Friday, 29 April 2011
United fiction versus documentary Charlton
I'm still thinking about the TV play United (only five days old and already in Wikipedia!) and yesterday's Bobby Charlton TV documentary. Over on Facebook, James wonders whether docudrama is an inherently flawed form. Good question.
It is not that docudramas need necessarily fail. Alan Bennett's An Englishman Abroad, and his A Question of Attribution were both very good television productions that might be regarded either as docudramas or as period plays. (Tighter definitions will come in useful sometime.) Bennett is of course a very good writer, so he might be expected to do a very good job of anything he set his mind to.
It might also have helped that the spy genre had already entered the realm of serious literature through John Le Carré and others (Joseph Conrad before him, of course). My knowledge of spies and screenplays is limited so this is more a hunch than a thesis, but it seems likely that there is a trajectory whereby the material of fairly crude strip cartoon narrative (the Fleming books and films were already popular and were in fact in cartoon strip form) begins to attract a literary readership, one with memories of Wilkie Collins and Conrad, as well as of the yarns of John Buchan, that is interested in the complexities of individual motivation and the subtleties of social and political relations and so develops a literary hinterland. In other words the imagination lives in a furnished room.
The Cold War was the perfect terrain for this. It might also have helped that the central characters of such stories involved the wealthier, educated class - the Cambridge Five, for example - people like the writers themselves, characters who in real life inhabited a literary ambience.
So there was glamour, documentary evidence, cultural empathy and a growing body of serious literature.
It's not the same with sport, especially not with football. Football was played by working class oiks who were yanked from a socially inferior low-wage sphere and, later, after the abolishing of the maximum wage, deposited in the world of cash, bling and celebrity. The David Beckham-Posh Spice wedding was the epitome of the latter with its purple robes and thrones. Universally dismissed as the last word in vulgarity it was defended, rightly in the cultural circumstances, or so I think, by Julie Burchill who pointed out that working class people did not aspire to be middle class, they aspired to be rich. The wedding wasn't, in effect, the embodiment of poverty of feeling: the ceremony had meaning for those involved because its form was invested with emotionally charged deep symbols.
It is a complicated argument but one worth pursuing. Furthermore, if there was a blatant lack of culture, or insensitivity to what is considered culture, it might to a great degree have been the product of the cultural relativism of the 70's and 80's, where all accepted cultural canons became objects of distrust and revision. Why would a plumber want to read E M Forster? Why is E M Forster 'better' than 'Eastenders'? Shouldn't the working class develop its own culture of beer and plonk, or so argued the, in some cases, vintage-sipping intelligentsia. This is to put it crudely but these debates are far from over.
Bobby Charlton is quite a different matter. He wasn't the subject of the TV Drama: he was its secondary character. The problem was that he was all research, no character, as was everyone else, though you could put up a defence for David Tennant's depiction of Jimmy Murphy. That defence is possible partly because Murphy was far less well known or remembered than Bobby Charlton. The Charlton character looked like Charlton (with a touch of the younger David Beckham): Tennant's Murphy looked nothing like Jimmy Murphy. There was a degree of separation. But then Jimmy Murphy had been dead a long time.
To the play's credit it refrained from patronising its subject by presenting it through the soft nostalgic haze of the Hovis effect. Nor was it burdened by a bullying agit-prop agenda. It had respect, perhaps too much of it. What it lacked might have been a literary milieu such as spy stories, or crime fiction have developed: the furnished room of the imagination. There was no substantial hoard of resonant language available to it; it could only offer the inert stuff of research from secondary sources: speech that had been processed into plain, inoffensive information. The visual direction was strong, a touch heavy at times, but it had wit and invention. The words simply couldn't live up to it.
Charlton the man, the subject of the documentary yesterday, was far more substantial. In him the clichés - decent, shy, modest, emotional and good natured - were fleshed out and given substance. A decent man is not a cliché: he is one of the most valuable and monumental figures in life. I have been lucky to know more than my fair share. Charlton's brothers too were men of that ilk. It was just that Charlton was also a genius of sorts, his heroism on the pitch in tune with his lower-key heroism off it. He himself hero-worshipped Duncan Edwards and could hardly bear himself being spoken of in the same breath. (Compare Balotelli proclaiming himself the finest footballer alive, after Messi).
Charlton the TV character was no figure at all: not a full human being on the one hand, not even a useful Everyman / Everyboy for the purpose of myth on the other. It wasn't the actor's fault. It wasn't even docudrama's fault, not as such. It was partly that the docudrama in this case was precipitate; that it had ideas-about-the-thing, but not the language-of-the-thing. But it might have been an interesting first step in establishing that language.