Squabbling over the historical record

Imagine what would happen if someone made a hit television comedy set in a Tauranga retirement village. How would we as Tauranga citizens feel about that?

Regardless whether or not we enjoyed the show, I’m guessing we would feel obliged to remind the rest of the country that, you know, we’re not all filled with dentures. Everyone wants to be portrayed in the best possible light.

The real estate industry has been similarly bothered by TV One’s new show Agent Anna. In a bit of a squabble (which doubled neatly as promotion leading up to last week’s season finale), industry heads described Agent Anna’s comic portrayal of real estate agent behaviour as “a load of rubbish” and “not real life”.

For every new film or television show there will always be someone frowning that it’s not like that in real life. It was a similar story when Shortland Street first hit our quaint little TV sets all those years ago. I seem to recall doctors and nurses getting bothered about the Shortie shenanigans. That, and the uniforms.

Those uniforms are unrealistic, my nurse friends complained. At the time I was just happy to have some hot nurse friends. See, television doesn’t reinforce stereotypes at all.

Actually, that’s the problem. Television does reinforce stereotypes.

You can trust the audience to understand that it’s “only entertainment” but television is still sneakily pervasive. It has taken years of Piha Rescue to expunge the slow motion Baywatch images that the words ‘life guard’ used to conjure. So I respect the real estate industry’s desire to defend themselves for the public record.

The Academy Award winning film Argo portrays New Zealand diplomats hindering a hostage rescue where in fact they are reported to have helped. This is a more serious issue if you are worried that Hollywood is rewriting the truth.

Argo throws an increasing amount of real and artificial obstacles at its characters to boost the story’s tension. It is based on a true story but it still follows the well established rules of film: get your character up a tree, throw rocks at him, then get him down. That’s the three act structure of any conventional movie right there.

The behaviour of the New Zealand diplomats as mentioned in Argo is just a plot device. It is neither malicious nor ignorant, but more likely the result of a few Americans talking over their American script for their American thriller and saying, “We need to put another obstacle in front of these guys, let’s use the hobbits!” Story telling as opposed to history lesson. That’s showbiz.

I cheerfully mistrust any film that claims to be based on a true story. The maxim ‘never let the truth get in the way of a good story’ is never so true as in the movies. ‘Based on a True Story’ is a phrase that we should always treat very loosely.

Story tellers have been rewriting and augmenting history ever since story telling began. Yes, they are manipulating us. This doesn’t make them bad, nor does it make them liars, it simply makes them story tellers. They write to their own agenda, which will not always be fidelity to the historical facts.

Squabbles over this kind of thing will never go away, which is fine by me. Some of the squabbles are fair and others are fuddy duddy but they are all important.

The squabble to defend our country’s honour over Argo is now embedded in ongoing conversations that will hopefully accompany that film into its future. Real estate agents can hold their heads high knowing it’s been on public record that they are not Robyn Malcolm.

Righteous squabbles over art and entertainment are a valid and necessary part of the cultural landscape.

That sorted, we can sit back and let the storytellers do their thing. A Tauranga rest home comedy? Hilarious. I’d tune in.


First published in Bay of Plenty Times 15 March 2013. Reproduced with permission.