How ‘True to Life’ Must a Drama Be?

The last four Sundays I have watched BBC1’s drama series Undercover with, I confess, some envy.  The subject matter – the lies and lives of an undercover policeman living with one of his targets – is something I have been trying to tackle for a while.  A spec script I wrote for a dark comedy on this subject was rejected by the BBC.  Peter Moffat is a more experienced  writer and his series is considerably more accomplished than the script I wrote.  I swallow a bitter pill.  But not that bitter.

The show has attracted some criticism in today’s Guardian.  One of the things that attracted me to the subject was outrage at the way undercover officers treated legitimate protesters, and more specifically (and more outrageously) the women they formed relationships with. One of these women, writing under the pseudonym ‘Alison’ for understandable reasons, has taken the show and its writer to task for ignoring her real story and broadcasting something that lacks credibility.

It is difficult to disagree with her summary:

“It would be wonderful if the series brought to wider public attention some awareness of the abusive relationships condoned by the police in the name of law and order, and even better if it sparks viewers’ curiosity to find out more about the true stories.”

I think, however, that this misunderstands what drama is for.  The stories of Alison and other women deserve to be brought to wider attention.  This would be a job for a documentary (or this excellent book); a fictitious drama necessarily takes liberties with its source material to make the story more … dramatic.  It really isn’t a good way to bring out the facts.  What we see, rather, is a more universal truth: a story about deceit and duplicity, a story that shows the strain a double life can place on the person living that life, as well as the people they are deceiving.  These themes are not unique to the specific situation; the specific is a way to access the the universal.

I agree with Alison that “the institutional sexism … at the heart of [these] cases” should be highlighted, and I think that dramas like Undercover help this.  But, an over-adherence to the facts would misunderstand the nature of drama, without particularly helping the cause.