Show Hide image

The Kennedys History

JFK comes across as quite a drip in this dramatisation.

Why is The Kennedys (Thursdays, 9pm) so alluringly awful? I'm not sure. I've seen four episodes now and I am still confused by its schlocky terribleness. Watching it reminds me strongly of being a sixth-former, when I used to use Dynasty the way some people use temazepam. Every moment I'm slumped in front of it, I feel bad, knowing that I could be doing something better with my time. And yet, on paper, at least, it is infinitely superior to the satin sagas of Alexis Carrington, Dex Dexter et al.

The theme music, which is grandiose and elaborate and features many trumpets, suggests deep research and a certain kind of authorial pride. The three male leads - Greg Kinnear as JFK, Barry Pepper as Bobby and Tom Wilkinson as their bullying daddy, Joe - are all talented actors. And even after all these years the story is still as juicy and involving as a ripe Alphonso mango (though I speak as one who is sufficiently interested in the Kennedys to have spent a day traipsing around the presidential library in Boston: just so you know, I bought a copy of an old election poster and a number of lapel badges). So what went wrong?

Perhaps that's it: the juice! The writers have piled in every conceivable bit of scandal, substantiated and otherwise. In the most recent episode, we saw Jackie (a wholly forgettable performance by Katie Holmes) receiving an energy-boosting amphetamine injection in her pert little backside, courtesy of naughty Max Jacobson, her husband's Dr Feelgood.

This lust for tabloid completion crowds out nuance, not to mention good writing. In epi­sode three, for instance, Bobby the goody-two-shoes confronted his big brother about his womanising; at which point, Jack, bang to rights, said: "It's not even the sex, for Christ's sake; it's the rush of the thing!" Ponder this for five seconds and it sounds like the commentary in an airport book about the Kennedys, not a line that anyone would say.

It's the School of Kitty Kelley rather than the School of Seymour Hersh - though, now I think of it, even America's finest investigative reporter got a little carried away when he went after Camelot (many of the "discoveries" he wanted to put in his 1997 book - including papers supposedly relating to JFK's relationship with Marilyn Monroe while he was president - turned out to have been fabricated). Working on the story of the Kennedys does do funny things to a person's head.

All the usual personality stuff is here: J Edgar Hoover is a thug and a pseudo-blackmailer; Frank Sinatra is in deep with the Mafia; Ethel Kennedy (Bobby's wife and a mother-of-11) has a wholesome von Trapp family shtick going on; Papa Joe Kennedy is like Kate Middleton's mum on speed when it comes to his "boys" and their careers. Where the series differs from some other Kennedy productions - and there have been plenty - is in its attitude to the president. The producers have gone biggest of all on his illness (JFK carried a severe war injury and suffered from Addison's disease). So, this is not the energetic crusader of popular memory. This is a sickly, privileged fellow who wants nothing more than a good night's sleep.

I have always imagined that Kennedy and his wife, whatever the extent of their marital problems, must have enjoyed life mightily inside the White House - the power, the women and, in her case, the chance to have a lasting effect on the Oval Office upholstery. But these two act like they can't bear the place.

“If the public knew the shape I was in, they'd boot me out of here," said Kennedy in episode four, in a voice which strongly suggested that he was considering leaking to Life magazine forthwith a photograph of himself in a truss, with a needle full of something dubious poking out of his bum.

I'm starting to see him in much the same way as, when I was a child, I regarded Colin the phoney invalid in The Secret Garden. What a drip! This can hardly be the effect the film-makers were hoping for. Did History, the TV channel that commissioned The Kennedys in the United States, drop the series as a result of pressure from Hyannis Port? I doubt it. More likely they just got tired of the pres's extreme weediness. No one likes a moaner. l

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, GOD Special