Fact, Fiction and Docudrama

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What’s fair game as material for a film, a TV drama or, as I was thinking recently, a play?

Temple, which has just closed at the Donmar Warehouse in London, looked at events behind closed doors at St Paul’s Cathedral at the time of the Occupy protests.

The characters are there: the Dean, the Bishop, the Canon Chancellor, the Corporation of London and the Archbishop of Canterbury (both by proxy) and the Cathedral itself. Through them, we hear about events that resulted in, and followed from, the Cathedral being closed on health and safety grounds, an event which didn’t happen during the Second World War (although health and safety didn’t resonate as a concept then in quite the way it does now).

I can rattle off that the play provides interesting insights into what motivated and concerned characters and it was a novel take on events with which we think we have a degree of familiarity.

But I became more and more uncomfortable about watching what felt like one person’s take on events presented for us to observe, assess, judge and find humorous in places.

The Dean of St Paul’s resigned. I don’t know whether that was a resignation in the true sense, but it was a pivotal moment in a person’s life. It was played out at the time with the country and the wider world as observers and I was struggling to see why those events should be played out to entertain the paying public through someone else’s interpretation of events and through other people acting the parts.

I don’t think this was because the individual involved was a clergyman. However, it might be because it was too recent an event to feel as though there were some sanitising distance from seeing the original play out. It felt like an encroachment into someone else’s life and moving beyond the boundaries of what I wanted to see as entertainment.

Mentally wriggling through the last 20 minutes or so, it occurred to me that I’d liked Frost/Nixon and Bloody Sunday, each of which re-cast actual events as drama. But they both benefitted from a generation or so of distance. Also, Frost/Nixon covered a longer chain of events and Bloody Sunday might have been more “docu” than “drama”.

If you use the events of someone else’s life as the basis for a drama, how long should you wait to do that? Is using the events of someone’s life for dramatic purposes ever appropriate? Should those events be the basis for creating something original out of a small detail or out of related events? Is docudrama ever anything other than a recycled view of the past, rather than something truly original?

Everyone will have their own view, but somehow Temple crossed a line for me that I hadn’t expected to find. I’d be interested to hear other people’s thoughts.

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