I’d like to thank all of you who got in touch to respond to my last newsletter. I was really gratified by all your responses and your generosity has left me feeling like an emotionally needy egotist! (but massive thank you nonetheless).
Anyway, there were so many fascinating responses, in particular to my thoughts / questions about recent TV factual drama, that this fortnight’s newsletter consists almost entirely of your words –
‘I agree totally about The Reckoning. Before even considering whether to put pen to paper, I ask myself whether the world needs this piece of writing. Could it help someone, inform someone, make people FEEL something that stays with them for their good? And The Reckoning, for all its strong production values, added nothing…Perhaps commissioning execs need to re-think what they’re looking for in scripts, rather than trying to please the viewing public by second-guessing what they may like. After all, it’s great to be surprised by what we end up watching…’
‘…just to say I completely agree re The Reckoning and The Long Shadow… I couldn’t even get through one episode of either. I find the apparent commissioner fixation with grim true crime particularly exhausting when there are so many other brilliant, surprising and entertaining stories (and indeed scripts!) out there getting rejected. It’s become a modern cliche for the people behind these shows to tell us emphatically that their take on X serial killer / abuser is all about the victims, but I struggle to take that seriously even when said by people I do believe have good intentions. It seems inevitable to me that the monster is almost always the most intriguing / compelling character, and the reason people tune in. (That said, I did think Krysty Wilson Cairns did a great job at making Charles Cullen believably inscrutable and slightly bland in The Good Nurse. But increasingly anything about such grim topics is a turn-off for me.)’
‘Sometimes evil is so blatant, one-sided and, once unveiled, ubiquitously recognised that there is nothing more to do than acknowledge its impact on society, punish those responsible and instill measures so that a similar instance never happens again. There is no room for aesthetic interpretation as no such attempt will ever meaningfully contribute to the understanding of the evil nor society’s need to find closure…Regrettably, I feel The Reckoning falls into this category.’
‘Essentially, so much TV (and film) is being driven by pre-existing I.P. Of course, that’s usually in the genre-fiction world (Star Wars; Marvel etc). But last year was an inflection point when we consider that trio of dramas about recent real-world events: Superpumped; We Crashed; and The Dropout.
And now we’re seeing the same thing here…there’s an easy narrative to produce these shows as the domestic audience is likely to have some familiarity with, so they’re easier to sell. These shows are really pre-existing I.P, with the I.P being based around trauma and tragedy.’
‘I’ve found I often don’t get on with crime stories and particularly historical crime dramatisations, despite how well-made and heartfelt they usually are. (My Mum loves them, so they obviously have something going for them!) To answer the question you originally posed, both dramas, by their very nature, are depicting flawed institutions, and somehow suggesting that the very act of showing what happened is, in some way, showing how those institutions have been overcome and corrected. The problem is, when we watch Covid hearings or see news about any of the horrific misogynistic crimes of just the last few years – at least two of which directly resulted from or were compounded by similar institutional failings – we can see that’s not the case!
So in watching these dramas, I wonder if maybe there’s a fundamental contradiction being asked of us. Essentially, we’re asked to forget that the issues at hand really haven’t been overcome just because we’ve spoken about them now. (I’m reminded of the end of Spotlight, where the expose has been published… and it becomes clear the real work is only just beginning.)
A lot of what I find myself pondering more generally, and certainly when it comes to works like these, is whether the act of giving voice is in itself enough. It’s certainly true that these works give voice to those who were silenced, and that should never be dismissed. But I think my question is, what do we do next? What *can* happen next? If we can’t show how things changed (or could change) because they haven’t, then are we perhaps just putting other people’s traumatic experiences on screen to make ourselves feel better? I don’t have any of the answers for that, except it seems maybe our job as artists has to be both – to give voice, *and* to try and inspire the next bit, in our choices over what to dramatise as much as anything else.
I’m not sure if you intended this in your newsletter, but having just finished ‘Bodies’ it seems very much to be the exception that proves everything I’ve just gone on about above. Even though it’s a crime show! Without fully giving away the gambit, it’s very much the kind of character-driven speculative fiction I tend to go all-in for; and is very clearly about how institutions are designed to self-perpetuate, at everyone else’s expense. It’s no accident, I suspect, that the four leads are all marked out as ‘different’ somehow, existing in institutions actively designed to exclude them – which directly leads to their resolution of the central mystery. That is to say, a group of people who think outside the norms, working together, can change systems. This is my first encounter with Si Spencer’s work, but I’d hope he’d be very proud of the adaptation.
PS: And on the other side of the argument –
‘From the perspective of today’s teens and young adults, actually, now I come to think of it, I can see the value in them watching those programmes. They do reiterate the total ineptitude (and endemic sexism) of authorities in those times, which is a good precautionary tale.’
PS: Although the response seemed to be broadly unanimous about the decision to make / show The Reckoning, there were several responses that disagreed about including The Long Shadow and who praised both the show and the reasons for making it (focusing in the victims’ rather than the perpetrator police stories). This makes the case really well –
‘I watched the final episode this week and felt it did an excellent job of retelling the whole horrible story from the perspective of the women themselves. Much like the wonderful book Five by Hallie Rubenhold, it turned the spotlight onto the victims of Sutcliffe’s horrific crimes and reclaimed the narrative for them. Significantly, it doesn’t elaborate on what Sutcliffe did or attempt to explain why he did it. In fact, we only see Sutcliffe at the very end. This story isn’t about Sutcliffe – it’s a story about women with hopes and dreams and problems and fears, just like all of us. Real women whose lives – and the lives of their loved ones – were so horribly destroyed by Sutcliffe. It also highlighted how they were so badly let down by an inept, arrogant and misogynistic police investigation that simply wasn’t up to the job. How they were portrayed by the police and in the media as prostitutes, women of loose morals who ‘brought this on themselves’. How women in the region were told to ’stay indoors’ in order to avoid being attacked! It gave a great sense of the fear and vulnerability women were feeling at the time, simply going about their lives. In light of the murder of Sarah Everard and the other recent horrifying cases of sexual assault and misconduct by Met police officers, this feels like a very current and important story to tell.’
And some of your recommendations in response to my recommendations –
‘My book highlights of the last few months have been Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuc and Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier – which I felt I’d been building up to for years and did not disappoint.’
‘On your recommendation in a previous newsletter I bought & read the script for THE MISANDRIST, which I loved. Felt like a really good example of reeling you in with a funny premise and then springing the serious questions on you. Thanks for suggesting it as something to see/read. All your recommendations are v helpful for sifting through the melee when deciding what to watch/read next!’
PS: Yes, a brilliant stage play by Lisa Carroll.
‘The best novel I have read recently is Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder and I could not be more excited for the film adaptation to come out (hopefully 2024) by Marielle Heller & with Amy Adams. It follows a stay at home mum in the US who is (or isn’t?) turning into a dog. It’s a magical realist story & it perfectly captures the visceral/animalistic intensity of new motherhood. I had recently had a baby when I read it so felt very seen! I would recommend to any new mothers who are finding the first years tough but also to everyone else who might want an idea of what some new mothers are going through (apart from the turning into a dog thing!).’
‘I was recommended to read David Mamet’s On Directing as a craft book which is as much about storytelling as pure directing. Have you read it and if so, do you think it’s useful?’
PS: Yes, I think it’s one of the most useful and insightful screenwriting books.
‘…in the past weekend I saw two very good films released around misogyny and sexual violence: The Royal Hotel; and How to Have Sex. Different in tone but strong renderings of their subject matter. And How to Have Sex was a discovery of some seriously gifted young British actors I hope to see more of.’
Finally, I was picked up on my reference to Ken Loach as a ‘national treasure’ and think it is only fair to include in full this response –
‘Though of course I accept he’s an influential filmmaker – like most Jews I tend to disagree – and with good reason.
Minimising antisemitism and repeating conspiracy theories: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/ken-loach-labour-jewish-labour-movement-jewish-north-east-b2350879.html
Blaming Jews for their own genocide: https://twitter.com/adamlangleben/status/1665102728077426696 – and here’s Rabbi Hugo Grynn, a Holocaust survivor, on the rtopic: https://twitter.com/adamlangleben/status/1665102729700683779
One of the UK’s leading antisemitism experts on loach: https://twitter.com/daverich1/status/885086069489889283 and again: https://twitter.com/daverich1/status/989795878767652864
Here’s old mate Ken speaking at Labour Against the Witch Hunt event, i.e. Jews are inventing this antisemitism smear because they’re opposed to social justice: https://twitter.com/daverich1/status/948193266540990465
And here he is helping a man kicked out of the GMB for saying the Holocaust was “exaggerated”: https://twitter.com/daverich1/status/1235900108920717312
I could do this all day, I really could, but I trust the above is sufficient. Particularly given the rising antisemitism in this country at this time, I think it’s important you’re aware of this – and that your readers be made aware of your oversight too.’
Thanks so much again to all of you who responded so generously and interestingly. The next newsletter will be with you on Friday December 1st,
Twitter / ‘X’: @PhilipShelley1
Friday November 27th 2023