History, Truth and Stephen Poliakoff

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Every day seems to bring us a new film, book or TV series based on “real life”, whether a serial killer of husbands, the last woman to hang in England, or the British government’s cynical pursuit of jet power after the war.  The claim adds lustre and credibility and it seems that something about the ‘truth’ appeals to a deep human need.  I once gave James Baldwin’s Another Country (New York in the late fifties) to someone who didn’t read much and she liked it but said it would’ve been even better if the people had been “real”. 

     So steps history into drama just as historians doubt they can ever uncover a single invincible truth as to “what really happened”.  In the current BBC series Close to the Enemy Stephen Poliakoff plays on the notion that secret files can reveal the dark side of reality, and in conversation with historian David Reynolds, talks about the way artistic licence can shine a beam of light into the past.  Reynolds agrees that history needs empathy and imagination to lift the “truth” out of the opaque facts hidden in the archives.

     All of which lies thankfully well below the surface of the thriller, a genre designed to entertain, but nonetheless the question of historical accuracy hangs in the air.  We believe in Jason Bourne because the screen is the most persuasive of all media, but the written word has subtler assets.  My historical thriller EBOLOWA is based on a true case.  I make the point in my video - - I don’t believe the “whole truth” has been told and I want to offer a more convincing version.  I think it’s the kind of truth that Poliakoff and Reynolds would recognise and I hope you find yourself agreeing with them.   

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