If you leave aside plots, the need to pack events into neatly paced blocks of action, continuity issues, language and location, most of the difficulties to do with depictions of historical events are related to how actors do not generally look like their characters.
Take for example The Man Who Would Be Bond – the series about James Bond author Ian Fleming. It was a gorgeous piece of television, with authentic feeling locations, sets, clothes and music, but simply put, the cast were too pretty. The actors, perhaps more familiar as Tony Stark’s dad and Irene Adler from Sherlock, as Fleming and Ann, were too beautiful compared to photos of the couple. Similar could be said for Sons of Liberty, which is full of drama and conflict as a group of disparate Bostonians drive the birth of a nation. I mean just look at a painting of say John Hancock and then at Rafe Spall or Ben Barnes and Samuel Adams. Or watch Bright Star, it’s good, but Ben Wishaw especially is a bit of a way from John Keats, even though he looks thoroughly like the kind of person we imagine impoverished Romantic era poets to look like. Yet even allowing for painting not equalling reality, the stories we see can’t capture how people were, even if actors and writers talk at getting to the ‘essence of a character’.
It’s just as well there are no depictions of Ragnar and Lagertha from Vikings because it seems there are historical evidence for their existence.
In one sense it doesn’t matter. Anyone mistaking a film or a program or a novel, even by such exalted authors as Hilary Mantel, for history is, wrong. But on the other hand, I wonder if it does us damage. The media are so at pains to present the airbrushed, symmetrically adorned carefully managed vision of humanity that reality is sometimes a shock, or worse, a disappointment.
There is no doubt the camera loves a certain kind of beauty, as do casting agents and directors but no matter we say, no television drama or film or play can really reflect history as it happened because nothing can.
Everything we imagine about the past is imagined
Memory is deceptive and flawed, evidence can be sketchy or misinterpreted or conflicting. There is little certainty and when there is, often it must be massaged to fit into formal story telling conventions and techniques. This is the tension between all life and art. Life is messy, the past is not finished and seeps into the present in myriad ways, and unlike both, we want our stories to be concluded at a proper finish, neatly tied together and delivered with some kind of meaning.
Which brings me to Broadchurch
As a police procedural/courtroom drama/social commentary/murder mystery/family saga this is strong stuff. It is not neat, and is full of false conclusions and never feels like some kind of beautified history, although the location and camera work is pretty stunning. I can’t say I’m enjoying the program though. It’s just not an enjoyable set of intertwining stories, but I’m transfixed by it. Sometimes I wait to finish an entire episode because it is uncomfortable viewing, other times I watch a couple in a row.
It’s all the words television critics say of programs like this: powerful, riveting, compelling etc. It’s multiple perspectives and visual reveals of characters and their motivations tell a lot about what we all think we remember about the past, even when it was recent, and what we lie about and why.
Sometimes it feels too real, especially Olivia Colman’s Ellie Miller, with her eyes on their ‘emphatically tragic setting’ and David Tennant’s tortured Alec Hardy. Plus the interactions between Miller and Hardy are a delicately balanced sharing of awkward private pain and stilted UK bobby camaraderie. Having said that, all of the cast are pretty good, but they have weighty stuff to work with as everyone has their secrets.
Talking of crime. It seems over the course of a career you can’t be an actor without playing a police officer or detective of some kind in some place. There are a flood, spawning, flotilla, range, (I don’t have a group word for a collection) of cop shows. But as they multiply in number, ever increasingly ridiculous premises are needed to distinguish each from each. So you get Forever, which is a homicide + medical investigation series set in New York but with added immortal. As if Captain Jack Harkness was rebooted, complete with Welsh actor instead of Welsh location and dead humans replacing aliens.
Then there is Sleepy Hollow, which unexpectedly turned into a police procedural + supernatural history conspiracy about the rise of hell, centred (of course) in Sleepy Hollow (because where else?) and featuring a 200-year-old plus ex-dead Colonial soldier. And I haven’t even mentioned Supernatural, which is not strictly a police procedural, except when the guys imitate police or Mulder and Scully to investigate the weird.
This is not new, by the way, there was alien cops with Alien Nation (for anyone who remembers the 80s), vampire PIs such as Angel and then copycat Moonlight and DA staff with special skills in Medium. Now I note there’s iZombie with a zombie in a coroner’s office helping police and eating the odd brain. I wonder how far can these dramas be pushed? What new directions are out there?
And yet, no matter how ridiculous these programs get, they remain full of the beautiful (if sometimes damned).
Back to the real
This all leads me back to a consideration of the real. Death is one of the realest things there is. No art quite captures what it means, or feels like, although we try, as humans, a lot.
The stories we tell about death make it painful, or a fantasy, or identify it as a motivation for others, or reduce it to factory-like settings in morgues with over sharing yet almost blase MEs (looking at you NCIS). They never make it real though, not really real. And thus, unless a program is of the quality of Broadchurch, we don’t feel it either. This plethora of cop shows make of death a fast food entertainment, or puzzles to be solved, or a by-product of apparently bigger mysteries, rather than the point. Which is worrying and completely human.
So we move on, onto the next episode, next case to be solved and body to be identified by the ghost of a cat and her Wiccan lawyer companion with her best friend, a Yoruba priestess police officer who together uncover and battle a corporate conspiracy to heat the world and bring on the end of modernity ahead of a new steam-driven industrial age based in New Orleans.
There we go, we have our next ridiculous premise.