“Complete and utter rubbish” (Tony Blair). “A barrel-load of malicious nonsense”(John Major). These are comments from political heavyweights on the fifth series of The Crown, now in the news. Netflix must be laughing all the way to the bank. But I don’t think we should laugh. What is called “fictional dramatisation” is feeding a culture of misinformation. Truth is becoming the collateral damage of the communications revolution and the quest for power and profit.
Perhaps we should be grateful to Kellyane Conway, campaign manager and adviser to President Trump, speaking two days after his inauguration in January 2017. Trump had been claiming that more people turned out in Washington DC to celebrate his victory than they did for President Obama’s. Photographs of the two events left no doubt that this was nonsense — in fact, a straightforward lie. Conway explained in a NBC Meet the Press interview that the President was simply providing “alternative facts”.
We all jeered. But she was alerting everyone that the USA was now tuning in to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and the sinister perversion of language he dubbed “Newspeak”. Believing that Trump was cheated out of the last presidential election is an example of today’s “Goodthink”. Nothing to laugh at.
The worrying thing is that the cultural elite who laughed at Kellyanne Conway have now embraced her “alternative facts” under its newly assumed guise of “re-imagining”. In The Crown, for instance, Prince Charles sounds out John Major after an opinion poll has shown that the British public favour abdication. Following Tony Blair’s election in May 1997 Prince Charles meets the new Prime Minister, hoping to find a way to marry Camilla Parker Bowles, then his “secret companion”, now his wife and Queen Consort. Neither of these meetings happened.
It is fine within drama documentaries to imagine conversations between real people, provided these conversations convey a truth. The late Queen loved horses, so imagined conversations with her trainer can convey a truth. When drama-documentaries imagine such private conversations, or present the results of hard-won investigative journalism, rather than audience-thrilling inventions, they stand up to scrutiny.
The Crown, though, deliberately mixes and blurs fact and fiction, using archive footage to reinforce its story-lines. Such “re-imagining” joins the tidal wave of misinformation that characterises our postmodern era. In this post-truth world, disclaimers are overlooked and cultural leaders seem to be parting company with facts in search of ratings.
Another king has recently come into focus: Richard III in Steve Coogan’s The Lost King. The film, released in the UK this October, follows a pattern to which audiences are accustomed and which they enjoy, the story of the amateur who gets it right. In The Dig (2021) a self-taught archaeologist played by Ralph Fiennes finds the Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon burial ship, resists discouragement and shares in the triumph. In real life he was marginalised by the professionals. The Lost King has a similar story – an amateur finds the body of a king, rather than a boat. The screenplay shoehorns the story into the same template, with truth the first casualty.
Sally Hawkins plays the amateur historian Philippa Langley, who gets it right about Richard III’s burial place despite the University of Leicester’s and its Archeological Services’ attempt to sideline her. Richard Taylor, the University’s deputy-registrar, describes his portrayal in the film as derisive, obstructive, manipulative, amused at the king’s disability, and even rather sexist, bordering on defamation. He has no redress. This raises the question: does misrepresenting a character only matter if he or she is alive to suffer the consequences?
How about two centuries ago? Frances O’Connor’s newly-released biopic Emily raises a further problem. The Reverend Patrick Brontë’s evangelical curate, William Weightman, appears as the film’s guilt-stricken, hypocritical sex interest. Emily and Weightman have a passionate affair with sex scenes in the hay. But the lives of the Brontës are exceptionally well-documented and researched; there is no historical evidence that Emily Brontë had an affair with anyone.
The Rev. William Weightman was in reality a pious evangelical who died in 1842 from cholera, which he probably caught while visiting the sick in Haworth parish. Much loved by his parishioners, he is honoured in Haworth church by a plaque that describes him as a man of “orthodox principles, active zeal, moral habits, learning and affability”.
Weightman did indeed, as in the movie, send each of the Brontë sisters a Valentine and there is some evidence that there were warmer feelings between him and Emily’s younger sister Anne, but he was clearly no clerical sexual predator or hypocrite. Does traducing the long-dead Emily Brontë and Weightman matter? Is Frances O’Connor entitled to “re-imagine” the truth about them for our entertainment?
"Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past,” as Winston Smith obediently says in Nineteen Eighty-Four. And as Stalin allegedly once said: “It’s difficult to predict the past” — though Putin’s Russia is doing its best. Newspeak has clamped down on the people of China. The Democrats are in an electoral struggle to keep crazy conspiracy theories at bay in the USA. Here in the UK we should not be complacent: a high percentage of Tory Party membership is more than relaxed about a man accused of being an inveterate, compulsive liar holding the highest office of State. There is real danger that fictional dramatisation is the soft power of the contemporary beast devouring the concept of truth.
When the difference between fact and fiction is deliberately blurred, when we can’t distinguish between the two, or can’t be bothered to, we end up accustomed to and reconciled to “re-imagining”, to “alternative facts”, and to falsehoods. Drama-docs, biopics and fictional dramatisations certainly provide one of the three Reithian principles for the BBC: they entertain. But we should not forget the other two: it is worth being vigilant to ensure that these art forms also inform and educate, rather than contribute to a culture of misinformation.
See TheArticle 15/11/2022