I’m really delighted this week to share with you a guest article written by screenwriter NEIL McKAY. I worked with Neil on my first ever script-editing job, MEDICS, a medical series for Granada\ITV. Neil wrote some excellent episodes for this series – I remember particularly one very powerful story about a pregnant teenager who is diagnosed with AIDS, a fantastic performance by the young SAMANTHA MORTON.
I then worked with Neil on another ITV medical series, STAYING ALIVE, which again had a great cast (including SOPHIE OKONEDO and JESSICA HYNES).
Since then Neil has established himself as one of the top screenwriters working in UK TV drama, and he’s particularly carved a niche for himself in Factual Drama – he’s written some wonderful films, such as APPROPRIATE ADULT, MO, SEE NO EVIL:THE MOORS MURDERS, THIS IS PERSONAL:THE HUNT FOR THE YORKSHIRE RIPPER and many others.
In 2011 he adapted Kate Summerscale’s book THE SUSPICIONS OF MR WHICHER for ITV – and he has now written a new MR WHICHER story…
Over to you Neil…
‘IT’S WHERE WE GET OUR HISTORY FROM…’
‘THIS IS A TRUE STORY. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.’
We are all familiar with such captions. In British television it is obligatory to have some form of disclaimer at the top of a drama which portrays real events. In reality they tend to be even more cautious than this so that the effect can be to create doubt in the minds of the audience over whether much of what is dramatised actually happened at all. As a writer of factual drama who invariably spends years on the research process and believes that accuracy matters I hate to see a caption which reads ‘based on real events’ rather than ‘this is a true story’ applied to my work. I want the audience to have confidence that the events I dramatise, for example in ‘See No Evil: The Moors Murders’ and ‘Appropriate Adult’ did happen and in the way shown.
And yet it is a complicated subject. The caption above is in fact from the Coen brothers film ‘Fargo’ which was released in 1996. It tells the story of a car salesman in Minnesota who got into financial trouble and hired two men to kidnap his wife in exchange for half of the ransom money. But when journalists investigated this ‘true story’ they discovered it had never actually happened. The Coen brothers had invented both the story and the caption. Who knows why exactly, but I would guess that part of the reason is that they know that audiences are inclined to pay extra attention when they believe the story is a true one.
This view seems to be one that is currently shared by drama commissioners. When I started writing factual dramas they were very rare – in fact there had only ever been a handful on British television. Now they are ubiquitous, especially the biopics. Scan the lists of BAFTA and RTS nominations in recent years and you will find irrefutable evidence of the trend.
And while the trend continues then so will the question: does accuracy matter? I believe it does and here is a story which explains why. When researching my drama ‘Mo’ about the Labour Politian Mo Mowlam which starred Julie Walters, I visited Michael Gallagher whose son was killed in the Omagh bombing and who was portrayed by Gerard McSorley in Guy Hibbert’s brilliant drama ‘Omagh’. I asked him if he was pleased with the film and he told me he was. He said he had been especially impressed by the filmmakers’ attention to detail and referred to the fact that the production designers had even got the mugs in his kitchen right. I asked him why this mattered and he said that if film-makers were endeavouring to get the small details right it gave him confidence that they would take equal care to get the bigger picture right. In fact it turned out that Michael was a huge fan of factual drama in general and observed that these days ‘it’s where we get our history from’.
I believe he’s right, and that – if the story is a serious one involving history, politics or crime – then we owe it to the audience to be as truthful as possible and not to bend the truth for dramatic effect as – it has been suggested – the recent Oscar winner ‘Argo’ did by implying that the Brits had declined to assist the Iranian hostages when they had done no such thing. I would sooner my dramas were less obviously ‘dramatic’ than try and create false jeopardy or otherwise win an audience over with something fake. For what it’s worth I believe most of the audience prefer it that way too. Real life tends to be untidy and in my factual dramas I avoid tidying up events to fit in with conventional dramatic structures.
Which brings me to ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’. Two years ago I dramatised Kate Summerscale’s brilliant book about the Road Hill House murder case in Wiltshire 1860 – a case which almost destroyed Jack Whicher, the detective who was sent to investigate it. ITV commissioned a second Whicher drama but – although we know something of Jack Whicher’s life after the Road Hill House case – including the fact that he became one of the country’s first ever private investigators – the information is limited. I have therefore imagined his life afterwards. The result is a blend of fact and invention. As a drama it seems to have worked well. But how do we describe the result? What will our opening caption be? This is still being decided. One thing is certain – we’ll be honest. The caption won’t read: ‘This is a true story…’ and for once I’ll be entirely happy with that!
‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher: The Murder on Angel Lane’ starring Paddy Considine and Olivia Colman goes out on ITV1 on Sunday 12 May.
Huge thanks to NEIL McKAY.
Until next week,
April 12th 2013