TV UK, 18 December
Hear the Silence: bad science, worse drama.
The TV event of this week was undoubtedly Channel 5’s docudrama Hear the Silence (on Monday), which has been widely slated for its one-sided treatment of the MMR-autism controversy. In principle there is no reason why a one-sided docu couldn’t also be a great drama, but this wasn’t.
Artistic license is reserved for good art. Everyone is entitled to have a go, but if the work fails to rise above its deviations from the truth then it can’t even fall back on good intentions. Hear the Silence was based on bad science, but more importantly it failed as drama. Its characters won’t live on in anyone’s mind, except perhaps by putting faces to already-existing clichés – the pompous, uncaring GP, the sinister scientist, the heroic maverick.
The remarkable thing about Hear the Silence, though, was not that it indulged the prejudices of the anti-MMR crowd, but that it failed even to challenge my prejudices. Indeed, anyone who switched on expecting to see a bunch of middle-class Guardian-readers bleating about gluten-free diets and doctors not listening got exactly that. Worst of all was the meeting in someone’s living room, a kind of Ann Summers party for neurotic mothers – surely a fair approximation of the Ninth Circle of Hell. (It may say something about the intended demographic that the drama seemed to be sponsored by the Wine Marketing Board.)
For all its manipulativeness then, Hear the Silence is unlikely to have convinced anyone not already inclined to believe in government conspiracies that MMR causes autism. Certainly it will have given succour to the movement, and perhaps contributed to a more general cynicism about the medical profession and the government, but bad propaganda doesn’t change people’s minds, and disguising it as bad drama doesn’t help.
What is more disturbing is the lack of propaganda, good, bad, dramatic or otherwise, making the case for MMR on TV. spiked’s own Dr Fitzpatrick joined a handful of other sensible types to put that case in the studio discussion that followed the drama, but as the doctor has explained on spiked, those experts best placed to challenge the anti-MMR crowd stayed away (see MMR: Fact and fiction ). Maybe like the antis, they are fighting shy of the direct approach, and working on a pro-MMR pantomime.
There was a panto-like quality about Pepys (BBC2 on Tuesday). When I was about eight, I was given a copy of Samuel Pepys’ diaries for Christmas; I now realise they were severely abridged. I remember the Plague and the Great Fire of London, and the regular sign-off, ‘and so to bed’, but I don’t remember quite so much detail about what went on in bed.
Pepys was actually a comedy vehicle for Steve Coogan, but a pretty good one. Following so soon after the superlavish Charles II, its irreverence was welcome. At one point Pepys looked out of the window and exclaimed ‘The whole of London is ablaze!’ and then turned to the camera to say, ‘But you’ll have to take my word for it’. With a vastly smaller budget than Charles II, though, Pepys did manage quite a bit of historical detail. Best of all was the operation to remove Pepys’ gall stone, which, as a man of science, he was able to explain in detail, before passing out to great comic effect.
One thing Pepys did have in common with Charles II was that poor old Lord Shaftesbury was a baddie again, though this time more was made of his comedically rich liver disease. Historical dramas (and even comedies) are unacknowledged battlegrounds for contemporary politics. Perhaps it is because the politics is unacknowledged that the drama works better, but at least they show that having naff politics is no excuse for making naff drama.
Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).
MMR: Fact and fiction, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick
Hear the Silence, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick
Hear the Silence, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick, in the British Medical Journal
spiked-issue: MMR vaccine
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