Too real, too soon? The trouble with true-crime TV dramas

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Four months after her son’s murderer was sentenced to life in prison, Sarah Sak received an email from the BBC. The 55-year-old facilities manager wasn’t remotely alarmed to hear that the broadcaster wanted to create a drama about the victims of the so-called “Grindr killer”, Stephen Port, who murdered her son and three others after meeting them on gay dating apps. “I just thought it’d be a really good thing to get out there to the public,” Sak says, explaining that she hoped to raise awareness about the dangers of online dating. In January, Four Lives aired on BBC One – eight years after Sak’s son Anthony Walgate was murdered, six years after Port was sentenced.

Sak never worried it was “too soon” to dramatise the events surrounding her son’s death. For her, Four Lives was a way to honour Anthony’s memory, and shed light on the police’s failure to investigate his murder (in December 2021, an inquest ruled that “fundamental failings” by the police contributed to the deaths of Port’s final three victims). Ultimately, the three-episode miniseries was cathartic for Sak, who cried when watching it for the first and second time.

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Four Lives is one of many TV dramas about remarkably recent events. In February, Netflix debuted Inventing Anna, a nine-episode series about the 2017 arrest of fraudster Anna Sorokin. Sky is currently broadcasting Joe vs Carole, about the animal abuser Joe Exotic, who was convicted in 2019 of hiring hitmen in an attempt to murder his rival, Carole Baskin. These shows aren’t anomalous. Hulu drama The Dropout tells the story of medical startup founder Elizabeth Holmes, and aired just two months after Holmes was convicted of defrauding investors, and six months before her sentencing.

It is not just contemporary crimes that are taking over TV. Multiple dramas about the pandemic have already aired, from Netflix’s Social Distance in October 2020 to Channel 4’s Help in September 2021. In the autumn, we will be treated to Sky’s This Sceptred Isle, starring Kenneth Branagh, about the government’s response at the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis. And who can forget Channel 4’s 2019 TV movie Brexit: The Uncivil War, which featured a balding Benedict Cumberbatch as Dominic Cummings, and aired more than a year before the UK’s EU withdrawal agreement was actually ratified?

Kenneth Branagh as Boris Johnson in This Sceptred Isle.
Drama out of a crisis … Kenneth Branagh as Boris Johnson in This Sceptred Isle. Photograph: Phil Fisk/Sky

Taken together, these shows raise a number of questions (beyond, of course, “Do we really need to see Kenneth Branagh in a blond Boris Johnson wig?”). Why exactly are we seeing so many recent events dramatised? Should we be worried that television is getting careless about the concept of “too soon”?

“Something happens now, and where once three or four years might elapse before somebody might moot dramatising it, now it might be three or four weeks,” says the writer and producer Neil McKay, who created Four Lives and is making a Jimmy Savile drama starring Steve Coogan for the BBC. McKay says he personally would not write about something that happened just weeks ago, but he believes true-crime dramatisations can be liberating for victims and their families, provided they are consulted throughout the production.

“If you have a child or relative who is murdered, one of the awful things which immediately happens is you lose privacy,” McKay says. He believes the press is often invasive, while he prides himself on listening to the people at the heart of an incident. “It takes two or three years to listen to the music of the experience of the person you’re talking to,” he says. He read the Four Lives script to Sak at her kitchen table in Hull, invited her and the other victims’ families to visit the set, and showed them the series before it was broadcast. “The key thing is how you treat people,” he says.

One of the benefits of dramatising a recent event is that it can be easier to find victims’ families. In 2006, McKay wrote See No Evil: The Moors Murders, a dramatisation of the five child murders carried out by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley in the 1960s. “Finding people and tracking them down is much harder,” McKay says, although relatives of 12-year-old victim John Kilbride ultimately played extras on the show. On the flipside, it can be easier legally to make a show about a historical event. Although Four Lives went into production in 2019, its release was delayed so the show wouldn’t prejudice the jury inquest into police failings.

McKay’s methods may be reassuring but not all families are as happy with their treatment. In 2016, ITV aired The Secret, about a Northern Irish dentist who murdered his wife in 1991. The couple’s daughter wrote in the Guardian that the show “[exploited] a tragedy for entertainment” and “propelled [her] into a new world of trauma”. When emailing her, producers spelled her mother’s name wrong. “When media interest goes beyond the reporting of events and is against the wishes of family members, the effects can be as devastating as the murder itself,” she wrote.

John Cameron Mitchell as Joe Exotic in Joe vs Carole.
Ring of truth? … John Cameron Mitchell as Joe Exotic in Joe vs Carole. Photograph: Peacock/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty

Dramatisations don’t just affect victims; there is also a risk that they glorify criminals. Before his trial, Port wrote in a letter that Avengers actor Chris Evans could play him in a film, while Exotic was “absolutely thrilled” when Netflix’s first docuseries about him aired in 2020. Many modern shows avoid glorifying criminals by focusing on the journalists and detectives who uncovered crimes, rather than the crimes themselves.

This reflects audience appetites, as a number of shows have been adapted from popular podcasts, books and articles – Joe vs Carole is based on Wondery’s Over My Dead Body podcast, while Inventing Anna was inspired by a 2018 New York magazine article that went viral. Fred Black, a research manager at the media analytics firm Ampere Analysis, believes we are seeing so many dramatisations of recent events because streaming giants can “guarantee audience interest”.

“In an era of content saturation, recognisability is a key element,” Black says. Yet how much of this is really new? John Caughie, a TV studies affiliate at Glasgow University and author of Television Drama: Realism, Modernism, and British Culture, says dramas in the 70s and 80s often reflected “contemporary social conditions” rather than specific events. Caughie says these shows operated as “state of the nation critiques”. In 1978, for example, the BBC aired TV play The Spongers a year after the Queen’s silver jubilee. The film depicted a single mother struggling on benefits, “cutting down on any ambiguity by filming the opening title The Spongers against a portrait of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh”.

Five years later in 1983, the BBC commissioned The Falklands Play just a year after the war ended. Although it was set to air in 1986, it was shelved for fear that its pro-Thatcher stance would compromise the forthcoming general election. The then BBC controller, Michael Grade, also criticised the drama’s “jingoistic tone”. It remains to be seen how audiences will respond to This Sceptred Isle, although McKay’s forthcoming Savile drama, The Reckoning, has already sparked a backlash, with the BBC accused of hypocrisy given its decades-long relationship with the predatory presenter. BBC drama controller Piers Wenger has defended the show, saying: “It is a decade since Jimmy Savile died. It’ll be a decade next year since his behaviours first came into the public eye … Our primary intention with the drama is to give voice to the victims and to tell their stories sensitively.”

The Falklands Play eventually aired on BBC Four in 2002 – the 20th anniversary of the war. For Caughie, the play “illustrates the problem of dramatising [recent] events, because we don’t know what they mean until quite a while afterwards.”

Yet some argue that drama helps raise awareness of current issues. In 2002, ITV aired a drama about the crimes of Harold Shipman, just two years after he was found guilty of murdering 15 patients in his care. Michael Eaton, writer of Harold Shipman: Doctor Death, says he wanted to cover the story after he heard people claim Shipman was only “helping dying patients on their way”. He spoke with some of the victims’ families while making the show, and they were shown an early screening alongside police officers who investigated the crime. “Definitely some people there thought that it was too soon, but I wondered: if not now, when?” Eaton said. “The falsehoods around the story needed to be addressed.”

For Eaton, drama is superior to documentary when it comes to “the exploration of more personal dimensions” (though he argues scriptwriters can create fictional composite characters to deal with the issues rather than focusing on real people). For McKay, “documentaries are brilliant … but it can’t quite put you inside of the experience”. The question of when something is “too soon” is first answered by victims and their families – then, ultimately, the audience.

Sak has written a book, A Life Stolen: The Tragic True Story of My Son’s Murder, because she believes no three-hour drama can contain the entirety of her family’s story. Still, “I think Neil did an absolutely fantastic job,” she says; she thinks Anthony, too, would have been happy with Four Lives. “Because his world was all about him, obviously. He was a young, gay student in London and the whole world revolved around Anthony, according to him,” Sak says. “I think he’d be really pleased. He’d be like: ‘Yeah, you’re all still talking about me!’”