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14 February 2023

The cheap trend of sensationalist docudramas

Colleen Rooney? Boris Johnson? Prince Andrew? All have gone through the pop culture scandal to prestige TV pipeline.

By Sarah Manavis

Think of the best biopic or documentary you’ve seen. It might be serious, uplifting, funny; it might be about a famous person or event, or something you thought you understood but, upon viewing, realised you didn’t at all. Whatever the subject matter or tone, these films manage to change our perspective on something. But sometimes these films and shows are painfully unsuccessful: events are cheaply rehashed with a sensationalist script, offering little that is new or revelatory. Exciting moments from the past are merely exploited to easily draw in an audience.

It appears that a shiny new iteration of the latter will soon be added to the canon, with the announcement last week of Netflix’s new film Scoop, a dramatisation of the BBC Newsnight interview with Prince Andrew in November 2019, based on a book released last year detailing how the BBC secures its most famous interviewees. The announcement came with a star-studded cast – Gillian Anderson will be Emily Maitlis, Rufus Sewell is to play Prince Andrew and Billie Piper takes on the role of Sam McAlister, who booked the interview. The A-list cast and Netflix budget will give the film a highbrow sheen; the seriousness of the subject lends an air of importance. But what are we supposed to get from seeing a chilling moment from very recent history repackaged as entertainment?

While we don’t yet know what Scoop may look like, recent history gives us a good indication. In the last several months there has been a string of glitzy TV dramas based on recent events, such as Vardy v Rooney: A Courtroom Drama (a Channel 4 adaptation of the “Wagatha Christie” case, with Michael Sheen in a starring role) and This England (a limited series from Sky about Boris Johnson’s handling of the early stages of the pandemic, with Kenneth Branagh as the lead). This is the pop culture to prestige TV pipeline – only, so far, it’s produced little of quality. Despite the evident interest in the subject matter of these dramas, and the starry names attached to productions, the limitations of these hastily-made programmes were immediately obvious to viewers and critics. Any sense of “rediscovery” was lost; nothing of value was added. In the case of This England, production began so soon after Covid restrictions had lifted that the show’s narrative failed to incorporate key facts that later emerged, including the entirety of the partygate scandal.

These are familiar play-by-play tellings of events we already know far too well. This trend of shallow reconstructions doesn’t just apply to the very recent past, however. The media is turning its long-zoom lens on itself in countless films and TV shows, superficially and simplistically re-staging stories that gripped audiences once in the hope they will do so again. Take the latest season of The Crown, with its head-tilt-for-head-tilt recreation of Princess Diana’s infamous Panorama interview, or the on-set photos of the actor Marisa Abela in a bad beehive and bloody shoes for an upcoming Amy Winehouse biopic. These interpretations do not seem like sympathetic reassessments of the tragedy experienced by these figures. Instead, they crudely render them as caricatures – just like the press did at the time – in the hope of attracting the same morbid fascination. As Shaad D’Souza wrote of the images from the Winehouse set: “The stark images of Abela on set feel like they play into the very same voyeuristic impulses that led to Winehouse’s decline… There’s hardly anything for Taylor-Johnson’s film to document that wouldn’t simply replicate the painful, indelible images that characterised Winehouse’s life.”

When it comes to Scoop and the story of the Prince Andrew interview, a similar question should be asked: what more can a retelling add to what we already know? What can we gain by revisiting this moment so soon? While it’s easy to focus on Prince Andrew’s ludicrous comments about sweat glands and Pizza Express, the purpose of the interview was to hold a powerful man to account about his friendship with a convicted sex offender, the actions of whom are still being investigated with new horrifying details emerging regularly. Though there may be some interesting details about the journalistic skill of the interview’s booker, it hardly seems pertinent to our understanding of Prince Andrew, or of Jeffrey Epstein’s crimes. It’s not as though the source material isn’t easily accessible either – you need only go to the BBC’s YouTube channel to find the conversation in full.

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Good historical media does exist: the Amy Winehouse documentary from 2015, or last year’s Elvis biopic are good examples. These films take moments immortalised in popular culture and carefully pull them apart, giving us a more compassionate, rigorous and full version. But what more is there to learn from the Prince Andrew interview? Maybe Scoop will somehow show us something different, or give us a new view of what we have already seen. However, it seems more likely that we will be left with a shallow rehashing of an extremely familiar story, with nothing achieved beyond lining Netflix’s pockets.

[See also: Prince Andrew: The Musical – can you really make comedy out of anything?]

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