Smart Thinking

I’m sorry, but your story is only as good as the way you tell it

Yes, subject matter is important, but so is the way it's delivered

Theresa May, you may not remember by the time this comes out, kept us waiting for the announcement of the election. About an hour and a half before she actually said on camera that she was reluctantly calling a vote that will reluctantly put her easily in power for the next five reluctant years, it was put to the news media that, soon, the PM would be making a surprise announcement from outside 10 Downing Street. Such announcements are normally reserved for highly serious statements of great importance, so it was a tiny bit disappointing that it was just a general election: I was hoping for at least the death of a monarch, or maybe the awkward declaration that since Russia and China had been found to be cyber-messing with the Brexit referendum, we were going to have to do the whole thing again.

But it was, technically, not a bad reveal. In story terms. Because in story terms, a good traditional narrative is one where you have all the information, all the characters, all the plot, and then there’s a reveal that isn’t a given, but that a clever listener can work out. That’s a satisfying ending. And for a writer of stories, it’s possibly the hardest thing to pull off. Half a day before Theresa May’s announcement, nine million people had watched the last episode of ITV’s Broadchurch, the nearest thing British TV has to a big Scandi Noir whodunnit.

I think by the time you’re reading this it won’t be necessary to do loud spoiler alerts, so I’ll cut to the chase: the reveal of Broadchurch was not, technically, as good as that of 10 Downing Street’s. Because it cheated. The crime, that viewers had been waiting eight episodes to find out the perpetrator of, turned out to have been committed by a character hardly in the series. We, the watchers of Broadchurch, didn’t have all the information. A good whodunnit should be guessable: not easily, obviously, but there should be very cleverly planted seeds that those with a close eye see hidden in the soil, just before they bloom into the face of evil. Broadchurch’s whodunnit was not.

“We’re more bothered about what a story’s about than how it is told”

But I noticed that most TV critics weren’t worried about this. Most of them were more interested in the show’s well-handled depiction of surviving sexual assault and associated issues around porn and patriarchal insensitivity. Which is fine, except it points to something key in our critical culture: we are much more bothered about what a story is about, than how it is told. The best film, by a million miles, of this year’s Oscar nominees was Arrival. Because it was the only film, among all of them, that attempted to create a new and different type of story-telling. It didn’t just attempt – it succeeded. Arrival, through its incredibly clever playing with time frames, has a depth and complexity of telling beyond any of its rivals.

But it didn’t win very much in the way of awards because Award-Givers looked at it and thought: it’s about aliens. Therefore, not as important as a film about grief, or racism/homophobia. Subject-matter is what is weighed by Award-Givers, which is wrong. Because though subject-matter is important, it is easy. It’s easy to choose a weighty subject, dense with gravitas, for your story. The difficulty is in the telling.

Same with jokes. This is a constant category error, but with comedy, things get more confused around offence. Ricky Gervais was recently castigated, as people are commonly now, on Twitter, for a joke whose subject matter was considered, by many, unacceptable. But the joke itself never got heard. And the point about jokes is, as any comedian can tell you, it’s all in the telling. The subject isn’t that relevant. You can certainly tell a hateful mean joke about cancer, or rape, or dementia, or the Holocaust, or any other Big Important Subject; or you can tell one which satirises attitudes to that subject; or one which makes victims feel less alone; or one that can be interpreted in any number of other ways, but the decision as to its meaning depends on the telling. Which means: the context, the irony, the delivery, the situation, the words themselves, even the word order. If you really must call out a professional comedian for their jokes on social media, I’d advise a crash course in deconstruction with the ghost of Jacques Derrida himself first.

Anyway, on second thoughts, maybe Theresa May’s reveal was too predictable. It might have been better if she’d announced the passage of a new law declaring that the culprit in Broadchurch was the vicar.

David Baddiel’s My Family Not the Sitcom is at London’s Playhouse Theatre until June 3. Visit playhousetheatrelondon.com for tickets