The masturbatory world of the mockumentary
The Taking of Prince Harry was Channel 4’s latest attempt to dress up liberal fantasy as serious inquiry.
Every aspiring writer and stalker in the world has something in common: somewhere, stashed away at the bottom of a drawer, he or she has created an elaborate fantasy involving real people.
Some make literary and/or sociopathic careers by getting better at concealing it, others find a relatively harmless outlet for it in the shape of fan fiction: the post boxes of many a teen idol are teeming with the stuff. Most are generally forgotten and discarded. Occasionally someone manages to turn it in to art, although it tends to get better when there is at least some reality or fact to write from: historical figures, say, or at least events far enough in the past to afford critical distance. For the poor unfortunates who never develop beyond this stage, the story will only ever go one of two ways. It’s either (a) imprisonment (either in an asylum or prison) or, worse, (b) becoming part of the production team on a Channel 4 mockumentary.
The Taking of Prince Harry may sound like a piece of gay slash fiction lurking somewhere in the dark corners of the internet erotica (alongside rococo imaginings of rival football managers getting it on and EastEnders’ Minty engaged in unspeakable acts). However, it is apparently intended as a serious rumination on the consequences of Britain’s royal Ginger Bullet Magnet getting kidnapped while on military service in Afghanistan. This involves torture and intimidation, rather than people popping champagne corks in the spiked office, as you might expect. It follows in the footsteps of previous successful mockumentaries such as The Execution of Gary Glitter (child-abusing popstar gets his comeuppance), The Trial of Tony Blair (truth-abusing prime minister gets his comeuppance) and The Death of a President (George W Bush gets his… you can see where this is going, right?).
‘Mockumentary’ because, of course, none of these events have happened nor are particularly likely to, but by making it look like a documentary makes it a more effective masturbatory aid for Channel 4-loving liberals. Like many masturbatory aids, these films are not without controversy: speculating on the fictional kidnapping of a British soldier while there are families of serving British soldiers in genuine risk of being kidnapped watching has understandably drawn fire from the UK Ministry of Defence and relatives.
Similarly, showing a real living person – royal or not – in their private and intimate moments without their involvement or consent, even in fantasy, should make you feel at least a little uneasy, even if that’s hardly a justification for censorship. Yet the arguments that it is ‘irresponsible’ to have made this film on the basis it might inspire real-life enactments and jeopardise the lives of British troops in the middle of fighting a war seem equally absurd. It is as if the Taliban sit around all day watching the backwards, anti-Enlightenment and medieval Channel 4.
You can see the appeal of these programmes: in a media-drenched culture of 24-hour rolling news, where everything gets exaggerated as era-defining but where genuine history-making events are a rarity, and increasingly understood in passive and technocratic ways, such shows fill a certain yearning in the political imagination. But it is equally difficult to warm to them for much of the same reason. Unlike living-history dramas such as Peter Morgan’s The Deal or Frost/Nixon – which at least attempt to use drama to imagine something truthful on top of mere facts – these programmes only add fantasy to an often mendacious and selective reading of events.
The Execution of Gary Glitter was a case in point. The film claimed to be seriously debating the morality of the death sentence, whereas it was simply distorting reality to suit its own (anti-death penalty) prejudices. It dispensed with all the complex questions – whether, if the matter was put up to serious debate rather than tabloid poll, public opinion would really be so kneejerk and would anti death-penalty campaigners be able to make a strong political case. Instead, it cut straight through to the emotional drama: Glitter on trial (giving us time to linger over those sex abuse details), Glitter on death row, and Glitter in the death chamber.
Far from being a sober interrogation of the issues that weighted up the merits of either side, we got a medieval morality play – with the comforting liberal message that people are essentially savages who need a strong and enlightened elite to protect them – played out in modern dress. Like all productions of old plays in modern dress – as if to imply Shakespeare was really writing about the Iraq war, or that the historical and cultural specificities of the Iraq war can be ignored as really it’s just the same as any war anywhere in history – it has a very narrow appeal.
The Taking of Prince Harry seems like a particularly odd confection even by these standards: promising neither a particularly in-depth look at the position of the monarchy in the twenty-first century nor a meaningful critique of what British troops are still doing in Afghanistan. Instead we get an actor pretending to be Prince Harry acting in a way which has been imagined by someone else, in a situation which might come to pass but is extremely unlikely to. There is plenty of room to have decent documentaries on the monarchy today or the on-going war in Afghanistan; the latter sounds like a promising set-up for a drama.
What’s really shocking about such a mockumentary is not that it may upset the Windsors or anyone else, but that time, effort and money has been wasted on this pointless project when good documentary-making is in serious crisis.
David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.