Docs

Heroes or Villains: documentary treatment of historical characters

When it comes to history, Adrian Bracken, owner of Spanish indie Marbella Productions, feels strongly that stories are often told through the eyes of the victors. In his own words, Bracken discusses his latest doc series Hidden History Makers and the opportunities that exist to exhume reputations from the past and examine them more deeply.
December 17, 2009

When it comes to history, Adrian Bracken (pictured), owner of Spanish indie Marbella Productions, feels strongly that stories are often told through the eyes of the victors. In his own words, Bracken discusses his latest doc series Hidden History Makers and the opportunities that exist to exhume reputations from the past and examine them more deeply.

The subjects of Hidden History Makers (a series of 6×60-minute HD documentaries) are often an ‘adjunct’ to history, or are the associates of a more famous person, in whose shadow he or she will always be in history’s eyes. With the benefit of historical hindsight the documentary maker is able to re-examine the subject, take an objective view of their actions, and re-assess their impact on history.

Such a man was Brendan Bracken [possibly a distant relation of the author of this piece], the subject of the first program in the series. Born in Ireland in 1901 to a strongly Republican family, and schooled in intensely Nationalistic schools in Dublin and Limerick, he rebelled against all authority and was sent to Australia where he became enamored of the England that had disappeared with the 18th Century, which Bracken was convinced still survived. Arriving in England, he re-invented himself as an Australian orphan, lied his way into a public school for one term only, and obtained ‘The Old School Tie’ which, he was convinced, was his passport to respectability and acceptance by English society.

In 1923 and only 22-years-old, Bracken met Winston Churchill, then 49, at a lunch and so impressed the older man that they agreed to meet again. There began a 30-year association that lasted until Bracken’s death in 1958, during which time he became an MP, Press Baron, Wartime Minister, and finally Lord Bracken.

Bracken has always been relegated to the footnotes of history, as have so many others. In war it is always the victor who sets down the history for posterity; in other fields it is the ‘leader’ whose story is repeated, even if it tramples over the reputations of those who were responsible to some extent for that ‘leader’s’ high profile, or perhaps were first, but without decent ‘PR,’ as we now call it.

Sometimes that hidden history maker is the second in a particular field. The Wright Brothers are credited with the first manned flight in December 1903, but who remembers Frenchman Clément Ader and his 1890 controlled powered flight in a monoplane? Others are simply forgotten because they did not conform – however brilliant they are. Nikolai Tesla, the father of the AC (as opposed to DC) induction motor that powers every domestic appliance, is another who is largely forgotten. His many legacies are an integral part of our daily lives yet, apart from scholars, he is lost from view.

Visualizing a long dead character is another problem, particularly if the subject ordered the destruction of all his papers on his death (as Bracken did) and was notoriously camera shy. Such an aversion to any form of public recognition impacts how one is remembered. This is where dramatic reconstructions, hugely expensive and often rare archive footage, location ‘pieces to camera’ and interviews with experts who can comment knowledgeably on the impact the subject has, are all key parts of a filmmakers armory.

Was our subject, Bracken in this instance, a hero or villain? The remaining Churchill family declined to comment, as did Churchill’s biographer. ‘Brand Churchill’ is strong, and some former Churchill associates, such as Brendan Bracken, are thought best left in their graves – possibly troublesome relics of a forgotten age. One fact is immutable, and that is the position that we take strongly in this documentary, that without Brendan Bracken, Winston Churchill would not have been Prime Minister in May 1940.

Who was the hero and who was the villain? The audience must ultimately decide.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.

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