Let the viewers in on the game

Drama-documentaries are a popular genre, but they do no more than interpret the truth

Share
Related Topics
This week's Conservative Party political broadcast began in the idiom of film noir. Establishment shots of an unkempt inner-city street, strewn rubbish, even the pink nose of a rodent. A man whose face we never see enters a house and pulls an ancient, bulbous, electric typewriter towards him. Clearly he is about to expose a major conspiracy involving corruption at the highest level; equally clearly from the atmosphere of secrecy and menace he is at some personal risk. He then commences to write an article for the Spectator about the state of things on Islington borough council.

Now, of course, the broadcast made clear this was a dramatic reconstruction, and thus the party was not claiming that former Labour councillor Leo McKinstry actually does live in a vermin-infested street, works only at night, and has yet to invest in a word-processor (let alone a fax - he posts the article, so we can have the full impact of the inside the pillar- box shot). However, this treatment raised in microcosm the questions raised by dramatic reconstructions in general, questions raised in larger form by yesterday's judgment by the Independent Broadcasting Commission's on Carlton's film Beyond Reason, and more generally in the debate over the form known variously as faction, fact-based drama, documentary drama and drama-documentary.

Lucy Gannon's screenplay, Beyond Reason, tells the story of Susan Christie, an Ulster-born British army private who slit the throat of the wife of a Signals Corps captain with whom she was having an affair. Christie was subsequently found guilty of manslaughter and jailed for five years (later increased to nine). Ms Gannon based her screenplay on the five-day trial transcript, supplemented by interviews with investigating police and friends; the team also had access to Captain Duncan McAllister, until he withdrew from the project after a disagreement over terms.

In fact, Lucy Gannon was a lot more scrupulous in her treatment of Susan Christie's crime than Conservative Central Office was with Mr McKinstry's domestic arrangements. No one questions that Beyond Reason was accurate; the ITC's concern was with the feelings of Penny McAllister's parents only four years after their daughter's brutal death. And Ms Gannon agrees that the parents should have been consulted and was herself unaware that they hadn't been.

That they cause distress to the survivors of dramatic events is but one of the criticisms levelled at documentary dramas. Another is inaccuracy: when American television made an instant dramatisation of the skater Tonya Harding's feud with her rival, Nancy Kerrigan, a caption disarmingly advised that "certain events in this drama based on fact are interpretative, certain characters are composites or have been fictionalised, and some names have been changed".

Last year, the British Advertising Standards Authority ruled that the film In the Name of the Father (in which one of the Guildford Four, Gerard Conlon, is shown sharing a cell with his father, Guiseppe) could not be described as a true story.

But fundamental is the charge that any dramatisation skews the truth, that (in a variant of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle) the very act of representation inevitably changes the character of that which is being represented. This could be seen to apply to all reporting, but of course (as the ITC points out) there is a difference between seeing someone described in print and being acted on screen. More importantly, screen drama (and indeed any drama) is expressed within dramatic genres that contain inherent meaning of themselves.

The major development of television drama in the past 15 years has been the expansion of those story-telling idioms in which the viewer knows the basic dramatic conventions before the programme begins. In a single play, you have to work out the identity of hero, villain and victim; an unexplained death might be innocent, random or supernatural. If, however, you are watching a whodunnit, a thriller or a ghost story the answers to certain of these questions are given, and, indeed, the answers to certain supplementary questions. As political crime writers have found, it is not necessary or indeed desirable to describe the source of the gumshoe's lonely urge for justice: his commitment, anti-social characteristics and suspicion of authority are built into the genre like the ride into the sunset in a cowboy movie or the assembly of suspects at the end of a whodunnit.

As television drama has become increasingly confined within institutional walls (be they police stations, surgeries or hospitals) so drama-documentaries have sought to tell their stories through recognisable genre conventions. The early Granada drama-documentaries were largely about Eastern Europe and - in genre terms - free-standing. From the mid-Eighties onwards, however, almost all the company's drama-documentaries conformed to variations of a particular dramatic genre; the heroic investigator fearlessly pursuing injustice in face of the resistance both of the investigated and (often) his own colleagues. Thus it is neither the villain nor the victim but the investigator (or whistleblower) who guides us through the intricacies of the shooting down of an American airliner by the Soviet air force (Coded Hostile), the Lockerbie air disaster (Why Lockerbie?) and the framing of the Birmingham Six (Who Bombed Birmingham?).

In these cases, you could say, genre is largely a mechanism whereby the journalism is revealed. The more drama-documentary strays from public into personal life, the more the chosen genre determines the meaning. Lucy Gannon speaks of Beyond Reason as a tragedy, with its implication of recognisably flawed characters driven by fate towards an undeserved catastrophe. The screenplay portrayed a man using his superiority of age, class and rank to entrap, bed and abandon a younger woman, whose understandable failure to cope with rejection drives her into an act of murderous desperation directed against her lover's wife. That the roles of villain and victim could be reshuffled is shown by the fact that the above is the plot not only of Beyond Reason but also of Fatal Attraction.

From this one could argue - as some do - that the attempt to combine fact and fiction is essentially underhand. I don't take this view. Drama- documentary of the Granada school is one of the great journalistic inventions of television and has contributed to the righting of more than one major injustice. Fact-based drama has found engaging stories in real life that could be told as fiction (as so many true stories are) but would lack immediacy - and honesty - thereby. If viewers are given the right information they are capable of understanding the rules of engagement.

The danger is the growing homo-genisation of television drama around three or four basic genres will blur these distinctions. Companies should make a firmer distinction between drama-documentary (whose purpose is primarily journalistic) and fact-based drama (in which the factual nature of the story is a bonus). Producers should treat their viewers as grown-ups, and invite them in on the game.

David Edgar is the author of more than 40 plays including `Pentecost' and `Nicholas Nickleby'.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Property Finance Partner

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: LONDON - BANKING / PROPERTY FINANCE - ...

Agile Tester

£28000 - £30000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: An ambitious...

Senior SAP MM Consultant, £50,000 - £60,000, Birmingham

£50000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Senior SAP MM C...

SAP BW BO

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP BW BO - 6 MONTHS - LONDON London (Gr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Sumatran tiger, endemic to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is an endangered species  

Save the tiger: Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt
 

Let's make Eid a bank holiday

Grace Dent
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried