If journalism is the first draft of history the biopic is now a close second, having become the staple output of many television drama departments. Recently figures as diverse as the Queen, Margaret Thatcher and Winnie Mandela have been given the treatment.
Historians undoubtedly ground their teeth as these accounts gave the protagonist undue importance and distorted events for dramatic effect. For their mantra has long been that history is made through the interaction of structure and agency, a process in which the individual, however famous, plays but a part. However recent US research [Andrew Butler et al, 'Using popular films to enhance class room learning', Psychological Science, 20:9 (2009)] shows that even amongst Ivy League students, film versions of the past can exert more influence on perceptions of the past than do academic texts. The power of the moving image compared to the immobile word has long been suspected. As Gore Vidal wrote of the Hollywood historical romances of his youth: 'we are both defined and manipulated by [cinematic] fictions of such potency that they are able to replace our own experience, often becoming our sole experience of reality'. From what we know of media effects, this process of confusing fiction for reality is made more certain if the same kind of fiction is transmitted over a prolonged period.
If biopics do construct visions of the past it is no wonder New Labour seems destined for electoral oblivion. For the small screen has given us a number of insights into the lives of the party's high command, and all of them point in one direction. The Deal (2002) depicted Tony Blair as a media-obsessed opportunist; A Very Social Secretary (2005) highlighted David Blunkett's hypocrisy and arrogance; Tony Blair: Rock Star (2006) depicted Blair as a life-long operator intent on self-advancement; while The Confessions of a Diary Secretary (2007) showed John Prescott to be as lascivious as Sid James in his pomp and, for good measure, represented Blair and Brown as overgrown school boys.
In January 2010 Channel Four added another chapter to New Labour's television history, broadcasting Mo, a biopic of Mo Mowlam, the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (1997-9) who died in 2005. Publicity for the drama indicated it would strike a different note to its predecessors: Mowlam was described as a 'charismatic woman whose no-nonsense approach to politics helped achieve one of the monumental landmarks in recent British history, the Good Friday Agreement'. The drama focused on Mowlam's fight with cancer but did say something about her supposedly decisive contribution to bringing peace to Northern Ireland. It implied Mowlam's habits of swearing, taking off her wig and showing her knickers helped break the log-jam, although it was made not clear exactly how. Factors that did not fit into the narrative were ignored. These included: the long-dawning realisation amongst Sinn Fein that terrorism had failed; John Hume's vital early intermediary role; and the Major government's preparatory work. Blair's contribution was also marginalised, with the Prime Minister presented as stealing Mowlam's thunder. Like most biopics Mo was, then, all agency and little structure.
The biopic genre is not new - George Arliss won an Oscar for Disraeli (1929) - and is an obvious offshoot of the publishers' venerable stand-by, the biography. Yet at the present moment - at least with regard to the New Labour biopics - it poses potential dangers. It reinforces the journalistic desire to personalise politics, casting politicians as minor celebrities: politics is thereby presented as a process in which the majority play no part, except in the crowd scenes. While in earlier biopics, the likes of Disraeli were treated like heroes - in the 1929 film he outsmarts a Russian spy - in contemporary biopics the subjects are all people of questionable character. Mo is unusual in depicting a politician in warm terms but she is marked out as exceptional and, before the cancer kills her, a victim of the dominant 'cold politics' personified by Peter Mandelson.
The current crop of political biopics is not only inaccurate historically but potentially harmful to our civic culture. Political scientists have tried to find ways of 'reengaging' the people with politics. Gordon Brown appears to think that a new electoral system for Westminster might do the trick. So far little consideration has been given to whether the way in which most people gain an understanding of our political past might effect how they think about current politics. Historians could help by taking such versions of the past seriously and recognizing that historiography now exists as much on the screen as on the page. They might encourage their own students to critically engage with how political history has been represented - and ask for example why Disraeli was depicted as a lion in 1929 but by the time Mrs. Brown (1997) was released he had become preoccupied only with spin. Outside the seminar room they should ask those responsible for producing these representations - commissioning editors, producers and writers - to discuss why they depict our recent political history in the ways they do. If even politicians are now expected to be more accountable then why not those who represent them on the screen?
Professor Steven Fielding