TV Writer Joel Bishton explores the history of and debates surrounding the fictionalised drama genre, using Partygate and The Crown as points of reference

Written by Joel Bishton
2nd Year History student. Interested in nerdy film, tv and musicals
Published
Images by Partygate , Channel 4 , Halcyons Heart Films

Fictionalised dramas inherently create questions and debates.How much time should pass before events become fodder for drama? Are the dramas trying to make a point, and, if so, what is it? How accurate are they? How accurate do they need to be? The fifth season of The Crown  faced so much controversy that the then Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, said that it should carry a ‘fiction warning’, arguing that viewers would consider it factually accurate. Meanwhile, the new Channel 4 documentary/drama Partygate, about the series of parties that took place in Downing Street, attempts to be studiously factual.

In the genre of fictionalised dramas, it is an outlier, as it clearly considers itself a documentary. The sources of events either appear on screen or are spoken by characters to us. There is a fictionalised character, Grace (Georgia Henley), an outlier amongst those working at Downing Street and operating as, to some degree, a voice of conscience and the audience against the entitled, Oxbridge graduates, represented by Annabel (Ophelia Lovibond) and Josh (Hugh Skinner). 

The blame for the current rash of historical and political fictionalised drama can be laid at the feet of one man: Peter Morgan

It is worth looking at the history of the fictionalised drama. History as a basis for stories has existed for centuries. Shakespeare had many successes with his plays about historical figures (his plays about the kings of the Wars of the Roses as well as his plays about Roman history such as Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra). However, the blame for the current rash of historical and political fictionalised drama can be laid at the feet of one man: Peter Morgan.

Morgan had his breakthrough as a dramatist with the 2003 television movie The Deal about Tony Blair (Michael Sheen, who would go on to reprise the role in The Queen and The Special Relationship) and Gordon Brown’s (David Morrissey) deal over the 1995 Labour leadership. Morgan went on to be nominated for an Oscar in 2006 for The Queen with Helen Mirren in the title role and 2008 saw another film with Sheen, this time playing David Frost interviewing Richard Nixon (Frank Langella). He is nowadays better known as the creator and writer of Netflix’s The Crown.

The series takes the necessary steps to be a drama, by taking us behind closed doors and showing us the private version of the public persona

The Crown is extensively researched. They have their own in-house researcher and historian in Robert Lacey and these historical facts form the basis of the series. However, the series takes the necessary steps to be a drama, by taking us behind closed doors and showing us the private version of the public persona. This clash between the public and private, as well as the freedom gained from stepping from what is known to what can be imagined is catnip for a dramatist.

However, it does raise the question of the perspective of the dramatist. Partygate is clearly being made by a group of people who are incredibly angry about what happened at Number 10 during the pandemic and it shows. However, the documentary cynically combines real life stories of COVID-19 with the recreations of the footage, meaning it feels closer to a polemic than a documentary. And, considering that the view it’s presenting is a mainstream one and outliers are unlikely to be converted, it seems somewhat pointless.

This is not to say that political reconstructions can’t help us see the present better

There was also a debate around how quickly it was made. There is a precedent for dramas set around recent events, such as David Hare’s 2004 play Stuff Happens, about the lead up to the Iraq War. Significantly, Partygate isn’t even the first COVID-19 drama. Michael Winterbottom created This England, with Kenneth Branagh as Boris Johnson, last year. And that’s not even considering wider pandemic-based television, from the comedic (BBC’s Staged) to the dramatic (Channel 4’s Help). However, I would argue that a better version of Partygate could have been made if it had waited longer, particularly as every day seems to bring another revelation about Number 10’s response to the COVID-19 inquiry.

This is not to say that political reconstructions can’t help us see the present better. I am a fan of the plays of James Graham, whose modus operandi is to take an issue (1970s hung parliaments in This House, ‘60s television interviews in Best of Enemies) which shine a light on our current situation. Sadly, though, I do not think that the current rash of fact-based dramas help us see anything better.


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