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  • Anita Sullivan

Writing about Real People

Representing real people in drama requires a real duty of care, particularly if the subject is alive or has been within living memory. As you write their story, beware the different shades of truth and belief.

Imagine this scenario. You turn on the radio and by chance catch the middle of the Afternoon Drama. It seems to be about an old school friend, someone you lost touch with. You listen more closely and, yes it's definitely him. How exciting! And then, to your horror, you hear he killed his mother/ died of ebola/ deals arms/ became a concept-artist.

Artist Ben Fearnside

This is exactly the scenario BBC Compliance wanted to avoid with docu-drama 'The Last Breath'.

The play's subject is real living artist Ben Fearnside. Ben starred in it alongside his real family, colleagues and friends, all improvising a semi-fictional story. And at the end of it, things take a very dark turn. Obviously, this was the 'drama' aspect: no artists were harmed in the making of this programme. But how do you make that clear to the 'old friend', tuning in out of the blue? The Compliance team came up with the perfect solution: set it five years in the future and date-stamp each scene. Genius.

When a person has a high profile or significant legacy the duty of care is more serious, solutions less simple. If the person is deceased, surviving family and estate trustees expect accuracy and fairness in representation. They may even want to redact aspects of the person's life.

Portrait of writer Janet Frame

When I started adapting Janet Frame's 'An Angel At My Table', her estate gave me very clear steer. They wanted me to focus on Janet's writing and literary legacy, not on the episode of mental illness that often overshadows it. But 'Angel' is autobiography and Janet writes powerfully and beautifully about the unique view that journey gave her. She also talks about the process of writing as a fictionalising of self: creating a 'mirror city'. I felt great a duty of care to her words, as well as to the estate. I walked the line with care, and the estate were very happy with the adaptation.

When working on 'Mercury 13', I was lucky enough to be able to interview Wally Funk, one of the 13 women who passed NASA's physical exam for male astronauts in 1961, and one of two who also took (excelled at) the 'psych test'.

Wally in her 70's is still a force of nature. It was wonderful to hear the story direct from source, and tread her voice through the drama. But when I played the clips to an oral-history archivist at the Bishopsgate Intitute, she thought Wally was an actor.

Wally had told her story so many times she was no longer remembering but performing. Does that make her statement invalid? I don't think so. But it raises interesting questions about the reality of verbatim vs the emotional truth an actor can play with a script.

Writing about the Soviet space programme has even wider grey spaces, as I discovered with 'Titanium'. Soviet era documents were heavily censored and written with a particular agenda. I had to cross-check different sources to get to closer to the truth. This involved not just reading, but also speaking to space-history experts and cosmonauts families.

At a British Council event I watched the daughter of the space program's Grand Designer Sergei Korlev and the niece of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin take the podium event, and claim the high ground of heroism and legacy.

That dialogue between different truths is the stuff of drama. By engaging with them, our fictional work itself becomes one of those truths.

This is particularly true of 'Shadowbahn', Steve Erickson's road-trip through a broken American, where Jesse Presley is born not Elvis, JFK is never president, and Malcolm X is a footnote in history. How far from the truth can you stray, even in an alternative reality and still feel 'true'? Does an actor do an impression or play the part?

We see history through the lens of our own values. We don't want animals to be kept in small cages in The Tower Menagerie. We're shocked by 1950's attitudes to mental health. We prefer to see Sputnik and Vostok as triumphs of science and engineering, not acts of war. We often have to tell a man's story, because (for example) there were no female menagerie keepers in the 1800s or any women astronauts before 1984. The Last Breath is believable despite it's impossible date-stamp because it feels true to our values and sense of the world.

Writing any history is both recreation and creation. Drama and truth are often found in the uncomfortable, untidy space in between. Part of your duty of care is to explore it.

2018 update. The datestamp on 'The Last Breath' ran out in May 2018. The play can never be broadcast again. This blog is written in loving memory. RIP.

2021 update. Since writing this blog Wally Funk has finally gone to space. On July 20th 2021 she flew on Bezo's Blue Origin NS-16 mission. She was aged 82.


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