When the film U-571, depicting the American capture during World War 2 of a submarine carrying an Enigma cypher machine, hit the cinema screens, I was one of those who greeted it with derision.
Those who know a bit about the War will be aware that the first Enigma machines were actually captured by the Poles before hostilities broke out between Germany and Britain. Then, in 1941, another machine was captured from a U-boat, but by the British destroyer HMS Bulldog.
One argument for this rewriting of history went that the film would not otherwise have been economically viable in the US. According to an article on Wikipedia, the screenwriter David Ayer pretty much confessed to this later:
It was a distortion ... a mercenary decision ... to create this parallel history in order to drive the movie for an American audience.
Well, stupid him, I thought, and stupid Americans for not being able to stomach anything other than a world re-coloured to suit their own view of what ought to have been ‘reality’.
But then it turns out American producers and scriptwriters aren’t the only ones whose fictional world has to shelter their audiences from reality, for apparently BBC One controller Danny Cohen has said he plans to limit the number of male detectives in the channel’s dramas.
“Detectives and crime is the real staple of quite a lot of BBC,” he said, but added, “I felt that we risked having too many male detectives.” Hence, in particular, the series ‘Zen’, starring Rufus Sewell, apparently had to go.
Now the question that has to be asked is, “Too many for what?”
Amongst male detectives, reference was made to Sherlock, Luther, Wallander and Inspector George Gently. Personally I’m only familiar with the first and the third, but I must admit the one thing that never crossed my mind whilst watching either was, “Shame he’s a bloke.”
Nor, oddly enough, did I find myself thinking, “Given all the female crime-fighters one sees in daily life, isn’t this a bit unrealistic?”
So whence the drive to change what appears on our TV screens? Whatever it turns out to be, I’ll guarantee that tucked away in it somewhere you’ll find an ‘ought’ — “There ‘ought’ to be more fictional detectives on television who are women because ...”
Fill in the gap and you’ll learn a lot about modern society and culture.
Fiction is, of course, just that. It is not real-life, and it has always involved the projection of the hopes and aspirations of the author. Yet we must never underestimate the power of fiction to move us as if it were reality. Indeed, there have been works of fiction which have had a seminal influence on society — think Uncle Tom’s Cabin or The Grapes of Wrath.
This is why, personally, I think the Puritan suspicion of the theatre had something going for it. Our easy acceptance of the deluge of popular fiction on our televisions, particularly the ‘soaps’, may be a reflection, as much as anything else, of our blindness to its effects, rather than our robustness regarding its impact.
Indeed, there is no doubt whatsoever (and there is probably a book out there to prove) that the popular media have been used quite deliberately to reshape popular culture. What the ‘fictionalizers’ deem acceptable is thus at least as important as what their audiences find palatable.
I was inclined to pity an American audience that could only cope with ‘historic’ events which featured themselves. But it is not just Americans who demand a parallel universe for their contemplation. Our own producers and writers also insist creating worlds in their own image.
Back in the ‘70s (I’m tempted to say, when Greenbelt was evangelical) there was talk of raising up a generation of Christian artists and writers to influence society. At the time there was also a big debate about whether art should be ‘for art’s sake’ or to convey a ‘message’. I was then, and still am, a fan of the former. Nevertheless, it is clear that there are powerful figures in our modern media who have no compunction at all about operating on the basis of the latter.
Perhaps it is time we woke up to the fact.
John RichardsonPlease give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted.