Portraying famous historical figures in docs

Flame TV's most recent productions have included two drama docs, Churchill's Mother and The Double Life of Dickens. Chairman Roger Bolton spoke with realscreen about the pitfalls and benefits of using drama in documentaries and how to sensitively portray historical figures.
November 6, 2008

Two of London-based producer Flame TV’s most recent documentary projects for Channel 4 have relied on dramatic elements to tell the stories of famous historical figures. The Double Life of Dickens tells the well-hidden story of Charles Dickens’ affair and the impact of this affair on his wife and his work. The other, more recent project Churchill’s Mother looks at the relationship of Jennie Jerome Churchill to her son Winston and the major, and yet relatively un-talked-about, influence she had on his life. Both films use actors to portray the subjects of the doc, even though Flame’s chairman, Roger Bolton says it’s a technique he’d only suggest using as a last resort.

‘The pitfalls are pretty considerable,’ says Bolton of the use of actors in a historical documentary. To him, there are three main ways treat drama in a historical doc. The first is to illustrate a point or to act out commentary as a background, without using dialog; the second is when the producer has the exact words of the subject on record and uses the actors to dramatize those words; and the third is when there are no exact words available but you know the gist of what happened at a meeting and try to recreate it from recorded accounts. Bolton feels reasons two and three can be challenging because producers run the risk of fictionalizing the action. ‘Even if you know the words that are spoken, you don’t know the emphasis,’ says Bolton. ‘For instance, if I say ‘I could kill you,’ that could be something I say to a friend or a family member in a joking way, or it could be a direct threat. It’s not only the words it’s the way in which they’re said.’

Another stumbling block is that it becomes more difficult to show both sides of an issue when attempting to dramatize factual events. ‘The more you move over to drama the more tempting it is to select one view because of the narrative demands of drama,’ he says. ‘Drama needs a climax and resolution.’ Here, the challenge is not to over simplify the story just to help along the dramatic progression.

In Churchill’s Mother an actress used to portray Jennie Churchill reads from her autobiography and letters to Winston, while Dickens features dramatic readings of his work by an actor playing Dickens, because it was known that he did such readings, and Bolton used descriptions of spectators passing out while he described the death of Nancy in Oliver Twist to dramatize the reaction of the audience.

The constant struggle not to blur the line between fact and fiction is what Bolton sees as a clear difference between one of his own historical projects and a series like The Tudors. ‘With The Tudors, people say, ‘the basic facts are there but we don’t think it’s history.’ It’s drama based on history and it’s fun, and I think they’ve been careful to portray it as such. But if you’re saying ‘this is what happened’ you’d better be sure.’

Churchill’s Mother will air on Channel 4 November 11.

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.