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The Warp

Aftermath of Cathy (5)

The vote for ‘Cathy’ was a vote for documentary drama as a whole. Media mandarins so far have largely failed to get the message. Theirs has been a failure to face up to the viewers’ need for hard facts in drama, a lack of seriousness, a failure in leadership.

Many media mandarins do not even have a clear understanding of the difference between conventional drama and documentary drama.

No standards are set so that, for a public which I believe would really like to know whether what is being shown is true or partly true, or interesting but not representative, or boring but representative, it is not possible to tell how true to fact a drama is. Mandarins could, for example, label documentary drama from one to ten, marking how close the ‘reality’ it presents is to reality as, say, a journalist on a serious newspaper would see it.

The non-contextualised treatment of, for example, much of Ken Loach’s more recent work, even if its theme is ostensibly serious, deflects discussion to an experiential rather than a political level.

The BBC was slow to follow up the potential of documentary drama which we explored in ‘Cathy’. Plays like ‘Days of Hope’, for example, were a series of stories placed in a historical setting and chosen to illustrate a particular theme, but did not provide viewers with guidelines as to what in them was invented and what true.

Ken Loach and Tony Garnett were the obvious people to continue the genre of ‘Cathy’ since they had respectively directed and produced it for the BBC. Despite the immense respect I have for both, and despite the many scrapes we’ve been through together, I do have to say that I think it a pity that they, bending under the pressures exerted on them by people like Sydney Newman and Huw Weldon, did not go on to firm up and exploit the wonderful and potentially so important new strand of docudrama, but instead withdrew into a world of largely non contextualised drama.

Tony Garnett has said he now feels that the problems


of documentary drama outweigh its advantages. ‘It begs more questions than it answers ... I’ve got ethical objections to drama documentary. In fiction, the audience are in no doubt, so keeping faith with the audience is easier,’ he told Derek Paget, Reader in Drama at Worcester College.

Ken Loach too now feels that the greater leeway given


to fiction is an advantage. ‘There’s a wide tolerance in fiction. In documentaries, the constraints are much more narrow,’ he told Jeremy Isaacs on ‘Face to Face’ in 1994.

This, I think, is a cop-out for both Tony and Ken. What made Ken’s ‘Ladybird, Ladybird’, which treats some themes similar to those in ‘Cathy’, so much less important in terms of actually producing any social change is that it never made it clear whether what we’re being shown is an individual isolated tragic story unconnected with major trends in our society, or whether it is an example of something bad that is happening all the time and which as citizens we should address. If the latter, there is little in the film that tells us this. Ken has abandoned the political possibilities in favour of the telling of a particularised story, albeit telling it powerfully.

So, the viewer watching this harrowing film may ask ‘So what? If it is not telling me something important about the society I live in, which I ought to know and if necessary act on, why am I putting myself through all

this?’ (Please see Appendix 1)


And so the trend continues. The vote for ‘Cathy’ was far more than a vote for just ‘Cathy’ and was a vote for serious docudrama as a whole. Media management has failed to understand this, let alone provide our audience with what it has asked for.

The rot and imprecision extends in the world of cinema films as well. The film ‘Michael Collins’, true to known facts in so many respects, threw away its credibility in a contrived ending that was much less dramatic than was the actual ending of the heroic Michael Collins.

‘Titanic’ left out the breakaway of the stern and the sinking of the stern that was an important and devastating feature of what actually happened.

‘Amistad’ placed an entirely invented character in the middle of an apparently true story.

In ‘Braveheart’ William Wallace, played by Mel Gibson, was shown having an affair with and a child by Isabelle, the Princess of Wales, despite the fact that she did not set foot in Britain until some while after Wallace had been hung, drawn and quartered.

In much of the media world it seems now to be accepted that truth must always be altered in order to create a ‘watchable’ story. (See Appendix 2)

Such things are not bad in themselves. But I believe there are millions like me who need to know whether what we are seeing is true to the known facts or is fabrication. On the part of the mandarin class, there has been a failure to understand this and a failure to provide proper guidelines.

The exclusion of excellence from our screens is a tragedy. The weakest link in any chain determines the strength of the whole. That weak link in the media chain, I believe, is not among the professionals, camerapersons, writers, sound technicians. It’s among the ranks of the script editors, project development executives, fat cats of that ilk.

Media management are lacking in leadership potential. A document called ‘BBC Single Drama Submission Guidelines’, sent out to both inexperienced writers and those at the top of their profession, disturbingly suggests even a lack of proper literacy.

The document, which is unsigned, begins with a classic


piece of gobbledegook; ‘with regard to your recent enquiry/ submission, writers should ensure all submissions are clearly marked’. The gobbledegook becomes even more murky, and leads on to this following very choice bloom in the garden of non-literacy;

If sending in a treatment, you do not need to complete the following:

Each script should be accompanied by the following:

Up to two lines with the title and genre of the piece, including when and where it is set.’

This is not taken out of context. It really is as obscure as it sounds.

‘The quality of writing we expect from a BBC drama is of the highest standard,’ the same slovenly document tells us later, and then gives some patronising advice, which professional writers must find particularly irksome, about where guidelines on screenplay format, writing courses and writing workshops can be found.

It’s as if artist entrants to the Royal Academy summer show were sent a document detailing where they can access courses in painting by numbers; or musicians performing at the Queen Elizabeth Hall were handed details of where to buy keyboards with a one finger auto chord accompaniment facility.

I think it is important to question how writers for television are ever to learn to use language well when those in authority use words so sloppily.

Such basic literacy malfunction at so fundamental a level does not harbinger well for ability in those who have the power to commission programmes. ‘Cathy’ may have slipped through by subterfuge, but that gives little ground for confidence in our media management. For every ‘Cathy’ that makes it, how many blockbusters, important programmes that could enrich our lives and leaven our society and bear testimony to our common humanity, are strangled before birth by media mandarins?

And, in the case of ‘Cathy’ and the hard-hitting tradition it could have initiated, the inertia of a frightened leadership has meant that what could have been an important new strand, bringing glory to the BBC and to all television, was instead aborted.


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