It’s a testament to how quickly trends can mutate and evolve in the current media landscape that only a few months ago we were reporting on how true crime stories were bleeding from factual into scripted, and now the genre is not only well established but winning awards.
BBC TV movie Damilola, Our Loved Boy, took home Baftas for Best Single Drama and Best Supporting Actress for Wunmi Mosaku, a deserved victory which followed critical acclaim for the one-off drama when it aired in November 2016. Yet such is the nature of the piece that it feels strange to classify the film as “true crime”, even though it is based on a true story and features a famously tragic crime.
It is just one entry in a very British approach to a genre that can easily be sensationalist in nature. Other recent examples include Little Boy Blue, from ITV Studios, about the shooting of 11-year-old Rhys Jones in a gang-related crossfire, and Three Girls, another BBC production about the sexual grooming scandal in Rochdale.
Compare these shows – gritty, realistic and very much approaching the subjects from the victim’s perspective – to the true crime dramas being ordered and aired in the US. There, American Crime Story retold the tale of the OJ Simpson trial as a star-studded legal soap opera. Brilliantly staged, wonderfully performed, but still pitched as entertainment first and foremost.
Other famous cases getting the scripted drama treatment from US networks and cable channels include the trial of Claus Von Bulow, the socialite accused of attempting to murder his wife; the Menendez Brothers, young men who murdered their rich parents; and the Getty kidnapping. All feature celebrity, wealth and scandal.
This isn’t to say that either approach is right or wrong, only that they are tonally attuned to their primary markets. The sheer size of the US audience means that even the most terrible crimes take on an abstract air by the time they reach the public consciousness, consumed as stories as much as news even before the screenwriters have done their work. In the UK, a smaller and more tightly knit country, such crimes hit the public hard and fast, and feel viscerally real.
A third comparison sheds additional light on how differing approaches can serve different audiences. Italian television has a long and successful history of factual drama miniseries and TV films, with the lives of sports stars, politicians and even engineers and innovators turned into drama. There is also, inevitably, a healthy audience for dramatisations of organised crime, as the country continues to wrestle with the legacy of the mafia and its still-present influence. For example, February saw the launch of Mediaset’s Liberi Sognatori (Free Dreamers), a series of four drama profiles of civilian campaigners killed by the mob.
It is in the nature of true crime stories to be specifically linked to their location and culture. That’s why American takes on the genre tend to be more ready for international export – just as US pop culture is across the board. But in the digital on-demand era, where every niche is a potential global market, we may be seeing the start of a shift that sees these local stories take on a larger life overseas.