Dramadoc, docudrama and history on television


Both presentations in the session considered, from different perspectives, the role of actors: the significance of their experience both as actors and personally; also the importance of context to productions; and the significance of the idea of a ‘contract’ with the viewer and the audience’s trust.


Aileen Blaney’s paper ‘Making history: historical docudrama in contemporary Northern Ireland’, based on part of her doctoral research into historical docudramas made during the Peace Process in Northern Ireland, considered Paul Greengrass’ Omagh and Bloody Sunday. Seeing them as the legacy of contemporary suffering in Northern Ireland, she outlined the role of docudrama in social change (such as the earlier (1990) ITV film Who bombed Birmingham?, which led to the review and eventual overturning in 1991 of the convictions for men wrongly gaoled in 1975 for the Birmingham pub bombings. Furthermore, although there is, she suggests, a tendency to depict Northern Ireland as having moved on from violence, the trauma of what are still very recent events remains. The 2006 BBC2 series Facing the Truth in ‘Truth Week’ saw Archbishop Desmond Tutu attempt conflict resolution on TV and was seen by the BBC as ‘event TV’. But this again assumed that the past was past. Suggesting that TV programmes may act as memorials to the casualties of conflict – as physical memorials do in cities such as Berlin – she considered the acclimatization and desensitization experienced by audiences not directly affected by the events depicted, who had grown familiar with the high numbers of deaths referred to in news programming. In contrast, she suggests, docudrama offers an alternative perspective. She showed a clip from Bloody Sunday, in which the iconic image of a priest, Fr. Edward Daly, soon afterwards Bishop Daly, is seen waving a bloodied handkerchief in order to allow a wounded teenager to be carried from the scene, to demonstrate how docudrama can ‘revivify still images’ through its visceral feel, in this case with no use of master shots. This may, then, allow mourning to begin by depicting, in Judith Butler’s term, ‘the limits of the sayable’ in the public sphere.


Aileen also considered the comment of Alan Rosenthal, citing Ian McBride, on how an audience may come to trust certain programmes. So Greengrass attempted a great deal of media work to encourage trust, for example by making an explicit link to the survivors of Bloody Sunday: members of the same Derry community re-enacted events in which they or their families had been involved, although the reenactment took place in Dublin as it was felt to be too sensitive to attempt this in the same geographical area. Some of those involved viewed this as ‘bringing our struggle to a wider audience’, positioning the film as testimony. One of the questions from the floor specifically referred to the use of James Nesbitt in Bloody Sunday as he is a well known Northern Irish actor, and Aileen outlined (as she does at greater length in her article in History and Memory 19 (2007)) the similarities between Ivan Cooper, the local Protestant MP and peace activist, and Nesbitt in terms of their popularity in Northern Ireland, and so this ‘double voicing’ does not alienate a non-Protestant audience as it does not rely upon their shared Ulster Protestant identity but upon their shared popular appeal.


Derek Paget and Heather Sutherland’s jointly-presented paper ‘An AHRC/University of Reading Project: “Acting with facts: actors performing the real in British theatre and television since 1990”’ outlined their project, which began in Autumn 2007. Derek began by discussing the origins of docudrama/dramadoc and especially its perceived role in the US as a genre which focuses on loss and trauma – the ‘disease of the week’ or ‘tabloid drama’. However, the increased use of docudramatic elements as a means to tell stories led him to think about the craft of acting, and to ask if acting for docudrama is different to acting for drama on TV or in the theatre. Whilst actors frequently move between TV and the theatre, the 1990s saw a number of changes to TV which make the consideration of the context of productions very significant. In 1998 John Willis commented of docudrama that there is the idea of a contract with the viewer. Les Cook has commented that in the 1990s the greatest change in TV drama was due to competitive tender with changes to the ITV franchises in 1993: Thames TV, most notably, lost theirs. He also commented on the way in which films such as Bloody Sunday, by also appearing in the cinema, represent a synergy of film and TV although for the audience this might be a very different viewing experience. Heather then continued the presentation, giving an overview of scholarship in the area including Georgina’s Born’s recent study of the BBC (Uncertain Vision 2004), and she outlined her work to date in interviewing actors involved in dramadoc, such as Timothy West, and remarked upon the different experiences of drama and dramadoc for actors: for example, they may be expected to wear substantial prosthetics in order to make them appear more like the individual depicted, in contrast to their acting skills as paramount. This is especially linked to the implications of a co-produced programme on content, as it affects the emphases in a programme, and is often viewed as a move to the ‘lowest common denominator’: the reliance upon an actor looking ‘right’ rather than using their acting skills is an example of this.


In response to the paper Alex Graham commented that ‘old left’ scholarship, as he termed Georgina Born’s work, should be only cautiously applied to the BBC in the 21st century. He added that it would be useful to consider, when analysing drama-documentary, whether directors had a background in drama or documentary. Both Derek and Heather found Tom Nicholls’ (Lincoln) question initially addressed to Aileen concerning the casting of James Nesbitt to be extremely interesting and remarked that this was an element which he would consider in the project.


Erin Bell


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