Too real, too soon? The Trouble With True Crime TV Shows | TV crime drama
FA few months after her son’s killer was sentenced to life in prison, Sarah Sak received an email from the BBC. The 55-year-old facilities manager was not remotely alarmed to learn that the broadcaster wanted to create drama about the victims of so-called ‘Grindr killer’ Stephen Port, who murdered his son and three others after having met them on gay dating apps. “I just thought it would be a really good thing to go out to the public,” Sak says, explaining that she hopes to raise awareness about the dangers of online dating. In January, Four Lives aired on BBC One – eight years after the murder of Sak’s son Anthony Walgate, six years after Port’s conviction.
Sak never worried that it was “too early” to dramatize the events surrounding her son’s death. For her, Four Lives was a way to honor Anthony’s memory and shed light on the police’s failure to investigate his murder (in December 2021, an inquest ruled that “fundamental failings” in the police had contributed to the deaths of Port’s last three victims). Ultimately, the three-episode miniseries was cathartic for Sak, who cried watching it for the first and second time.
Four Lives is one of many television dramas about remarkably recent events. In February, Netflix launched Inventing Anna, a nine-episode series about the 2017 arrest of fraudster Anna Sorokin. Sky is currently showing Joe vs Carole, about animal abuser Joe Exotic, who was convicted in 2019 of hiring hitmen to murder rival Carole Baskin. These sights are not abnormal. Hulu drama The Dropout tells the story of medical startup founder Elizabeth Holmes and aired just two months after Holmes was convicted of defrauding investors and six months before his sentencing.
It’s not just contemporary crimes that are invading television. Several pandemic dramas have already aired, from Netflix’s Social Distance in October 2020 to Channel 4’s Help in September 2021. In the fall, we’ll be treated to Sky’s This Sceptred Isle, with Kenneth Branagh on the response from the government at the start of the Covid-19 crisis. And who can forget Channel 4’s 2019 TV movie Brexit: The Uncivil War, which starred a bald Benedict Cumberbatch as Dominic Cummings, and aired more than a year before the UK’s Withdrawal Agreement was ratified. United with the EU?
Taken together, these shows raise a number of questions (beyond, of course, “Do we really need to see Kenneth Branagh in a blonde Boris Johnson wig?”). Why exactly do we see so many dramatized recent events? Should we worry that television no longer cares about the concept of “too soon”?
“Something is happening now, and where once it could be three or four years before someone could dramatize it, now it could be three or four weeks,” says writer and producer Neil McKay, who created Four Lives and directs a drama Jimmy Savile with Steve Coogan for the BBC. McKay says he personally wouldn’t write about something that happened just a few weeks ago, but he thinks dramatizations of true crimes can be liberating for victims and their families, as long as they are consulted throughout production.
“If you have a child or a parent who is murdered, one of the terrible things that happens immediately is that you lose your privacy,” McKay says. He thinks the press is often intrusive, while he prides himself on listening to people at the heart of an incident. “It takes two or three years to listen to the music of the experience of the person you’re talking to,” he says. He read the Four Lives script to Sak at his kitchen table in Hull, invited her and the families of the other victims to visit the set, and showed them the series before it aired. “The main thing is how you treat people,” he says.
One of the benefits of dramatizing a recent event is that it may be easier to trace the families of the victims. In 2006, McKay wrote See No Evil: The Moors Murders, a dramatization of five child murders perpetrated by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley in the 1960s. “Finding people and tracking them down is much harder,” McKay says, although relatives of 12-year-old victim John Kilbride eventually played extras on the show. On the other hand, it may be easier legally to make a show about a historical event. Although Four Lives entered production in 2019, its release was delayed so that the show would not prejudice the jury’s inquiry into police misconduct.
McKay’s methods can be reassuring, but not all families are equally satisfied with their treatment. In 2016, ITV aired The Secret, about a Northern Irish dentist who murdered his wife in 1991. The couple’s daughter wrote in the Guardian that the show “[exploited] a tragedy for entertainment” and “propelled [her] in a new world of trauma”. When they emailed her, the producers misspelled her mother’s name. “When media interest goes beyond reporting events and goes against the wishes of family members, the effects can be as devastating as the murder itself,” she wrote. .
The dramatizations do not only affect the victims; there is also a risk that they glorify criminals. Ahead of his trial, Port wrote in a letter that Avengers actor Chris Evans could play him in a movie, while Exotic was “absolutely thrilled” when Netflix’s first docuseries about him aired in 2020. many modern shows avoid glorifying criminals by focusing on reporters and detectives who uncover crimes, rather than the crimes themselves.
This reflects audience appetites, as a number of shows have been adapted from popular podcasts, books and articles – Joe vs. Carole is based on Wondery’s Over My Dead Body podcast, while Inventing Anna was inspired by a 2018 New York magazine article that went viral. Fred Black, head of research at media analytics firm Ampere Analysis, believes we’re seeing so much dramatization of recent events because the streaming giants can “guarantee audience interest”.
“In an age of content saturation, recognizability is key,” says Black. Yet, how new is this really? John Caughie, University of Glasgow Television Studies Affiliate and author of Television Drama: Realism, Modernism, and British Culture, says dramas of the 70s and 80s often reflected “contemporary social conditions” rather than specific events. Caughie says these shows functioned as “critiques on the state of the nation.” In 1978, for example, the BBC aired the television play The Spongers a year after the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. The film depicts a single mother struggling with benefits, “reducing any ambiguity by filming the opening title The Spongers against a portrait of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh”.
Five years later, in 1983, the BBC commissioned The Falklands Play just a year after the end of the war. Although it aired in 1986, it was shelved over fears that its pro-Thatcher stance might jeopardize the upcoming general election. The BBC’s Comptroller at the time, Michael Grade, also criticized the drama’s “jingoistic tone”. It remains to be seen how audiences will react to This Sceptred Isle, although McKay’s upcoming Savile drama The Reckoning has already sparked a backlash, with the BBC being accused of hypocrisy given its decades-long relationship with the presenter. predator. BBC drama controller Piers Wenger defended the show, saying: “It’s been a decade since Jimmy Savile died. It will be a decade next year since his behaviors first came into the public eye. … Our primary intention with drama is to give victims a voice and to tell their stories with sensitivity.
The Falklands Game finally broadcast on BBC Four in 2002 – the 20th anniversary of the war. For Caughie, the play “illustrates the problem of dramatization [recent] events, because we don’t know what they mean until long after.
Still, some argue that theater helps raise awareness of current issues. In 2002, ITV aired a crime drama about Harold Shipman, just two years after he was found guilty of murdering 15 patients in his care. Michael Eaton, writer of Harold Shipman: Doctor Death, says he wanted to cover the story after hearing people claim that Shipman was just “helping dying patients on their way.” He spoke to some of the families of the victims on the show, and they were shown early detection alongside the police who investigated the crime. “Certainly some people there thought it was too soon, but I wondered: if not now, when?” said Eaton. “The lies around the story needed to be corrected.”
For Eaton, drama is superior to documentary when it comes to “exploring more personal dimensions” (although he claims that screenwriters can create fictional composite characters to deal with issues rather than focusing on real people). For McKay, “documentaries are great…but they can’t quite immerse you in the experience.” The question of when something happens “too soon” is answered first by the victims and their families – and then, ultimately, by the public.
Sak wrote a book, A Life Stolen: The Tragic True Story of My Son’s Murder, because she believes that no three-hour drama can contain the entirety of her family’s story. Still, “I think Neil did an absolutely fantastic job,” she says; she thinks Anthony too would have been happy with Four Lives. “Because his world was all around him, obviously. He was a young gay student in London and the whole world revolved around Anthony, according to him,” says Sak. “I think he would be really happy. He was like, ‘Yeah, you’re all still talking about me!’ »