Let the viewers in on the game

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

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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'.

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