Is docudrama the most socially relevant mode of television drama in Britain?

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The two docudramas chosen for this essay are The Deal (2003) and Einstein and Eddington (2008). The first is a political story of significance to recent domestic and foreign policy in Britain. The latter is an enduring story of two men of science, whose discoveries and theories are central to modern physics and astronomy. Both docudramas were premiered in Channel 4 and reached a sizeable British television audience. Both films were appreciated by critics for their style and content. Yet, the focus and aesthetics of the two docudramas are quite different. This essay will evaluate the social relevance of each of these films in the broader context of the potential for docudramas for inducing positive social change.

The Deal is an interesting docudrama about two stars of recent Labour Party history – Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. The Labour Party won three successive elections in 1997, 2001 and 2005 under the premiership of Tony Blair. But Blair was not an automatic choice for party leadership when its then leader John Smith expired of heart-attack in 1994. Indeed, Gordon Brown was a senior to Blair in the party hierarchy and is thought to be a strong intellectual force for the party. But his major weakness was his moody temperament. Brown was also perceived to lack charisma and social grace which are essential in the political arena. It is in this context that Tony Blair made open his leadership ambitions. The ensuing drama of secret negotiations and political intrigue is the subject of The Deal. The film begins from Labour’s electoral disaster of 1983,

“the year both men entered the Commons, up to that fateful supper at Granita, where Tony ordered the rabbit and polenta and another glass of wine and Gordon grunted that he’d just have water. Eleven years earlier they had been friends, sharing an office, developing mild crushes on each other and performing a puckish double act in committee. Brown started off as Blair’s hero rather than the other way round, but no man is a hero to his office mate for long. Brown’s mistake was to remain too long Blair’s apologist.” (Billen, 2003, p. 46)

The social relevance of The Deal is not immediately evident. The Labour Party regime of close to 14 years from 1997 to 2010 has had many social, economic and foreign policy implications. The policies implemented and laws enacted during the period have affected British citizenry of all demographic categories. For example, central public institutions like the National Health Services and public industries underwent policy changes that were perceived to be more socialistic and inclusive. These changes had come at the end of a decade and half of Thatcherism – first envisioned and implemented by Margaret Thatcher and later continued by John Major. Though Thatcherism had the support of public mandate during its time, it has slowly acquired negative connotations in retrospect. Today it stands for aggressive right wing policy making at the cost of social welfare. (Sierz, 2003, p.75) The subsequent success of the New Labour under Blair-Brown leadership saw some remedy in social policy. It is this important turn around in British policy direction that gives a degree of social relevance to The Deal.

But when we view The Deal in the absence of larger policy implications, it is not such an engaging drama. In other words, the New Labour capture of power is a far more significant development in the history of British politics compared to the choice of leader within the party. To this extent, The Deal has no element of high social drama. It is not a political drama but a personal drama about politics. It is not unfair to term the subject of the film as ‘career progress squabbling’. This is underscored by the fact that in the foreign policy arena, not much had changed during the New Labour regime. The automatic allegiance to the alliance headed by the USA in the so-called campaign against terror is a case in point. This ‘junior partner to the United States’ mentality in high political circles have come to define British foreign policy since the end of the Second World War. It was as strong during the Thatcher years as they would be during the Blair-Brown years. In this respect, The Deal is of tenuous social relevance, as it barely touches upon key policy debates that affect people.

While the problems associated with The Deal are quite clear, there are greater questions facing the docudrama form itself. For example, where is the centre of truth in this form, and how believable or how suspect is it? One of the basic assumptions about the docudrama form is that it is meant to be more truthful than works of fiction. On the basis of Grierson’s notion of the separation of form, one can create a hierarchy of truth in film whereby docudrama stands higher than fiction. Though docudrama aspires to this high nominal station

“the difficulty is that whole areas seem to be opening up where fiction is presented as fact, as reality. In most cases this doesn’t cause too many problems. The audience perceives, for the most part, what is fact and what is fiction and where license with fact has been taken. But there are obviously situations where the mixing of fact with fiction and dramatizations masquerading as documentary can be dangerous and misleading.” (Rosenthal, 1999, p. 8)

These shortcomings with the docudrama form undermine the genre’s (and by extension The Deal’s) social relevance. As a consequence, we can’t hope to bring about social or policy change in Britain with docudrama form as the sole vehicle. The relative lack of public reaction to The Deal after its premiere shows the limitations of both the form and the particular product. Yet, despite these problems and the potential for controversy, the docudrama form

“has considerable potential given today’s competitive electronic and print marketplace. Television news, or documentary film for that matter, has seldom had the access at the “right moment” to events later deemed “newsworthy” in order to fully capture the story…The combination of dramatic and documentary forms offers a unique perspective on and analysis of both current and historical occurrences, attracting a much larger audience share when compared to the traditional documentary or newscast.” (Hoffer & Nelson, 1999, p. 73)

The docudrama Einstein and Eddington substantiates this perceived potential for social impact and collective action. While the genre of docudrama is normally used for subjects with political, social and biographical themes, this film covers the special professional relationship between two men of science – Albert Einstein and Arthur Stanley Eddington. Through their mutual scholarly contributions they prove the veracity of the General Theory of Relativity. It is apt to claim that the film is about celebration of scientific progress and fraternity among scientists across borders. Sub-themes that act in opposition to the celebration of scientific progress are anti-Semitism, Christian fundamentalism, taboo against homosexuality, fervent nationalism, war, war crimes, etc. Hence, the film is rich in thematic content and is socially relevant for British public even today. Rather than a linear and focussed narrative, the digressions from the main story actually add to its aesthetic richness. To pack so much detail in 90 minutes is to the director’s merit. To interweave so many pressing social themes into this timeframe makes it all the more commendable.

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