Docudramas deconstructed

No Other Way To Tell It
June 19, 1998

The arresting front cover of No Other Way to Tell It looks like an invitation to a mass-circulation action thriller. A high-energy collage of pictures from a US docudrama, Hostile Waters, the cover features a Hollywood actor's resolute face and a sinister Soviet nuclear submarine. As Hostile Waters is only a minor player in Derek Paget's main scenario, this foregrounding of attention-grabbing images may be a semiotician's wry nudge about blurred categories or a publisher's desire to sell a few more books. Either way, the cover is a striking illustration, or perhaps a symptom, of one of the book's central themes: the inexorable drift of television dramatised documentary from information to entertainment.

Readers expecting the action thriller will be quickly bemused. No Other Way to Tell It is an academically exhaustive - and occasionally exhausting - diagnosis of the origins and health of that lusty hybrid spawned by television, the dramadoc. I should declare my interest here. As a sometime keeper of the unruly dramadoc beast, and a founder of what Paget calls "the sober Granada school" of dramadocers, I am regularly quoted in the book and even credited with coining the title. So I guess I am very much the target audience for the book, together with the tribe of media students and television academics for whom the rich stew of representational issues simmering in this "unstable genre" offers an analytical feast.

There is certainly plenty to chew on here. Paget gained rare access to the production of several high-profile films, including Hostages, Granada's controversial dramatised documentary about the ordeals of John McCarthy and Brian Keenan. His account of tensions between the programme makers and the former hostages explores important and difficult issues of representation and journalistic integrity. Paget claims his is "the first book-length inquiry into British and American traditions of practice" in dramatised documentary, and he offers useful insights into the ways in which the entertainment-led American variant of "trauma drama" is colonising the more journalistic British form. He is unstuffily generous - more generous than most of these "factions" deserve - about the potential value of trauma drama as a vehicle for "seeing through" official cover-ups of social problems.

Paget has tracked down some intriguing evidence of the strong reconstructed element in seminal British documentaries of the Grierson era. But as he pursues his "questions about the nature of the real", the book becomes bogged down amid pages of postmodernist fretting about labels and definitions.

Amid the thickets of jargon about "the inter-generic hybridisation of television forms" I miss a tougher engagement with more troubling themes. There is real cause for concern, it seems to me, in recent evidence of documentaries being faked by the smuggling of reconstructed elements into seeming documentary, and in the seepage of "infotainment" values into factual television. Or is to analyse all, to forgive all?

Leslie Woodhead is a freelance television producer and director.

No Other Way To Tell It: Dramadoc/Docudrama on Television

Author - Derek Paget
ISBN - 07190 4532 0 and 4533 9
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Price - £35.00 and £9.99
Pages - 237

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