From theatre to television, the appeal and popularity of drama is embedded deep in our culture, but how important is accuracy and authenticity to both the viewer and those who produce our most notable productions? We hear the views of Dr Hannah Andrews from the Department of Theatre, Film and Television, and alumnus David Thacker (English and Related Literature, Derwent, 1973), a Director at Bolton’s Octagon Theatre.
Dr Hannah Andrews
Ask most people what appeals to them about television drama, and they will likely tell you that it’s relatable characters and a good story, something to provide a bit of escapism at the end of a long day. Yet, one of the most common complaints about TV dramas is that some element of character or plot doesn’t fit with our expectations about how things would happen ‘in real life’; that the programme is not accurate.
Even glancing at social media when dramas are broadcast reveals all sorts of minor irritations arising from perceptions of inauthenticity: a lawyer wouldn’t do that! A teacher could never say that! A police officer shouldn’t be there! There seems to be enjoyment to be had from pointing out where programmes have got it wrong. There is an expectation that TV should be rigorously researched and that deviations from reality are ‘errors’. Take, for example, the response to the second series of Broadchurch (don’t worry, no spoilers here). Fans of the first series were disappointed by a change in the way the programme was plotted, by pointless story tangents and new unsympathetic characters. But much of the discussion centred on various unrealistic happenings in the courtroom: confessions were deemed inadmissible, juries were present at moments when they would have been excused, witnesses were in court to listen to other testimonies.
These implausible moments were, of course, there for a purpose. Firstly, to serve plot, allowing certain characters to know details that would make them act in a particular way. Secondly, to heighten tension, in keeping with the genre of the programme. Nevertheless, inaccuracies like these can work to take some viewers ‘out’ of the show, to break the illusion that is carefully crafted by programme makers. For me, the liberties taken with accuracy in Broadchurch allowed for some positive effects. How often, for example, when you hear about a high-profile court case in real life, do you see women comprising the full legal team, barristers and judge? In this case, while the drama may not provide a true reflection of the way things are, they are an example of how things could or perhaps should, be.
Drama is about the presentation of what could be, not what is. As long as TV dramas offer us fictionalised versions of ourselves, we will continue to notice when they aren’t accurate. But then, for so many of us, that’s part of the fun.
I’d like to begin with looking at Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and quote Hamlet’s advice to the players:
The purpose of playing, whose end both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ’twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure…
Hamlet, Act III Scene II
The whole speech is about authenticity and about how to act truthfully; otherwise you cannot truthfully reveal what it’s like to be a human being, and reflect the pressures of the world in which we live. This is the true purpose of theatre.
Arthur Miller, who I was privileged to have a very good working relationship with, said the purpose of theatre was to show that underneath all of our differences in skin colour and culture, we are all linked by our common humanity. To show we are not alone.
During my time at York I took a production of Shakespeare’s Pericles to the Edinburgh Festival and we held a performance at a jail for long-term prisoners. At the end of the play there is a very moving scene where Pericles is reunited with his daughter Marina, whom he thought was dead. It’s very emotional and many of the prisoners were weeping. From that early production I learned that great plays still have resonance with modern audiences. Authenticity in acting is key to theatre; props aren’t necessary to portray accuracy if the story is told in a passionate and engaging way.
To create authenticity in the theatre, in film, or television you need authentic actors, psychologically and emotionally accurate acting. The aesthetic is also hugely important to authenticity. My favourite film I worked on is a project called Faith, which is a fictional drama about the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike. There was so much distrust and lies about the Miners’ Strike from Margaret Thatcher’s government that were then supported by the media. One aim of the film was to set the record straight. We used footage from the strike and integrated this documentary material with our own footage, and while the characters were fictional, their acting portrayed powerful and authentic emotions.