Of Documentaries and Dramas

I’m increasingly unimpressed by the docudrama as a medium for… well anything. The BBC’s Ancient Rome series being a case in point. I’m very happy to have my historical movies be dodgy bastardisations of the truth with minimal relationship to reality (see: Braveheart, Gladiator, The Patriot), because their primary goal is to entertain and to generate emotion. I demand a great deal more attention to detail from a documentary, whose primary goal is to inform. The problem with the docudrama is that it claims to be a documentary while deploying all the tools of entertainment, and winds up being neither factually rigorous nor particularly entertaining. Instead it’s a half-baked compromise: a supposed drama in which characterisation and dramatic storytelling are almost entirely absent, but which bends the truth as much as a drama.

The problem is that while composed of fictionalised scenes the docudrama does away with all those pesky dramatic elements such as character development. It has no need to establish a set of dramatic characters with whom we empathise – instead the authoritative voice-over handily skips all of that – or to involve us in a personal viewpoints or develop themes and meaning. Instead what passes for a narrative is more like a series of edited highlights, lazily skipping from scene to scene with the illusion of authority, presenting only the most lurid exploits or moments of violence. This might be excusable if the sequence of events were detailed and informative, but unfortunately it’s impossible to tell. The generally sensationalist tone transforms everything into the style of a TV mini-series. Despite solemn assurances in the opening captions that everything is based on historical advice, it’s impossible to tell how solid a basis there is for any of the things we’re watching. Are these facts, accounts, interpretations, opinions, the most likely of several alternatives? Which is which, and how can we tell? We get no sources for what we’re seeing, no debate, no discussion of alternative possibilities.

The first two episodes of Ancient Rome have portrayed an insane Nero in a sensationalistic light with a performance of barely restrained hammery from the ubiquitous Michael “Not Martin” Sheen (depicting Nero as some kind of bizarre blend of his recent turns as Tony Blair and Kenneth Williams). The second showed a more restrained but still overblown depiction of Julius Caesar’s ruthless rise to power. What’s always fascinating when viewing a familiar historical tale in a new version is the massive differences between them. This docudrama seemed no more or less plausible than any other tale of Caesar, including the recent BBC/HBO co-production Rome (from which this series seems to draw most of its sets) and yet one portrays Caesar as charismatic and shrewd, the other conniving and brutal. One portrays Pompey as weak and hesitant, the other as noble and commanding, undermined by scheming politicians. Neither version varies the key facts and events, but both drape an entirely different interpretation on them. It’s obvious to say, though never more clear, that we can never truly know what historical figures were actually like, moment to moment, day to day. We can only interpret, thinking our interpretation logical and plausible. And that’s the real problem with the docudrama, because it does away with uncertainty as surely as any drama. What we get is a single account lent the weight of an authoritative version, possibly based on painstaking research, or possibly just the most entertaining of all possible histories.

Speaking of Michael Sheen, this weekend we also watched the dramatised biographical piece about HG Wells on BBC2. This was far more drama than docudrama, dispensing with the commentary and playing by the rules of drama. It was a bit of a mixed bag, but fascinating in places. Although I know the basics of Wells’s life, in particular his enthusiasm for the scarier bits of eugenics, I hadn’t really appreciated the extent to which his opinions changed over his life, and that he came to regret some of his earlier and more ruthless philosophy. The drama chooses to focus on Wells through the lens of his relationships with women, which means that it simultaneously provides too much and too little information about him, particularly if (like most people, presumably) your main interest is in his science fiction. Nonetheless there’s a constant thread through the story of his attempts to both predict and shape the future, and the impression emerges of a man who clings to the delusion that the world and all the people in it are supremely rational beings who can detach themselves from selfish emotion. Such a world, the increasingly didactic Wells believes, must surely submit to the power of his arguments for utopia if only he can frame them correctly. At the same time he himself comes across as something of a hypocritical egoist, using and discarding women for his own convenience with the same quiet certainty that they will be persuaded to see things his way, and demanding of himself none of the rationalism he expects in others. Which may well be the truth, or may not – but given that this was drama hewn from Wells’ own autobiography I allow it to play by different rules of authenticity than a documentary or docudrama. Michael Sheen’s been on our screens so much recently that his own mannerisms are becoming noticeable through the cracks in his performances, but Wells was probably the most subtle performance I’ve seen him give.

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