Political events now turn into a soap opera so quickly that we risk confusing fact with fiction | Marthe Gill


Oinston Churchill was not immortalized on British screens until five years after his death. The Profumo affair took a quarter of a century to take shape. But the speed at which politics is appropriated by showbusiness – with prosthetics obscuring the traditional difference between the two – is rather faster these days.

Wednesday we will have This Englanda drama spanning Boris Johnson’s tenure, with Kenneth Branagh in clumsy, pseudo-Churchilian mode and Ophelia Lovibond, with a bump and twice as much hair, as Carrie.

It seems rather fast – maybe too fast. It’s pure coincidence that the series didn’t air while Johnson is still Prime Minister. Lovibond told interviewers how odd it was to see her character on the front page as she showed up to film and spoke about her responsibility – as if on a jury – not to be swayed by speaking to people. bad people about it. Filming also wrapped too soon for director Michael Winterbottom to include the true ending to the story, which he has to kick himself over, and the series will even dwell on the Covid rampages, with dying patients and sobbing relatives. Too early?

Political dramas have been happening too soon for some time. While still in office, Tony Blair was immortalized to death (The agreementstarring Michael Sheen, one of Blair’s many docudramas, premiered just five years after he took office). Brexit: the uncivil war came out in 2019 when big decisions about the event were still looming and Dominic Cummings, the main character, was still going wild in Downing Street.

What result, if any, will this momentum have to turn news into drama? Unlike political balance in the media, for example, the effect that political fiction might have on the body politic is not taken particularly seriously. But fiction and television series are changing the way people view politics and politicians. It might even change the way we vote.

This is of course not a new observation. Shelley once wrote that poets are the “unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

The political novel has had a profound effect on politics over the years – the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin is credited with pushing America toward abolition and Civil War, Charles Kingsley water babies with child labor laws.

One always reaches classic works such as Nineteen Eighty four and The Handmaid’s Tale to explain and rally feelings around political events. Fictional victims, who have taken the time to draw us into their psychological universe, may have more emotional power than the real ones.

But the power of fiction can go far beyond its use as a political tool in the realms of the involuntary. Take a recent US study that exposed subjects to a wacky movie about a government conspiracy – Walk the dog — and found they were much more likely to believe that a president will stage a fake war in the future than a real president has in the past. Another study found that even smart viewers bought into conspiracy theories in Oliver Stone’s movie jfkwhich mixed fact and fiction in a narrative about his assassination.

This tendency to confuse drama with reality is true even with depictions of current politicians whose stories we know extremely well. Research reveals that fact-initiated audiences have come to believe blatant lies if they see them in a dramatic documentary (a contradiction in terms if there ever was one). “In the end, when we saw the real Tony and Gordon on College Green, we barely noticed they weren’t [Michael] Shine and [David] Morrissey,” as critic Andrew Billen wrote of The agreement.

This credibility can apply even to those who witnessed the events themselves. In his book A State of playSteven Fielding recounts Geoffrey Howe’s reaction to watching Thatcher: The Last Days. “Nearly every moment my actions, my words were depicted, I was aware of serious, probably unintentional, inaccuracies. Literally, nothing was right. Yet for all those sequences where I wasn’t on screen, the disbelief was largely suspended… ‘So that’s why George’ – or Peter or whoever – ‘did that’, I found myself thinking over and over again.

It doesn’t help that politicians have discovered in recent decades that the key to electoral success is telling personal stories about themselves; become the heroes of their own dramas. Nor that they seek to draw favorable comparisons between themselves and fictional politicians. Westminster’s obsession with The west wing led to excruciating maxims such as “let Boris be Boris” and “let Starmer be Starmer” (a reference to “let Bartlet be Bartlet”, from the show’s fictional US president).

Fielding writes that Ukip once deliberately acquired a web address similar to that used by the BBC to promote The Incredible Mrs. Pritchard, a series about a popular politician. But perhaps the best evidence of this modern blend of politics with its on-screen portrayal is the career of the extraordinary Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who was elected because he played the Ukrainian president on a TV show.

Fiction influences democracy. It would be wrong to do anything about it, of course, but we shouldn’t ignore it either. Those who make films about spin-doctors are themselves a kind of spin-doctor. They have influence. We can only urge them to take it seriously.

Martha Gill is a political journalist and former lobby correspondent

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