Analysis: So what if some of ‘Charlie’ is made up?

Dramatic distortions always risk being mistaken for historical truths, writes Donald Clarke

Aiden Gillen as Charlie Haughey in RTÉ series ‘Charlie’. Photograph: RTÉ

Aiden Gillen as Charlie Haughey in RTÉ series ‘Charlie’. Photograph: RTÉ

 

For a journalist, the highest priorities must always be truth and accuracy. Reporters rarely find themselves in court (alas) for misplacing an adjective. Drama is a different business.

Of course, any writer tackling a true story must think carefully before deviating from historical record, but he or she will (and should) always prioritise structure, story and character. No play or film can hope to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Even so-called verbatim theatre – such as The Colour of Justice, Richard Norton-Taylor’s influential piece on the Stephen Lawrence inquiry – invites actors to make characters of real-life participants. You may be watching a true story. But you’re not watching the truth.

The comment boards and letters pages have been bulging in the wake of RTÉ’s amusingly chewy series on Charlie Haughey. This character has been insufficiently developed. That story is treated in sketchy fashion. If Colin Teevan, the writer of Charlie, had included all the suggested information his series would have needed to run until the heat death of the universe.

Indeed, if anything, the script already swells with too much information. Characters are forever telling other characters stuff they surely already know. Parenthetical asides clarify the bleeding obvious.

One of the most controversial elaborations saw Desmond O’Malley, assaulted by drunken Charlistas, defending his own cadre with a scimitar donated by the Iraqi government. It seems that somebody may have wielded such a weapon, but it probably wasn’t Des and it probably didn’t come from Saddam Hussein. No matter. It’s a striking, amusing scene that catches the spirit of the moment. The young Henry V didn’t really get drunk with a fat man called Falstaff.

There is a lot of such chatter about. This is awards season, after all. Mark Schultz, the Olympic wrestler played by Channing Tatum in Bennett Miller’s brilliant Foxcatcher, seemed totally on board with the project at its triumphant premiere at Cannes. But, six months later, when film critics observed sexual tension between Tatum’s version of Schultz and Steve Carell’s psychotic John du Pont, the wrestler went ballistic on Twitter.

The surprising underperformance of Ava DuVernay’s Selma, a tale of the US civil rights struggle, at last week’s Oscar nominations has been partially blamed on alleged misrepresentations of Lyndon Johnson. Writing in the Washington Post, Joseph A Califano, Johnson’s assistant for domestic affairs, objected strongly to suggestions that the President sought to obstruct Martin Luther King’s march from Selma, Alabama. DuVernay responded that Califano’s argument that LBJ actually suggested the protest was positively offensive. Either way, the film remains a gripping drama.

There’s more. The Imitation Game didn’t make enough of Alan Turing’s sexuality and misrepresented his relationship with the commander of the operation seeking to break Germany’s Enigma code. American Sniper is too kind to US Navy marksman Chris Kyle. And so on.

No uncomplicated dictum clarifies the duties and responsibilities in these cases. A dramatist might (though few would) brutally state that any alteration is justified if it serves the story. This is easier to argue the further back in time you travel for your source material. Nobody now cares that Richard III and Julius Caesar contain nearly as much make-believe as do Hamlet and The Tempest.

However, even the most fanatical evangelist for quasi-factual drama would understand if the living models for characters in Charlie – or their surviving relatives – objected to supposed slights or misrepresentations. Peter Morgan’s script for The Damned United, the story of Brian Clough’s days at Leeds United, was a masterpiece of concision, but John Giles can be forgiven for snorting at the way he and his teammates were distorted for dramatic effect.

Every now and then, a film or TV series really can feed a pernicious lie that beds into the collective consciousness. The litany of preposterous half-truths that characterise Oliver Stone’s JFK – which seems to posit that the New Orleans gay community killed President Kennedy – has been accepted as hard fact by millions.

The director, though not afraid of conspiracy theories, has argued that his story is merely a “counter myth” to stand against the Warren Commission’s own supposed inventions. This hasn’t stopped a generation believing that Oswald couldn’t have made that shot (he could) or that the fatal bullet’s alleged passage defied ballistic science (it didn’t).

None of the current examples look to be so damaging to perceptions of history as was Stone’s barmy film. What if they were? Should a writer care if distortions are mistaken for historical truths? Anybody who learns his or her history from telly drama (or Shakespeare’s history plays, for that matter) probably deserves to be misinformed. There are books out there, you know.