Sunday, May 21, 2006

Nostradamus, Hallucinations of Hitler and Bin Laden, And The Future Of The Documentary


The documentary film was defined by John Grierson in the 1930s as “the creative treatment of actuality”. What, we may wonder, would have made of Discovery UK’s Nostradamus, which stars Oliver Dimsdale as the mystic seer, and Kerry Fox as Catherine De Medici?
The film – Discovery UK’s first foray onto the peculiar terrain of the big-budget factual drama – is a peculiarity on a factual channel. But this hybrid genre – half fact, half-fiction - has blossomed in recent years: the Discovery/BBC collaboration Supervolcano added the manners of the disaster movie to the doomiest scientific speculations, while The Flight That Fought Back reconstructed the struggle between passengers and 9/11 hijackers on United Airlines Flight 93.
Perhaps due to the paucity of television footage from 16th century France, Nostradamus goes further. The ageless Dimsdale is the charismatic figure who insinuated his way into political influence when one of his coded messages predicted the death of the king. The actor’s psychedelic hallucinations also include flashes of Hitler and Osama bin Laden.
As treatments of actuality go, it is surely creative. But is it true? The film’s writer John Milne (a writer of The Bill and Silent Witness), says it was not easy to stick to the facts, “because if you ask ten people about Nostradamus, you get 11 different opinions. Also, he attracts a lot of lunatics. But there are no flat-out lies.”
Discovery UK’s Channel Director Jill Offman argues that the changing style of factual programming is designed to appeal to younger viewers, “and they are particularly resistant to anything that feels like they might have learned it at school.” The cliché about viewers with itchy trigger fingers on the remote is true, she says. “One of the reasons you try to make things engaging is to keep them. Even if we’re doing a traditional documentary, narrative is the driver. Maybe that sounds obvious, but hooking and keeping an audience with a beginning, a middle, an end, and a level of suspense – classic storytelling – isn’t something that you find throughout the documentary world. We ask ourselves every five minutes: ‘Are they still with us?’”
Nostradamus was made by Mentorn, the company responsible for The Government Inspector, Hamburg Cell (about the 9/11 plotters), and the David Blunkett spoof, A Very Social Secretary. (A future Mentorn production will examine the post-retirement life of Tony Blair, which may require a crystal ball along with its artistic licence.)
“Although driven by real events, they are complete dramas,” says Mentorn producer Hal Vogel. “There is no documentary in there. But that allows you to get at the story in a way that none of the documentaries did. The Government Inspector was the definitive account of what happened to David Kelly. With the Hamburg Cell, that was the first time 9/11 was looked at from a different point of view. And the Blunkett film had its particular take on the whole thing. But it was entirely based on fact.” While Nostradamus boasts that it is “based on actual events”, Vogel admits: “We’ve taken certain license with the fact that the predictions have a degree of validity. That might be questionable.”
So is the traditional documentary under threat from its more titillating cousin, the factual drama? Offman thinks not, if only because the latter are prohibitively expensive. “We’re just looking for ways to deliver really important information because the old ways weren’t working.” But Discovery will continue to target viewers untroubled by Panorama. Forthcoming documentaries include an examination of vampires, and The Real Roswell, on UFOs and military experiments. The channel also offers Zero Hour, in which recent history is rendered in the style of 24. Offman calls it “history for those to whom the death of Kurt Cobain was a seminal moment.”
That may sound chilling, even for some who fought in the grunge wars, but the smudging of fact, fiction and entertainment isn’t necessarily a disaster. Vogel claims factual dramas can be more revealing than documentaries, “because they are about bringing these characters to life, and documentary can’t do that.”
Nor is it new. The executive producer of Nostradamus, David Aukin, says the form can be traced back to the films of Peter Watkins (who restaged Culloden using newsreel techniques in 1964) and Cathy Come Home, Ken Loach’s documentary-style Wednesday Play from 1966. Aukin also suggests that factual drama may be especially suited to a world in which we are bombarded by media. “There’s so much overkill in terms of the information we’re given, but we still don’t understand it any better. Maybe through dramatisation one helps people to get behind it and understand better.”
At last week’s BAFTA TV awards, The Government Inspector was voted Best Single Drama, and Mark Rylance best actor for his portrayal of Dr Kelly, but some resistance remains. These dramas are invariably accompanied by debates about how factual they are. This is unfair, says Aukin, as the usual legal strictures apply. “We can’t just make false allegations.”
Vogel concurs. “I was amazed with The Government Inspector: why was everybody so keen to discuss the merits and failings of dramatising fact, but no one actually wanted to discuss what was going on in the lead-up to the war - the question that the film was supposed to raise?”
Alastair McKay