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You couldn’t make it up. By Liz Hodgkinson

Features | By Liz Hodgkinson

The real thing: Norman Scott (Ben Whishaw) and Jeremy Thorpe (Hugh Grant) in A Very English Scandal

With so many gripping true stories on the screen, Liz Hodgkinson is tired of fictional dramas

Once I loved fictional television dramas but now I hardly ever watch them. Is it because today’s actors tend to mumble, the filming is too dark or so many of them are unacceptably violent or sexual?

No – none of these, even though they are all good reasons. It’s because the very best recent dramas on television, by far, have been true-life stories, even if some may seem stranger than fiction.

There was A Very English Scandal, about the murky doings of creepy, saturnine politician Jeremy Thorpe, The Trial of Christine Keeler and, more recently, The Sixth Commandment, the horrific true story of how two retired teachers were targeted by a ruthless con man.

Much of the appeal was down to the quality of the script and the acting. Hugh Grant was uncannily real as Jeremy Thorpe, and Timothy Spall inhabited, rather than simply played, the part of Peter Farquhar, the closeted gay teacher who was murdered by his 40-years-younger lover.

But, mainly, they gripped because we knew that the events, as they unfolded, actually happened. The screenwriter didn’t have to invent anything or worry about how to dispatch an undesirable character. The stories were all there, ready to be converted into drama.

It’s the same at the cinema. The Duke, the scarcely believable story of a 60-year-old taxi driver stealing a Goya from the National Gallery, Oppenheimer, Mrs Lowry & Son and Mr Turner were far more watchable and engaging than made-up films, such as Mrs Harris Goes to Paris or The Good Liar.

In The Wife, the apparently mousy, downtrodden spouse of a Nobel prizewinner is revealed as being the author of the masterpieces attributed to her husband. When I first started watching the film, starring the marvellous Glenn Close, I thought the story was factual. The realisation that it was based on a novel about sexism in the literary world was a grave disappointment. I felt I had been conned.

Or take The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, based on a novel about a retired man who receives a letter telling him that a former colleague is dying in a hospice. He writes her a letter and then, instead of posting it, walks 450 miles to deliver it, without proper boots, credit cards or money, becoming a local newspaper celebrity along the way.

Even the incredible acting skills of Jim Broadbent and Penelope Wilton as the retired couple couldn’t rescue the story’s inherent improbability. Would a respectable elderly man really set out to walk so far without any preparation? He doesn’t even take his phone.

By contrast, Broadbent was totally believable as Blake Morrison’s complicated doctor father in And When Did You Last See Your Father?, based on Morrison’s memoir.

But then he had a flesh-and-blood character to bring to life on the big screen. Broadbent is wonderful at playing these rather disappointed, bewildered, middle-class, older men who wonder what life is all about.

When there are so many actual stories waiting to be made into a film, why make them up? So often, with made-up stories, writers can’t work out how to end the film or what to do with characters who never quite convince.

Even when true-life stories are dramatic in themselves, film-makers frequently feel they have to embellish them beyond plausibility.

The film Emily, supposedly based on the life of reclusive writer Emily Brontë, has some magnificent shots of rainy Yorkshire moors and fine scenes with her wastrel brother, Branwell. But Emily did not have any kind of affair with the Rev William Weightman, her father’s handsome young curate. It was her sister Anne who was in love with him, although there is no evidence anything happened between them. I am an unashamed realist. I don’t want to have to suspend my disbelief by watching nonsense.

My other cinema gripe? Instead of getting new films, we’re always being treated to remakes or sequels, which are rarely as good as the original.

This Christmas will bring the prequel to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in the form of Wonka, starring the (admittedly divine) Timothée Chalamet. There have been two remakes of The Italian Job. But can anybody improve on the 1969 film starring Michael Caine?

Why don’t directors make sequels to bad films – they could only be an improvement – rather than make poor versions of great originals?

Dramatising true-life stories is where TV and movies excel. Let’s have more of these, please, and fewer sequels, prequels, remakes and dramas.

This story was from November 2023 issue. Subscribe Now