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Artillery Row

More drama, less news

An element of fiction can bring insights and humanity that pure non-fiction lacks

The nation is up in arms about the Post Office scandal and rightly so. We must all surely cheer the announcement of a new law to overturn sub-postmasters’ convictions, the return of Paula Vennells’ CBE and the ever-deeper probings of the long-running enquiry. But not everyone seems entirely happy about the trigger that prompted this new wave of public outrage. Where have you been all this time, social-media commentators mutter irascibly, if you didn’t already know about this? It’s been in the papers for years — why did it take an ITV drama to make you sit up and pay attention? 

We all suffer from news overload. Be honest, most of us flick through a newspaper instead of reading cover to cover, if we read a paper copy at all. Perhaps some of us have cut down our news consumption in recent years, bored by Brexit, depressed by the daily Covid figures, or wearied by the hysterical cries of “it’s World War Three – again!!!” Rolf Dobelli’s book Stop Reading the News argues compellingly that much about the news cycle is toxic and deliberately divisive, and that we’d all be more productive and less anxious if we consumed less of it.  

Even if you’re keen to keep up with current events, some stories, for whatever reason, seize your imagination, while others pass you by. A slow-burning story like that of the sub-postmasters can hum along in the background — it’s been there for ages and you’re vaguely aware of it, but it’s rather like white noise. So we should be grateful to ITV for Mr Bates Vs. The Post Office, for fleshing out the story for those of us who hadn’t caught the BBC’s earlier Panorama investigation, and for prompting outrage and positive action. 

We should also acknowledge that TV dramas are a vital means by which people gain their understanding of history — whether of the recent past, as depicted here, or much earlier eras. The power of films, television, and various types of popular literature — from Asterix comic strips to Georgette Heyer novels — to shape perceptions of the past is considerable. As Laurie A. Finke and Martin B. Shichtman argue in their book Cinematic Illuminations: The Middle Ages on Film, “Today the chief source of historical knowledge for the majority of the population – outside the much despised textbook – must surely be the visual media”. Historians nowadays get all this – they too are quite likely to have been turned on to history by a Dickens adaptation or an episode of Time Team they watched as a teenager. “Public history”, which explores how different forms of culture are used to engage audiences with the past, has now become an academic discipline in its own right.

The more people who become enthusiastic about history the better, but getting your fix through the lens of a director or a screenwriter’s vision of the past comes with caveats. Mr Bates Vs. The Post Office had the air of a documentary — in fact, the actual documentary screened immediately after the final episode was remarkably similar. Victims of the scandal were able to verify events — even if figures who were negatively depicted have, inevitably, claimed they were misrepresented — and they also endorsed a play on the subject (False Accounts, by Lance Steen Anthony Nielsen). But other high-profile historical dramas have been accused of playing fast and loose with the truth.

Take The Crown. In any drama based on real events and real people, a great deal must inevitably be imagined. Nobody knows what was said behind closed doors when William first met Kate. Whether Diana and Dodi decided to get engaged on that ill-fated night in Paris (as Mohamed Al-Fayed apparently believed and almost everyone else doubted) will never be ascertained. The programme’s makers are the first to admit they never set out to make a documentary, and at one point were forced to put out a disclaimer, explaining that the series is a fictional reimagining of actual events. However, sources close to the Royal Family have often expressed anger at how the royals have been represented, knowing that there will be plenty of viewers who believe that what they are watching is the truth and nothing but the truth.

television dramas and films must strike a responsible balance between creative freedom and a faithful account of known factual events

Given this credulousness on the part of many audience members, television dramas and films must strike a responsible balance between creative freedom and a faithful account of known factual events. But the vogue in period drama nowadays is to be “disruptive” and deliberate anachronism is the name of the game. Film studios and TV stations are falling over themselves to commission dramas that reinvent the past in the spirit of the present, with characters who look, sound, and behave like people today, while the pop-music soundtrack has become ubiquitous. You run the risk of being labelled a fuddy duddy if you complain about period dramas being soap operas in crinolines and top hats, but believing that attitudes and behaviours in the past were just as they are today is not only small-minded but narcissistic. As the famous line from The Go-Between goes, “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”. Embrace that and the study of history becomes far more rewarding. 

The arts have always been a brilliant medium for storytelling. Ancient legends have been told and retold over many centuries, whether through medieval ballads, plays, operas or paintings. TV dramas are merely the contemporary version of an ages-old practice. If the creative, colourful stories we see enacted before our eyes as we curl up on the sofa with a cup of tea engage us more than the news bulletin that follows, so be it. In fact, let’s invest more in this sort of storytelling and not be snobbish about it. So long as scriptwriters are diligent in their research, give us more high-quality dramas about historical events — particularly on the BBC — and fewer gimmicky game shows and cheap reality TV series. From the contaminated blood scandal to the Windrush scandal, recent history offers rich pickings for starters.

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