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James Cary


Until recently, you could turn on the television on any given evening, punch in a channel at random and most likely find one of three types of programme - soap, reality television or detective drama. Soap actors slip into soapy medical dramas and from there into a dancing competition before becoming a deranged killers in an episode of Lewis or Jonathan Creek. It's all very reassuring during such troubled times.

As of late, however, you're likely to find a fourth type of programme - the biopic. The schedules are crammed with dramas about famous people. The latest batch includes Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Clive Sinclair, Mary Whitehouse, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and David Blunkett to name but a few. Some are historical sensitive rewrites, others hysterical satirical broad swipes. You don't even have to be dead to qualify. David Cameron and Boris Johnson have already been dramatized.

Comedians have proved to be particularly rich pickings with recent biopics on Tony Hancock, Frankie Howerd, Kenneth Williams, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. The only ones missing from the pantheon are Morecombe and Wise and the Pythons. The former has so much residual good will that no-one dares go near them. And the latter stick to biannual documentaries about how they came to be the Pythons, usually timed for when a film has become a musical. The Goodies, meanwhile, continue to point out with a self-deprecating laugh, blended with a furious snarl, that their material isn't even repeated, let alone rehashed as drama.

It is easy to understand the reason for these programmes, both to the TV commissioners and the audiences. These are low-hanging fruit that promise much juice. The private life of Mary Whitehouse can be laid bare for all to see, along with off-screen bitchings of Kenneth Williams, and the early innocence of Margaret Thatcher. These biopics all play on well-established personality 'brands'. They don't need to establish their characters because a real human being has taken the time do that for us. The biopic can get on with the task of subverting, scandalizing or sneering.

These programmes are not without merit. They are often very enjoyable. But they are instant. They are easily-digestible high-quality junk food; not kebabs, exactly, but one of those meals in silver dishes from M&S where you just squeeze on the lemon and put it in the oven. The results are pleasing, but deep down, you know that it's not cooking. And so with these biopics. It's interesting to imagine what Margaret Thatcher was like before she became an MP, but we all know that it was probably nothing like what we saw in the TV-movie (that is, we should treat this with the same suspicion that we treat her own self-aggrandizing autobiographies).

This fad speaks of a failure of the imagination. Why tell a new story about characters we've never met when we can revisit the life of Katie Price or Simon Cowell? What's the 'truth' behind these people? We know it's not real, but we want to hear something juicy. Even fiction is derivative in this way. It is telling that the publishing sensation of our time is The Da Vinci Code. The characters are not even skin deep. They have no personality. But they find out 'the truth' about the Vatican, a truth that none of us really believes.

What nourishes us is real truth. True truth. We know we won't find it in made-for-tv romps or in the pages of an authorized hagiography. What we look for are honest and intriguing snapshots. This is precisely what we find in the gospels - four biographies about the life of Jesus, each from a different standpoint. On the main points, there is close agreement, but at other points, the writers focus on very different characters and tell strikingly different stories, some strange, some hard to understand, all of them intriguing.

Let's consider the nativity Matthew gives us magi (astrologers of all people). Luke brings us shepherds. John gives us poetic mystery. And Mark, well, he doesn't give us a sausage. As we approach Christmas, we will hear many parts of different accounts read aloud in churches, or performed by children dressed as crabs or snowflakes. But will we really hear what Matthew, Luke and John are trying to say? Or have we been worn down by the books that say that Jesus's virgin birth was probably made up by Constantine? Truth is normally stranger than fiction.