We had it coming: hypothetical docudrama as contested form and multiple fantasy.
Smallpox 2002 documents the deliberate release of the smallpox virus in New York by a lone individual and the global epidemic that this unleashes, killing 60 million people. Retrospective interviews with witnesses and experts highlight problems of vaccine shortage and distribution, as well as failures in emergency response and containment procedures. The Day Britain Stopped is about a series of transport failures, which, on the busiest day of the year on the roads, are indirectly responsible for a mid-air collision between a Czech cargo plane and a British passenger flight. The Man Who Broke Britain chronicles a similar domino effect, with a crisis precipitated by derivative trading that brings about the collapse of a few banks, which, in turn, paralyses the global economy. Post-credit crunch, and with the subsequent tightening of lending restrictions by banks, the prescience of the docudrama seems further underscored. But the programme stands out regarding the extent and quality of its warning. No other text, to our knowledge, gives so much narrative and aesthetic, documentary and affective detail to its prediction. In saying this, though, The Man Who Broke Britain's farsightedness should also be located within other, broader late-modern phenomena or tendencies--in particular, the expansion of the discursive domain and authority of economics. (3)
Death of a President documents the fatal shooting of President George W. Bush and the subsequent erosion of civil liberties along with the escalation of geo-political tension, the consequence of a neo-conservative response. As with the previous drama, the immediate suspicion is that this is the work of al-Qaida terrorists. But this is countered by evidence that both events are the actions of domestic nationals.
All four docudramas achieved solid viewing figures (over 4 million UK viewers watched The Day Britain Stopped, for example (4)), and attracted considerable public and media attention in both the UK and United States. The critical and institutional responses to each programme, though, were decidedly mixed. Most successful was Death of a President, which won the International Critics Award at the Toronto Film Festival as well as the Best Digital Channel Programme at the Royal Television Society Programme Awards. Critics praised this docudrama and the others for high production values and technical achievement. A.A. Gill from The Times, for example, commented on how Death of a President, 'neatly manipulated archive footage combined with smartly staged post-construction'. (5) The New York Times applauded its 'nerve-racking realism', (6) while The Daily Telegraph said: 'So good were the performances, so credible its documentary patina and so skilful the script that it felt urgently real.' (7) Gareth McLean, reviewing Smallpox 2002 for The Guardian, claimed it 'a brilliantly made mockumentary, taking the danger of a biological attack on the world and placing it firmly and factually in the near future'. (8) Others, however, were less impressed. Simon Edge, writing for The Daily Express, considered Smallpox 2002 'a piece of lazy hysteria-mongering pretending to be Important Television'. (9) Several critics accused Death of a President of sensationalism and liberal wish-fulfilment, (10) while other expert and institutional representatives argued that docudramas like The Day Britain Stopped were inaccurate and alarmist. (11)
What links a number of responses to these programmes, though, is uncertainty--uncertainty regarding the nature of the texts' form, veracity and legitimacy. This is indicated by various descriptions used to describe them: mockumentary, docudrama, fake documentary, quasi-documentary, faux-documentary, pseudodocumentary, pretend documentary, faction, documentary styled drama, hypothetical docu-drama, what-ifs. It led Sarah Hughes, writing in The Observer, to say, '[T]he whole effect [of Death of a President's mixed modes] can be slightly disorienting, leaving you catching yourself muttering: "hang on did this really happen?"' (12) Moreover, while some key institutions rejected the programmes' form and content as sensationalist and scaremongering, there is evidence that others took them more seriously: Bank of England officials announced, for example, new emergency measures for dealing with such a crisis following a meeting with the producers of The Man Who Broke Britain; (13) the Department of Health's Deputy Chief Medical Officer wrote an 'urgent communication' to every UK general practitioner prior to the broadcast of Smallpox 2002, warning them that the programme could result in a large number of enquiries about the smallpox vaccine; (14) and President George W. Bush requested a copy of Smallpox 2002 after hearing about it from one of his scientific advisors, Dr. D.A. Henderson, who had worked on the programme as a consultant. (15)
The mix and volume of contradiction and anxiety shown by institutions and critics may seem less surprising in the light of the Wall-to-Wall texts' most obvious progenitor, Peter Watkins' The War Game (1965). Watkins' dramatisation of a limited nuclear attack on Kent, the government response, and subsequent physical and social consequences of the strike, was meticulously researched. Statements from contemporary government pamphlets and documents as well as various national and international bodies on the philosophy of nuclear deterrent and civil defence strategies anchored every dramatised scene. In an interview shortly before The War Game was due for release, Watkins acknowledged the contested nature of the drama-documentary format--'my sort of film is a gross cheat'--before anticipating the controversy that followed its reception--'The problems will start when the hierarchy sees it'. (16) It was an accurate prediction. Initially banned, The War Game had to wait another 20 years before its first broadcast in 1985.
Following Watkins' The War Game and the controversy surrounding it, it seemed inevitable that the Wall-to-Wall programmes, with their similar docudrama forms, should generate similar contention. The docudrama form, with its explicit but often unspecified mix of fiction and fact, is frequently criticised on the grounds of both ambiguous verisimilitude and falsification. The Times review of Death of a President is typical of such a position: 'I've always felt uncomfortable with historic reconstructions of current affairs using the language and method of news reporting, thereby piggybacking a usurped veracity.' (17) Mark Lawson makes a similar, if more subtle argument with regard to films based on real-life events: 'The risk of historically based films, even as brilliant as Paul Greengrass's United 93 and Stephen Frears's The Queen, is that audiences--and future historians may come to believe that the film-makers actually knew what happened inside the 9/11 flights and at Balmoral after Diana's death rather than elegantly making it up.' (18)
So, for Lawson, as for other docudrama detractors, it is the apparently ambiguous nature of the form that engenders anxiety. However, as Richard Kilborn and John Izod argue, 'Most critics are agreed that the fears about audiences being hoodwinked are much exaggerated. Moreover, in the majority of cases the hostility seems to have been occasioned more by the commentator's dislike of the views expressed than the allegedly ambiguous or misleading format of the programme itself.' (19)
It is argued here, however, that ambiguity is a central effect of the docudrama format. While a negative response frequently indicates a rejection of the programmes' basic argument, critics' simultaneous dismissal of sequences because of their perceived in-authenticity is perhaps more broadly understandable. Andre Bazin argued that 'the objective nature of photography confers on it a quality of credibility absent from all other picture-making. In spite of any objections our critical spirit may offer, we are forced to accept as real the existence of the object reproduced' (20) Nonetheless there are moments in all four programmes when the status of what we are seeing (or being told) is unclear, particularly when referencing events prior to the fictional one being depicted. Indexical signs, Charles Sanders Pierce argues, 'furnish positive assurance of the reality and the nearness of their Objects. But with the assurance there goes no insight into the nature of those Objects.' (21) This is, for Bill Nichols at least, 'the paradox of the indexical image. It is evidence, but not irrefutable evidence.' (22) The hybrid form of the docudrama exploits rather than limits the ambiguity of what the photographic image is evidence of, and these four programmes make full use of this for instance, in their recruitment of real life TV personalities and scientific experts into a quasi documentary on an imagined event. Such practices are neither illegitimate nor unethical, but a consequence of the docudrama's operation within a mode characterised by varying degrees of truth, likelihood and fiction.
The sharpness of critical responses to these particular programmes, however, may be more distinctive than initially suggested here. The reason is because the Wall-to-Wall texts are in some ways at the forefront of developments in the docudrama form. Their technical achievements and high production values extend the form's desire for what Derek Paget calls a 'filmic look'. (23) They are also distinctive in documenting events set in the near future rather than ones from popular memory. That is, the core narrative action is imagined. Simon Finch, writer and producer of three of the programmes, argues that, 'Drama filmed in the style of a documentary itself may not be a new format, but using actors to give hindsight interviews and illustrating them with mock archive footage proved a powerful vehicle and brought a new audience to current affairs.' (24)
For some critics, this 'stitching up events that haven't even happened is as close to [Josef] Goebbel's big lie as a free press can get'. (25) For others, the hypothetical drama is 'less ethically questionable than traditional faction ... because we know at all times that what we are watching must be fiction'. (26) The programmes' documentary format and indexical appeal, though, indicate that they are not 'just' fiction; they make truth claims not only about events that haven't happened, but also about the procedures and policies that have led the producers to hypothesise about such incidents occurring. Thus the difficulty that future-oriented docudrama presents to critics is not only in distinguishing between re-enactment and authentic footage, but also in distinguishing between sequences that are evidence based and those that are not.
Following Janet Staiger, it may be this near future quality of the programmes that helps to engender anxiety and debate. (27) Staiger notes that docudramas, like Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) and JFK (1991), were contested on their release because their history was not (yet) official. Similarly it might be argued that the Wall-to-Wall docudramas are challenged because their future is not the authorised one. Two days before The Man Who Broke Britain broadcast, the Financial Services Authority issued a statement playing down the threat to the financial system posed by the kind of risky derivative trading depicted in the programme. But in an article about it, former rogue trader Nick Leeson warned that 'the reckless abandon with which [the financial system] treats risk management, compliance and other threats may one day come to haunt it'. (28) As the tagline of The Day Britain Stopped succinctly put it: 'It's all true. It just hasn't happened yet.'
Distinctive Textual Form
In considering how to give better textual and theoretical definition to the Wall-to-Wall docudramas, it is argued that the programmes are special types of historical text--what might be termed 'historical event television', or what John Caldwell defines as 'event-status television', (29) partly because of its qualities of excess. Each utilise, for example, a number of aesthetic modes: a mix of dramatic enactment and mocked up CCTV footage; news broadcasts, bulletins and newspaper headlines; and to varying degrees, time lapse photography, home video diaries, satellite photographs and satellite mapping sequences. While much is original material produced for the programmes, the majority of the archive footage and some of the news broadcasts are borrowed from other contexts, particularly news broadcasts, and inserted into the narratives. Smallpox 2002, for instance, used archive footage of the effects of the virus and the worldwide eradication programme from, and in this order: CNN, BBC News Archive, Associated Press Television News, ABC NEWS Video Services, The Wellcome Library London, ITN Archive, US Army, Amnesty International, World Health Organisation.
'Event-status television', argues Caldwell, is excessive in how it moves across film and TV aesthetic modes. In so doing, he argues, it both replicates, what Raymond Williams famously identified as, the flow of television and elevates hyper-real historical events out of this flow. (30) This blending of forms also points to the programmes' belief in their own historical credibility and status, as not only event, but historical event television, which strives to produce, following Ebbrecht, 'power, curiosity, sympathy, tension and concern and to adopt history sensually'. (31) Furthermore, Caldwell suggests, 'event-status television' is excessive in how it switches between private and public spheres as well as across geographical space, lifting the personal into the epic and global. This excess, contends Caldwell, is neither radical nor disruptive. Instead it 'encourages collective legitimation'. (32)
This points to another part of the texts' excess--witness and testimony. Words are what are measured and are one of the indicators of legitimation in Smallpox 2002, The Day Britain Stopped, The Man Who Broke Britain and Death of a President. But there is a curious double quality to the programmes' witnesses. They are both hesitant and primed. All of the Wall-to-Wall witnesses are shell-shocked, bewildered and lost for words. This is one of the way in which the texts reach for gravity and dramatic impact. It is also melodramatic, as defined by Ien Ang, (33) in that the texts' affective elements fill a breach--faces, music, lighting, repeated and fetishised images--saying what cannot by said, as well as providing a commentary, as the melodramatic form does, on the consequences of late-modernity. It provides a moral, as well as at times dystopian landscape. But the witnesses are also primed. In that their testimonies are ready and inevitable. This, of course, is the logic of the texts: 'We had it coming.' (34) And in that sense the witnesses both provide the scripts for future history (as they) step into parts already written.
Furthermore, and as Ebbrecht notes, the witnesses narrate historical events as fragmented and subjective stories. (35) Testimonies in the Wall-to-Wall texts illustrate this point, with the opening of Death of a President being a particularly good example. The film begins with the testimony of an unidentified Arab woman (Zahra Abi Zikri, played by Hend Ayoub). What she says is heartfelt, impassioned, traumatic, angry. It is neither clear what she is talking about, nor to whom it is addressed. The assumption that the text arguably wants the viewer to make is that she is the wife of the President's killer. It attempts to achieve this in various ways. Firstly, the testimony is emphasised by being placed at the start of the programme, before titles or any other events. It is lit in shadow (like all the testimonies it transpires) and accompanied by low-key dramatic, extra-diegetic music. It is both a prelude to, and segue into, the start of the programme.
Genre familiarity (plus fore-knowledge of the text, or perhaps its title alone) might lead viewers to expect that this testimony is lifted from a dramatic high point, to which the text will return. This expectation is heightened by the cryptic but suggestive nature of the testimony. Zahra Zikri refers obliquely to an event or action (hermeneutically and apparently unambiguously, the shooting of the President) and its perpetrator--'him'. The person, it seems, is absent or unavailable: 'If only I could talk to him, just once. I'd just ask him: Didn't you stop and think for a moment? ... How couldn't you think about the consequences of your actions? And what this would do to your son's future?' These hermeneutic clues are left dangling. And for much of the text the viewer is invited to read this testimony with hindsight as Zahra's desperate, powerless appeal to her husband who is now (at the close of the programme) on death row, convicted of killing the President.
Forty-eight minutes later and Zahra Zikri is heard again. She recounts how her husband, Jamal (Malik Bader) returned from witnessing the shooting of President Bush 'shaken'. The camera, in an omniscient shot, looks through the Zikris' living room window, effectively incriminating them (or at least, Jamal), a perspective produced through combining testimony, shot type, extra-diegetic music, lighting and shooting through a net curtain. One hour, three minutes, the FBI raid the Zikris home and take Jamal into custody. Zahra again recounts what happened, speaking as well about her son's safety (he is asleep in his bedroom). Kept alive is the assumption that it is Jamal and her son to whom she is referring in her opening testimony.
One hour, seven minutes: Jamal is named as a suspect by the Chicago television news media. The viewers soon learn that Jamal lied to the FBI and that he trained as an al-Qaida terrorist in Afghanistan. Such revelations, plus the forensic evidence, lead to his unanimous conviction for the shooting. At this point, the preferred reading of Zahra Zikri's opening testimony confirms an initial belief that Zahra is talking about Jamal as Bush's assassin; but--from this point on, the text questions the strength of the forensic evidence against Jamal; it also introduces the wife (Chavez Ravine), as well as the son (Neko Parham), of Aloysius Claybon (Tony Dale). The end leaves viewers in no doubt that it is Claybon, and not Jamal Zikri, who shot the President. Zahra Zikri's opening testimony is at this point repeated, but making it explicit that the 'him' to whom she refers is not her husband, but Claybon.
After the emotionally-dramatic overture that is Zahra Zikri's opening testimony, the narrative becomes more obviously chronological in combining words and images (though lacking the other three texts' anchoring voiceover). But it does feature five brief, elliptical, unnamed witnesses' testimonies. Each one in Death of a President, as in the other four texts, only becomes more hesitant, more traumatised and more uncertain as the story progresses, until (and a feature of the others), statements become a chorus of morality and contrition.
In the Wall-to-Wall docudramas, these fragmented and subjective testimonies have the effect both of maintaining a degree of narrative tension and ambiguity, as well as, as Ebbrecht suggests of docudrama generally, personalising history. Further, Ebbrecht argues that in historical event television this strategy also succeeds in levelling out differences between victims and perpetrators. (36) This is partially true in the texts considered here. It is noteworthy, though, that, while the Wall-to-Wall docudramas generally and melodramatically reveal the virtue of the falsely accused, they also avoid apportioning blame for the respective disasters. In this way, and in keeping with Ebbrecht's argument about a specific docudrama (Die letzte Schlacht/The Last Battle, 2005), all characters in the Wall-to-Wall texts are figured as both the witnesses and victims of history. (37) This is indicated by what may be a recurring feature of historical event television--that is, that all interviews have a similarly indistinct and dimly lit background.
The subjective and fragmented nature of the testimonies points to the texts' interplay of psychic and linear time. The programmes combine numerous temporalities as well as aesthetic modes, making them not only historical event television, but, more broadly, traumatic events as Thomas Elsaesser defines them. 'Besides involving repetition and iteration', Elsaesser notes, 'the traumatic event intimately links several temporalities, making them coexist within the same perceptual or somatic field, so much so that the very distinction between psychic time and chronological time seems suspended.' (38)
The voiceovers provided by British actors Tim Piggot-Smith and Brian Cox work hard to stitch linear events together and keep building the drama, but the task--even for Piggot-Smith and Cox's studied English tones, and as the Elsaesser quote indicates--may be too big. In The Man Who Broke Britain, for instance, and typical to the Wall-to-Wall docudramas, a busy mix of the following is offered: 'present' time (especially with the testimonies and breaking news), nostalgic and subjective time (two home videos, as well as testimonies), poetic and metaphorical time (time both slowed and increased in abstract and lyrical shots of sky, trees, buildings and, even, planet earth), desperate global time (London/the City/cities and this text's trademark aftershock, ripple-effect), obsessive-repetitive, risk time (screens large and small, numbers, graphs, burning oil fields, traders) and perhaps least persuasively, unfolding event time (CCTV, archive footage made live, blurry thriller-vision, unsteady docu-vision).
The double quality of the witnesses--shocked yet vaguely contrite and expectant--is about the predictive nature of the programmes (following Staiger) and the medium of their broadcast. TV, John Ellis argues, 'sealed the twentieth century's fate as the century of witness'. (40) Increasingly the medium helps both to make this promise and the conditions of its paradox. The witnessing of 'significant reality' seems decreasingly attainable in a chronically mediated culture, but also more attainable precisely via that mediated and packaged reality: 'We are tormented with both the desire to see everything, to have the world on hand, "live and raw", and the suspicion, ultimately reassuring, that there really is "nothing to see".' (39) The promise held out by the Wall-to-Wall texts, moreover, may be greater or more tormenting still because of their claim to both witness and predict history at the same time.
Ellis' argument is helpful because it allows us to think of these texts as not only docudramas, but as, more broadly, cultural technologies: as modern, excessive, popular and successful technologies. They are at the very least adjacent to, and perhaps more accurately increasingly part of, what Carol Clover argues is one of modernity's most successful technologies, the legal system. (40) Clover notes that as early as the nineteenth century, philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville observed how legal thinking had become generalised, 'so that the whole people contract the habits and tastes of the judicial magistrate'. (41) Clover's interest is in film and TV's fascination with the jury system--and she reminds us that diegesis' etymology takes us to testimony in a court of law; and that some of the earliest narrative film, by D. W. Griffith and others for example, invited audiences to weigh events and judge the (usually falsely) accused.
Nicola Evans (Joanna Griffiths, The Day Britain Stopped), Samir Badr (Mansour Abou Chahine, The Man Who Broke Britain) and Jamal Abu Zikri (Malik Bader, Death of a President) are falsely accused; and events leading to their accusation are repeated and laid out for the viewer. The Wall-to-Wall programmes are melodramatic, with regard to excessive witness testimony, and that the unjustly accused are ultimately shown--in textual terms--to be innocent. The texts' laying out, moreover, is not just of witnesses and testimonies. It is a making visible of spaces, locations, movements and populations. The texts in this respect continue to function as popular melodrama and particular types of cultural technology. Early entertainments (stage melodrama, novels, feuilleton), no less than eighteenth and nineteenth-century newspapers, Colin Mercer argues, played a crucial part in conceptualising and delimiting the 'public' and its urban and domestic spheres. (42) Popular entertainments were one way in which the 'problem' of the modern nation was solved. As Mercer notes, the crisis of national security presented itself at the same time that 'the public became an object too extensive for the conception of men'. (43)
In recent times this anxiety or perception, born of modernity, continues and has become heightened. Part of the rationale of the Wall-to-Wall docudramas is precisely that late-modern spaces and populations increasingly are difficult to imagine and control. This is one reason why there is a recurring image in these programmes, most evidently or obsessively in Death of a President and The Day Britain Stopped. Repeatedly and at regular intervals, shot in medium-long shot and from directly overhead, the tops of buildings in highly populated, mostly residential areas are shown. This sign is open in that, arguably, it can be read as: settlement, population; security, threat; slumbering, unwitting, data, surveillance. The Day Britain Stopped takes the idea or effort furthest by repeatedly using quasi-GIS (Geographic Information Systems) images. Again, these arguably have a multiple function, not least underscoring the text's documentary veracity.
The texts' indexical excessiveness can be understood as a particular effort after authenticity and the real: '(T)he status of the image as indexical truth is not inconsequential--through it the "story" touches the ground of the real.' (44) Moreover, the texts' emphasis on images as indices of reality not only makes them, as indicated in the definition offered by Mary Ann Doane above, profoundly televisual; (45) but also, for Barry Sandywell, distinctly modern: '(T)he egological will to knowledge as a forceful envisioning of the world as a world subject to androcentric domination ... is such a singular feature of modernity.' (46)
But as noted, and typical to television, this visual excessiveness is joined by an excess of words: 'The work of the eye and ear are equalised in television dramadoc/ docudrama, and words as well as looks have weight ... (T)he ideal spectator is a looker-and-listener, someone actively engaged in hypothesising the real.' (47) Derek Paget is right on both counts. Both words and images are equally excessive in the Wall-to-Wall docudramas; but it is difficult to determine which are more authoritative, or do more anchoring work, and when; which are more inside or outside, subjective or objective, primary or secondary. In The Man Who Broke Britain, for example, the moving images of Samir Badr have little meaning without the accompanying words of Piggot-Smith, Philip Crighton (Will Ashcroft), Darren Waring (George Potts) and Patricia Badr (Katherine Igoe). These words, without blaming or accusing Badr, and along with the programme's title and non-diegetic music, combine to imbue the initial images of him with furtiveness and suspicion. Similarly, the photo of Badr beside Khalid Pharoan (Aziz Al Naib) is only relieved of suspicion when Laura Thompson (Caroline Lintott) discovers that the Department of State's report on Pharoan as a suspected financier of terrorism is based on unsubstantiated journalism. Conversely, words are not enough to confirm Badr's innocence. What the docudrama uses to ground the real, as defined by Doane, are images--images as an index and the key index of the truth. So, to touch this programme to the 'ground of the real', (48) it is presumed that CCTV can provide proof of Badr's last journey to a safety deposit box in Mayfair; and extreme close-ups of the photocopied derivatives contracts, especially the $75 knock-out clause, alongside the testimonies of Thompson, Nasreen Hassan (Amani Zain) and Crighton helps. Moreover, and as has been noted, both words and images stand alone at points as affective truths.
Paget is right, of course, that the ideal spectator of the Wall-to-Wall docudramas actively engages in hypothesising the real. The nature of this real, though, is complicated and at least multiple. In this respect, the texts invite at least two major modes of engagement, which critics tend to overlook. The first is the pleasure of event-led action melodrama, where viewers hypothesise on the nature of the fabula, or diegetic real. This generic mode and interpretive code is strongest in Death of a President and The Man Who Broke Britain, but in the four texts viewers are invited (not least by extra-diegetic sound and, perhaps ironically, Piggot-Smith and Cox's voiceovers) to speculate on: when and how will disaster strike? Who is to blame? And how will innocence or virtue be revealed? In this respect, the air crash in The Day Britain Stopped might be thought of as a climactic pay-off spectacle, as well as Aviation Safety Consultant Daniel Boyd (Tim Crouch) as a hero-saviour (of Nicola Evans) of sorts; of the discoveries of the erroneousness of Khalid Pharoan's terrorist status and CCTV footage of Badr's last act before suicide (The Man Who Broke Britain), and the President's Chicago itinerary among Aloysius Claybon's possessions (Death of a President) as important, vindicating narrative breakthroughs; and of course Samir Badr and Nicola Evans as figures whose morality has to be made clear.
In this respect, some critics of the Wall-to-Wall texts seem unwilling to read them generically--that is, as action-melodrama which permeates so much of our contemporary culture and engenders what Peter Brooks calls the 'moral occult'. (49) Furthermore, as noted earlier, some critics seem unable to reconcile the texts' mixing of aesthetic modes. This mixing, Geoff King notes, is now routine in media culture, such that 'constructions of the real-authentic and the fictional-image-spectacular generally exist in a dialectical relationship, in which each is mutually implicated in the other, and in which neither can entirely be separated out from the other'. (50)
Contended here is that some of the texts' critics cannot get past the referential code. That is, their predominant way of reading the texts is to ask, how does this programme compare to something conceived of as actual, external reality? Moreover, it is a diminished version of the referential code. Because this, of course, is what happens to texts like these, and what is invited by other major modes of engagement, as noted by Paget: How close are these texts to certain realities? And the most obvious of these is, how likely are these scenarios?
This is an important question, which the texts play up and should not understate. But it is also a bit of a red herring. One accurate answer to it is that the Wall-to-Wall docudramas are not possible future events. They are current, occurring events. The texts not only dramatise, moralise and make real existing realities: but they also produce realities; they constitute them. A closely related, but more interesting question is: How close is this to how it works/doesn't work?
Partly, the question--how does it work?--is, as Paget notes, a function of the docudrama: 'In drama-documentary you can throw light into dark places, and show large audiences the way power is exercised.' (51) In quoting Michael Eaton, Paget considers this a positive, democratic function of the docudrama form. In that it helps to illuminate systems and provide knowledge and resources for public debate. (52) These arguments are not without merit, but should be applied cautiously. Moreover, they tend to overlook the multiple dimensions of this question or mode of engagement.
It is a mode that is in part a fantasy not only of melodrama, but also of science. Like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000-present) and other recent texts, part of the Wall-to-Wall docudramas' logic is that the answer really is there if viewers look again--if they repeatedly watch and closely observe. This conceit is evident in the four texts, but achieves the greatest force in Death of a President. The docudrama about the fictional assassination of President George W. Bush questions contemporary culture's unbounded and regressive faith in visible and psychological forensics while at the same time normalises it. A key figure is the former FBI forensic examiner, James Pearn (James Urbaniak). In his testimonies, Pearn tells us that finding fingerprints on a gun is not as easy as one might think, 'not like the movies'. But this, of course, does not stop the viewer/the text--precisely when Pearn explains this and at repeated points--looking closely at the murder weapon; at the fatal shots being fired and empty cartridges expelled; at the scene of the shooting; at Zikri's clothes; at his face; at the partial fingerprint; and at CCTV footage of suspects' movements before and after the shooting. Pearn eventually steps down when he cannot reconcile Zikri's conviction with the lightness of the forensic evidence. This arguably underlines not only his integrity, but also the authority of 'real' forensic science.
This indicates contemporary culture's enduring and pervasive--and residual and paradoxical--faith in technology. Especially since 9/11 and the cult of CSI, there is a sense that technology will solve a mystery. It also is part of the considerable rise in recent years of trial by media. In this respect, Clover's argument is extended and takes on even greater strength. For it is not just in feature films, but across the media that viewers are invited to scrutinise evidence, visit locations, measure characters in a huge and endless variety of real life cases, many of which have yet to reach the official legal system.
Moreover, Mercer's argument--regarding a 'public too extensive'--as well as that of Clover, takes on a greater resonance, where melodrama meets risk society and the politics of fear. Much of the promise of the texts' technology and aesthetics is that contemporary populations can manage as well as conceive of this problem. But simultaneously it speaks of changed circumstances, of a culture quick to apportion blame. In this sense the texts' indexical excessiveness can be understood as data or intelligence presented to an audience of at-home scientists, DIY risk-assessors. The Wall-to-Wall drama-documentaries are at the centre of a media culture apparently obsessed with surveys, measurements, statistics and predictions. The texts engender a fantasy of knowledge and of management; a gathering of evidence which is partly statistical, mostly visible, and is in some ways regressive. This, for some critics, is part of the politics of fear, where it is in the interests of the political classes to make risk visible and real so that management, not ideology, is normalised and elevated as the contemporary mode of government. (53)
The Wall-to-Wall docudramas do not only shed light on systems of power. Instead they give them shape. They are part of late-modernity's near obsession with organisation, government and management--with how expected/ unexpected events are taken control of; with how populations are known and governed; with how communication is managed; and--perhaps the particular obsession (along with terrorism) of the late-twentieth, early-twenty first centuries--with how finance and the economy are presided over. In this latter respect, The Man Who Broke Britain is noteworthy in the ways it both meets and moves beyond Doane's arguments about catastrophic event television.
Television, argues Doane, must disavow its economic base. It does so by either avoiding the economy altogether, or turning economic crisis into catastrophe: 'The economic crisis as catastrophe is sudden, discontinuous, and unpredictable --an accident which cannot reflect back upon any system.' (54) As well as the sudden and unexpected, she contends, economic catastrophe must be understood as normal via its cyclical nature. Crisis must also be disavowed via spectacle, iconography and a high degree of immediacy and referentiality. In this respect, Doane argues (not dissimilarly from Caldwell's theory of event-status television) that the television crisis or catastrophe announces itself as distinct from the ordinary flow of TV, but may also represent the epitome of the televisual--that is, 'immediacy, urgency, presence, discontinuity, the instantaneous, and hence forgettable'. (55) The lure of television's referentiality, she suggests, is precisely its promise of the immediate, the instantaneous, the real. But what is deflected by this lure, Doane argues, is history, political architecture, 'abstract horror ... (and) the system of commodity capitalism'. (56)
In The Man Who Broke Britain, and in the other Wall-to-Wall docudramas, the text's disastrous event is marked as sudden and unexpected, predictable and inevitable. Following Doane, it is in many ways sudden and shocking; and it certainly is spectacular and iconographic. The key spectacles, from the perspective of her thesis, are chaotic traders, riotous protestors and burning oil fields. But while these images are referential, it is debatable exactly of what they are iconographic, and whether they can be read singularly or at all as indicative of an unexpected but explicable accident. The programme not only fights shy of apportioning blame or cause; it also, arguably and contrary to Doane's argument and examples, goes some way in its images and testimonies toward explaining the mechanisms and vulnerabilities of an economic system with global and personal consequences.
Does this mean that the Wall-to-Wall docudramas are progressive and politically open texts, more so at least than the 1980s US television examined by Doane? In part, perhaps. But more importantly they are part of what Constance Balides calls economics' expanded and deterritorialized domain. (57) In the post-Fordist period, Balides notes, economics have become highly visible as a legitimating discourse 'across the social fabric'. (58) The language of economics pervades everyday life at its least as well as most formal levels, to the extent that--like sexuality in preceding periods--it has become a pre-dominant explanatory framework and key strategy of self-definition: 'the science of human behaviour'. (59) In this way, and building on the work of Balides, The Man Who Broke Britain's 'constant talking' (60) about the global economy and its precarious, dispersed and unregulated axes can be understood as a strategy by which the discursive authority of economics is extended. The programme normalises economics--as well as management, security, terrorism and risk--as the way to understand our contemporary condition.
The programmes should, as already noted, be considered specific forms of historical traumatic event television. A number of ways have been indicated, in which the Wall-to-Wall texts reach this status; and it is also suggested by the way each programme reproduces fantasies of suffering and powerlessness. The key but not exclusive sufferers in the four programmes are women: Nicola Evans, Jane Newell (Nancy McClean) and Pauline Watkins (Prue Clarke) in The Day Britain Stopped; Patricia Badr and Nasreen Hassan in The Man Who Broke Britain; and Zahra Abi Zikri (Hend Ayoub) and Marianne Claybon (Chavez Ravine) in Death of a President. It points toward an influential theory of television melodrama. Argues Tania Modleski, women's suffering in TV soap operas is constant, unavoidable and in excess. (61) It engenders in its viewers conflicting desires and fantasies of powerlessness--not only of a permanently unsuccessful villain-ness, but also of the unremitting powerlessness of soap opera characters.
The Wall-to-Wall texts are neither soap opera nor particularly or specifically sympathetic to women. Modleski's thesis though, points to a fantasy of recognition and perhaps catharsis; and 'we had it coming' rings across the texts as not only contrition and acknowledgement, but also relief. One of the programmes' key fantasies is of being heard and witnessed. This in part is a fantasy of television more broadly, and reality TV in particular, where, as Jon Dovey argues, self and collective validation is a vital contemporary function. (62) But the Wall-to-Wall witnesses are relieved. Theirs is also a fantasy of being caught and punished. In this sense, the texts use disavowal in a different way to that theorised by Doane --not for the sake of ideological denial and magical resolution, but for morality lesson and portent: 'We are in collective denial about capacity.' (Aviation Safety Consultant Daniel Boyd, played by Tim Crouch).
The texts' 'we had it coming' is 'we have it coming'. They exhibit the qualities both of a warning--'I'm the Cassandra of the aviation industry' (Boyd, again) --and a memory. The programmes are about memorial. This is manifested by particular characters and scenes--the spoken memories of Samir Badr and his nostalgic return to 'pre-fall' virtue and home in the home-video and family photographs at the close of The Man Who Broke Britain; the grieving son at his father's graveside in Death of a President; and more grief, graves and memories of loved ones in the closing scenes of The Day Britain Stopped--by the texts' elegiac and portentous music, and by frozen, fetishised and obsessively repeated images of people, buildings, cities, traffic and oil fields.
The Wall-to-Wall texts are memorial, repetitive and mix temporalities. They have muted elements of action melodrama--last-minute rescues and revelations, legible villains--but also, in referencing Elsaesser, (63) an uncertain, incomplete and belated quality: it's too late/it's not too late; we had it coming/we have it coming. They are traumatic historical event texts that provide structures of feeling (64) and relations, (65) and are also an effort after reality and form. They are indexically excessive, but also signal a 'crisis of indexicality'. (66) If, as suggested earlier, this crisis is in some ways regressive and 'tormenting', then it may also be in some ways productive. The truth of a traumatic event, according to Cathy Caruth, 'is bound up with its crisis of truth'. (67) As with a traumatic memory, and acknowledging Sigmund Freud's nachtraglichkeit, (68) the Wall-to-Wall texts invite viewers to re-arrange visual, personal, emotional and historical memories in an effort after mature development, both individually and collectively. But the texts' status as the future/ past historical is, as their producers suggest, quite radical, and makes them at once traumatic, belated and immediate: 'It is not ... having too little or indirect access to an experience that places its truth in question ... but paradoxically enough, its very overwhelming immediacy that produces its belated uncertainty.' (69)
Caruth helps us to identify something important here in the Wall-to-Wall texts. The docudramas occupy an in-between zone, but simultaneously present themselves as intensely immediate. This conceit, or how it is produced, we have shown, can engender considerable uncertainty, as well as principled offence. But it may also be a new form of television particularly well suited to our current global and political crises. It represents a reworking of television time and immediacy. Immediacy in these docudramas is not only about liveness and flow, illusion or disavowal. It is as Caruth suggests a manifestation of shock and uncertainty. What this necessitates for scholars of television is a re-theorisation of television time, history and memory. This work is beginning, and one of the most useful recent contributions to it is Amy Holdsworth's essay, 'Televisual memory'. (70) Following Holdsworth, the Wall-to-Wall texts' mode, their movement backwards and forwards in time, can be theorised as a reverberation, the meaning of which is debatable, in some ways clear, but also always, and by definition, deferred.
(1) Borough Films produced Death of a President, while the others are Wall-to-Wall productions. The most recent three were written by Gabriel Range and Simon Finch, and directed by Finch; while Simon Chinn and Daniel Percival wrote Smallpox 2002, with Percival directing.
(2) For convenience, and at points throughout the essay, these docudramas will be referred collectively as the Wall-to-Wall texts, despite Death of a President's different production company
(3) Constance Balides, 'Jurassic Post-Fordism: Tall Tales of Economics in the Theme Park,' Screen, 41, 2, 2000, 141.
(4) 'Praise for The Day Britain Stopped,' Wall to Wall, 15 July 2003, http://www.walltowall. co.uk/news_item.aspx?content=91, accessed 27 November 2008.
(5) A. A. Gill, 'The Origin of a New Species?' Times, 15 October 2006, 14.
(6) A.O. Scott, 'Law and Order with a Touch ofZapruder,' New York Times, 8 October 2006, http://movies.nytimes.com/2006/10/27/movies/27deat.html?scp = 1&sq=law%20&% 20order%20with%20a%20touch%20of%20zapruder&st=cse, accessed 27 November 2008.
(7) Stephen Pile, 'Dead Presidents, Lusty Maidens and Clever Apes,' Daily Telegraph, 14 October 2006, 18.
(8) Gareth McLean, 'Every Breath You Take,' Guardian, 6 February 2002, 22.
(9) Simon Edge, 'On Last Night's TV,' Express, 6 February 2002, 63. For similar opprobrium regarding Smallpox 2002, see: A.A. Gill, 'The Greatest Gift that We Possess?' Times, 10 February 2002, 12; Tony Purnell, 'Disease Drama was Sick Stunt,' Mirror, 6 February 2002, 27. For criticisms of The Man Who Broke Britain, see: Ben Wrightby, 'Bringing Down the Banking System is Not as Simple as BBC,' Sunday Business, 12 December 2004, 13; Stephen Pile, 'Why I'll be Turning to Crime,' Daily Telegraph, 11 December 2004, 20.
(10) See, for example: Andrew Billen, 'Tin Hearts and Dead Precedents,' New Statesman, 16 October 2006, 46; Anne-Marie Conway, 'This is the Week to Come,' Daily Telegraph, 8 October 2006, 33; Mark Lawson, 'Like Pins in a Voodoo Doll: A Mock- Documentary depicting Bush's Killing is Morally Questionable and Dramatically Weak,' Guardian, 6 October 2006, 34.
(11) Critique And Response To BBC2 Production "The Day Britain Stopped", Guild of Air Traffic Control Officers, 14 May 2003, http://www.gatco.org/press/bbc2feature. html, accessed 27 November 2008; Statement from National Air Traffic Services Concerning BBC Drama Programme "The Day Britain Stopped",' National Air Traffic Services, 13 May 2003, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/the_day_britain_ stopped/3404603.stm, accessed 27 November 2008; BBC2 "The Day Britain Stopped"--CAA Statement, Civil Aviation Authority, 13 May 2003, http://www.caa.co.uk/application.aspx?catid=14&pagetype=65&appid=7&newstype=n&mode=detail&nid=675, accessed 27 November 2008.
(12) Sarah Hughes, 'Close Range Investigation,' Observer, 15 October 2006, 18.
(13) Richard Irving, 'TV Drama Creates a Crisis that the City May Wake Up To,' Times, 8 December 2004, 48.
(14) BBC2Programmeonafictionalsmallpoxoutbreak, Tuesday5February9.00pm-Smallpox 2002--Silent Weapon, Department of Health, 4 February 2002, http://www.dh.gov. uk/en/Publicationsandstatistics/Publications/PublicationsPolicyAndGuidance/ DH_4008956, accessed 27 November 2008.
(15) 'Bush Requests BBC Smallpox Drama,' BBC News, 6 February 2002, http://news.bbc. co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/tv_and_radio/1804688.stm, accessed 26 May 2009.
(16) Peter Watkins, quoted in S. M. J. Arrowsmith, 'Peter Watkins,' in George Brandt, ed, British Television Drama, Cambridge University Press, 1981, p. 226.
(17) Gill, 'The Origin of a New Species,' 14.
(18) Lawson, 'Like Pins in a Voodoo Doll,' 34.
(19) Richard Kilborn and John Izod, An Introduction to Television Documentary: Confronting Reality, Manchester University Press, 1997, p. 149.
(20) Andre Bazin, 'The Ontology of the Photographic Image,' Film Quarterly, 13, 4, 1960, 7-8.
(21) Charles Sanders Pierce, 'Prolegomena to an Apology for Pragmaticism,' in James Hoopes, ed, Peirce on Signs: Writings on Semiotics by Charles Sanders Peirce, The University of North Carolina Press, 1991, pp. 251-2.
(23) Derek Paget, No Other Way To Tell It: Dramadoc/Docudrama on Television, Manchester University Press, 1998, p. 177.
(24) Simon Finch, 'Making a Drama out of a Crisis,' BBC News, 2 May 2003, http://news. bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/the_day_britain_stopped/2988931.stm, accessed 26 May 2009.
(25) Gill, 'The Origin of a New Species,' 14.
(26) Lawson, 'Like Pins in a Voodoo Doll,' 34.
(27) Janet Staiger, 'Cinematic Shots: The Narration of Violence,' in Vivien Sobchack, ed, The Persistence of History: Cinema, Television and the Modern Event, Routledge, 1996, pp. 47-50.
(28) Nick Leeson, 'Insider Terrorism: The New Threat,' Observer, 5 December 2004, 5.
(29) John Caldwell, Televisuality: Style, Crisis and Authority in American Television, Rutgers University Press, 1995.
(30) Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form, Routledge, 2003, p. 86.
(31) Tobias Ebbrecht, 'Docudramatizing History on TV: German and British Docudrama and Historical Event Television in the Memorial Year 2005,' European Journal of Cultural Studies, 10, 1, 2007, 38.
(32) Caldwell, Televisuality, p. 191.
(33) Ien Ang, Watching Dallas: Soap Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination, Routledge, 1985,
(34) The quote, which is used as the title of this paper, and captures the spirit of the four programmes, is uttered, shame-faced, in one of the latter testimonies of The Day Britain Stopped by Transport Minister Tom Walker (Eric Carte).
(35) Ebbrecht, 'Docudramatizing History on TV,' 41.
(37) Ibid, 42.
(38) Thomas Elsaesser, 'Postmodernism as Mourning Work,' Screen, 42, 2, 2001, 197.
(39) Dean Lockwood, 'Teratology of the Spectacle,' in Geoff King, ed, The Spectacle of the Real: From Hollywood to Reality TV and Beyond, Intellect, 2005, p. 77.
(40) Carol Clover, 'Judging Audiences: The Case of the Trial Movie,' in Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams, eds, Reinventing Film Studies, Arnold, 2000, p. 245.
(41) Alexis de Tocqueville, quoted ibid, p. 245.
(42) Colin Mercer, 'Entertainment, or the Policing of Virtue,' New Formations, 4, 1988, 54.
(44) Mary Ann Doane, 'Information, Crisis, Catastrophe,' in Patricia Mellencamp, ed, Logics of Television: Essays in Cultural Criticism, bfi Publishing, 1990, p. 229.
(46) Barry Sandywell, 'Specular Grammar: The Visual Rhetoric of Modernity,' in Ian Heywood and Barry Sandywell, eds, Interpreting Visual Culture: Explorations in the Hermeneutics of the Visual, Routledge, 1999, p. 35.
(47) Paget, No Other Way to Tell It, pp. 203-4.
(48) Doane, 'Information, Crisis, Catastrophe,' p. 229.
(49) Peter Brooks, 'The Melodramatic Imagination,' in Marcia Landy, ed, Imitations of Life: A Reader on Film and Television Melodrama, Wayne State University Press, 1991, p. 53.
(50) Geoff King, '"Just Like a Movie"? 9/11 and Hollywood Spectacle,' in The Spectacle of the Real, p. 54.
(51) Michael Eaton, quoted in Paget, No Other Way to Tell it, p. 197.
(52) This argument is lent support and similarly applied to The Day Britain Stopped by Jim McGuigan; see Jim McGuigan, 'The Cultural Public Sphere,' European Journal of Cultural Studies, 8, 4, 2005, 440.
(53) For example, see, Adam Curtis, 'Fear Gives Politicians a Reason to Be,' The Guardian, 24 November 2004, http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2004/nov/24/terrorism. world, accessed 26 May 2009.
(54) Doane, 'Information, Crisis, Catastrophe,' p. 237.
(55) Ibid., 238.
(56) Ibid., 237.
(57) Balides, 'Jurassic Post-Fordism,' 158.
(58) Ibid., 141.
(59) Ibid., 159.
(61) Tania Modleski, Loving With a Vengeance: Mass Produced Fantasies for Women, Routledge, 1990, pp. 94-8.
(62) Jon Dovey, Freakshow: First Person Media and Factual Television, Pluto Press, 2000, p. 113.
(63) Elsaesser, 'Postmodernism as Mourning Work,' 195.
(64) Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution, Hogarth Press, 1992, p. 41.
(65) Bernard Sharratt, 'The Politics of the Popular? From Melodrama to Television', in David Bradby, Louis James and Bernard Sharratt, eds, Performance and Politics in Popular Drama: Aspects of Popular Entertainment in Theatre, Film and Television, 1800-1976, Cambridge University Press, 1980, p. 290.
(66) Elsaesser, 'Postmodernism as Mourning Work,' 194.
(67) Cathy Caruth, 'Introduction,' in Cathy Caruth, ed, Trauma: Explorations in Memory, John Hopkins University Press, 1995, p. 8.
(68) Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis, The Language of Psychoanalysis, Karnac Books, 1988, p. 111. Laplanche and Pontalis translate this term as deferred action and explain it thus: "experiences, impressions and memory-traces (which) may be revised at a later date to fit in with fresh experiences or with the attainment of a new stage of development." (p.111).
(69) Caruth, 'Introduction,' p. 6.
(70) Amy Holdsworth, 'Televisual Memory,' Screen, 51, 2, 2010, 129-42
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|Author:||Stewart, Michael; Butt, Richard|
|Publication:||Critical Studies in Television|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2011|
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