Baby Reindeer, The Big Cigar and The Crown: This is a true story, sort of

Headshot of Wenlei Ma
Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
3 Min Read
The Big Cigar is streaming on Apple TV+
The Big Cigar is streaming on Apple TV+ Credit: Apple TV+

Does knowing a TV show or movie is based on a true story make a difference on whether you think it’s a better story?

Filmmakers want the punchy impact and credibility that comes with “true story” claims but have found themselves mired in controversy when the line between truth and fantasy becomes blurred.

It used to be that a disclaimer something is “based on” or “inspired” by real events was enough latitude for a TV series or movie to take the broad strokes of something that happened and then build it out from there. Names are changed, multiple characters become a composite of one and timelines are contracted.

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There was an unspoken contract between the audience and the storyteller that not everything would be “truth”. We also understood that something could be true without being accurate.

Baby Reindeer is a true depiction of the complex effects of trauma but it’s not an accurate accounting of everything that happened to its creator and star, Richard Gadd.

Baby reindeer
Baby Reindeer has stirred up controversy over how “true” it is or isn’t. Credit: Netflix

The circus continues with the woman who claims to be the real-life Martha threatening to sue Gadd and Netflix for defamation over what she says is a dishonest depiction of her, even though Gadd changed the name and apparently took pains to obscure her real identity.

The problem appears to be Baby Reindeer’s claims at the start of each episode, “This is a true story”. It’s a seemingly unequivocal declaration but isn’t it a little patronising to suggest audiences can’t work out for themselves that a scripted drama is going to play with the truth?

As Gadd told The Hollywood Reporter: “If I wanted the real-life people to be found, I would’ve made it a documentary”.

A new series debuts today called The Big Cigar, drawing from the life of Huey P. Newton, one of the founders of the Black Panther party.

In 1974, the revolutionary figure was accused of murder, a charge he claimed was a set-up by the authorities, and he tried to flee the US as part of an elaborate plot involving a counter-culture movie producer staging a “fake” movie.

It’s a lively and fun series, but one which flashes at the top of each episode, “This series is based on real events. Some aspects and timelines have been fictionalised for purposes of dramatisation. Any similarities to real people or events in the fictionalised elements are unintended.”

The Big Cigar is streaming on Apple TV+
The Big Cigar is all about faking it. Credit: Apple TV+

The fine print of those disclaimers was previously reserved for the closing credits, a small line at the bottom of a page designed as a legal arse-covering move.

That The Big Cigar felt compelled to have it so glaringly upfront suggests we have moved into a new era of rigidity and moralising. It’s particularly ironic given the show is about a con.

The ridiculous kerfuffle over The Crown which saw not just British politicians but also Judi Dench castigate Netflix and the producers over its clearly dramatised portrayal of the royals resulted in the series having to spell out it was a fictionalised series.

Perhaps there’s an increased sensitivity or fidelity to “objective” truth when the concept appears to be under constant assault thanks to rampant misinformation online, often fanned by politicians and leaders exploiting confusion for personal power.

We’re not so dumb as not understand the reality that screen storytelling means sometimes, things are exaggerated. If we force art to cease existing in the grey area between accuracy and emotional truth, then we’re saying we are.

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