea of how the story of Madeleine's disappearance would be told, and the kind of editorial and production values that we could expect from Darlow Smithson.
Through interviews with the family, police and media, and the use of archived news footage, the programme told how Salt Lake City police mismanaged their inquiries, first turning attention on Elizabeth's family, then identifying as their prime suspect a former convict who had done work on the Smart family's home.
Before the investigation was finished and any charges could be brought, he became ill and died – leading the police to close the case, even though no real evidence had been unearthed or a body discovered.
Frustrated by the police's lack of interest in pursuing the case, the Smart family turned to the TV show America's Most Wanted – which retold the story, featuring an image of the man who the family suspected could have been involved.
Incredibly, that appeal led to someone identifying the man, and his eventual arrest by police as he walked along an American highway with a young girl who turned out to be the Smarts' daughter – abused and brainwashed by this man, but very much alive.
The film reported how she was returned to her family and was recovering from the ordeal. The similarities with the McCanns' terrible story are, up to a point, all too obvious.
There was very little in the way of reconstruction, and no acting, in this programme, but it was as gripping and compelling a piece of television as you are likely to see.
Darlow Smithson is also part of the IMG group, an international media company, which could help ensure film and TV distribution to media markets around the world. Money from this proposed production would go towards helping the search for Madeleine.
The way this story was presented as a plan for a "Maddie movie" says much about how the public and media perception of the McCanns has moved in the last six months. Both among the public and some sections of the media they are viewed with suspicion and hostility, despite the fact that no evidence has been put forward to support this perception.
The actions of the McCanns in creating and conducting a media campaign to find their daughter has been questioned by some, particularly since they were named as official suspects in her disappearance. Certainly sections of the media, which have hungrily fed off their misery, are now quick to find fault with the couple.
But the idea of a feature-length TV documentary about Madeleine McCann's disappearance should be welcomed by anyone interested in trying to get to the truth of a compelling and terrible story.
The fact that the McCanns are interested in the idea of such a project should be taken as further evidence that they have nothing to hide and simply want to do everything they can to get their daughter back. Who can blame them for that?
Let's give credit where it's due
The critics have torn into ITV's new comedy (Moving Wallpaper) about the making of a soap (Echo Beach), claiming that it's a lame joke that doesn't work on any level. I think they're being a little harsh (as critics often are) and failing to give ITV credit for at least trying something bold and different in a peaktime slot. Moving Wallpaper, with Ben Miller as the power-mad producer Jonathan Pope, is immensely watchable – even if you don't work in or write about TV.
Echo Beach, though, clearly doesn't have quite the same confidence and verve, and it remains to be seen if the show can keep viewers coming back, even with Jason Donovan and Martine McCutcheon in lead roles. Much of the soap's dialogue is creaky and delivered in a way that suggests the actors don't know whether they're in a deliberately badly written soap, or just a badly written soap.
The opening episodes both attracted average audiences of five million, which is respectable but not really the kind of figure that ITV1 bosses, whether in the real world or in the Moving Wallpaper world, will be popping the champagne corks over.
These are important times for ITV. Tonight sees the launch of News at Ten, back in its historic slot with the old-fashioned Big Ben bongs, but in a new state-of-the-art studio. It's part of what Simon Shaps, ITV's director of television, says is the biggest shake-up of the ITV schedule for 25 years.
He might also have added that the ITV schedule is now clearly his creation – with some input, of course, from Michael Grade – and whether ITV1 is on the road to recovery will be very much decided by the fortune of the shows and the schedule of 2008.
BBC is hideously wide of its targets
Former BBC director general Greg Dyke memorably said seven years ago that the BBC was "hideously white". Today, the BBC, at its most senior levels, is hideously whiter. Last week it confirmed that it now has fewer ethnic minority staff among its senior management than it did four years ago.
For Dyke, reform meant the BBC becoming more open and accessible to ethnic minorities. He believed dramatic change was needed to ensure this.
Clearly that change hasn't been dramatic enough. The BBC says it has failed on two of the three targets set under Dyke. One of these was 12.5 per cent of all staff coming from ethnic minorities; the BBC has only taken that figure to 10.9 per cent. But the senior management performance was far worse: the figure dropped from 5.1 per cent a year ago to 4.3 per cent, meaning only around 40 ethnic minorities among its top 1,000 managers. The BBC is now looking at training and development schemes to encourage more ethnic minority managers and executives.
But the problem doesn't end with the BBC. ITV, Channel 4, Five, and any other broadcaster you care to name are hideously white, too. Broadcast's recent "Hot 100" survey of the top talent across the TV and radio industry included only three black faces – and two of them were the black presenters Melvin and Rikki from Kiss FM. Every producer, controller, commissioner and senior exec on the list was white.
That might be a failing of Broadcast's to look beyond the obvious (white) faces, but I'd suggest it also reflects the fact that there are simply not enough ethnic minorities working in key jobs in the industry. More needs to be done, and it can't just be left to the BBC.
Conor Dignam is the publishing director of 'Broadcast'
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