Fake History on-air

BBC Four Extra in the small hours can be exceptionally moving. It’s something to do with listening to headphones in the dark. A good case was the hour-plus omnibus edition of Radio 4’s Curtain Down at Her Majesty’s, which I hadn’t heard before its outing in January 2023 (first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 2018).  I found it touching but realised I had been conned.

The star of the drama by Michael Chaplin was the dying Queen, largely or entirely unheard, closely followed by the play’s main speaking character, a young and feisty dresser to Her Majesty. The show’s blurb said the account was that of eye-witnesses as “told by those who were there.” That the young servant was remarkably larky, impertinent and smutty made me doubt she had, in fact, existed. Curious about the matter, I kindled the book of the same name, by Stewart Richards, on which the play was based, and which does indeed seem to be a narrative anthology of eye-witness accounts. I found no young dresser.

Perhaps the blurb’s saying the play was “based on” Mr Richards’ work gives the programme-makers a finger-tip connection with respectability. But surely, an outfit which respected its audience would have laid out fair and square that this was a dramatisation of the book’s material, and that it included the invention of a central character for the dramatic convenience of radio audiences.

The saga of Fake News has made us realise there is a need to defend straightforwardness. Fake Histories are now commonplace, but often seem not to attract the attention they deserve.

The invention of a perky female servant in Victoria’s court speaks to various modern tropes: feminism, working class heroes, upper-class stuffiness, patriarchal blindness., and a general anti-Establishment dissidence 

I have no idea whether many people believe Netflix’s The Crown is good history. It isn’t and we should probably keep saying so, granted that it surely is a pity when the impressionable are fed nonsense. Indeed, Harry Windsor’s narrative of his abuse at royal hands seems to support the idea that the channel panders to a particular sort of dissident disruption. The late Queen seemed well-advised when she pointed out that “recollections may vary”. Her syntax was a little out of whack. Whilst any individual may find his, her or their recollection of an event may vary over time, the Queen seemed to be pointing out several persons’ recollections of an event may be at variance, one from another. Yes, and some people – show-runners especially – seem to flog agendas rather than anything like fair-minded accounts of events. It is, of course, quite possible that they do so with regret and some compunction: they are people-pleasers by trade, and may feel compelled to give the audience what seems to go down well. Actually, I tend to the view that show-runners take their audiences for fools and feed them the conspiracy theory  – and the critical theory – pabulum  which suits the creatives.

We see plenty of Fake History on our screens.  The Favourite and Dunkirk put the issue on my radar, with real personages (Queen Anne and Churchill, respectively) being traduced.

The false narratives show-runners give us are almost always designed to show Britain even more in the grip of class and patriarchal prejudice and oppression than it ever was or is. In the case of A Spy Among Friends, some of the creatives involved seem to be self-flagellant creatures of privilege who should have known better. Actually, their invention of a modestly thrusting working class female interrogator amongst the spies was quite good fun for all that it was wholly a-historical. I don’t know the degree to which one can build a useful counterfactual based on the hypothesis that had there been more women in the spy game it would have been less good at harbouring traitors.

Intriguingly, there is sometimes a case for bending historical truth to fit dramatic purposes. For several years I tried to present sensibly the evidence about the Chernobyl disaster (as had a good few other before me). Most of what most people absorbed about the impacts of the accident were importantly wrong. It was great relief to find that HBO’s Chernobyl (2019) seemed to have got close to a decent account, as well as a very compelling one. It tidied-up some of the sprawling narratives of a ghastly event and its fall-out, literal and figurative. I found myself saying that it held on to historical fact and go to the emotional truth of the saga. Oh dear. “Emotional Truth”, like “Lived Experience”, is often code for wilful and wishful thinking. Still, as with  A Spy Among Friends and even Curtain Down at Her Majesty’s perhaps faking history can at least be emotionally rich.

I do think it might have been a good idea to say from the outset that the female interrogator’s absolutely central character was a fiction, not to be found in the Ben Macintyre book of the same name and on which the series was based.

More obviously tiresome was the bland assertion in The Gold that Freemasons within the Metropolitan Police constituted a uniformed Mafia which was at the service of a Deep State and the criminals who served it. Watching the pilot episode of the long-running Endeavour TV series reminds me – what I had not properly noticed before – that in subsequent episodes Freemasonry was portrayed as a baleful influence on Thames Valley policing. I have no idea how prominent, let alone how powerful, Freemasonry was or is within the Police or any other British institution. Still less can I judge how far its influence was or is pernicious. In The Gold (and perhaps in the real world history being retailed by the drama), the Freemasons’ writ didn’t seem, finally, to influence the investigation. So the show-runners may just have been making light mischief. The ploy let them have a lead detective, Boyce, who was a non-commissioned military man by background, and who thus had his own resentments, but was also rendered free of Establishment ties and was nobly a free-agent as he led his working class troops. (Much the same riffs apply to detective Thursday in Endeavour.) The show’s reliance on the anger, resentment and psychological turmoil experienced by some working class criminals and coppers 40 years ago seemed wildly over-egged and is somewhat at odds with idea – equally flawed – that the 1960s ushered in colossal progress in social relations. Actually, social attitudes have been flattening, more or less, for centuries and probably for millennia. I agree with those critics who thought that the psycho-drama of The Gold was sufficiently compelling to turn the production into a successful modern thriller. And yet… . I am pretty sure The Gold will have reinforced some ignorant prejudices and assumptions which tend to benight too many of the young.

It would be interesting to see whether and how future producers of the successors of The Crown will give the world a sequel to Curtain Down at Her Majesty’s, covering the death and funeral of Elizabeth II, followed by the Coronation of Charles III. Threaded through both events will be the story of the Sussex’s, which one couldn’t have made up. The show-runners of, say 2043, won’t be short of eye-witness accounts, but they may find they have little room for manoeuvre. Faking too much of that history might seem to be gilding the post modern lily.

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Publication date

14 March 2023