My wife and I once watched a film on TV purporting to be the biography of a talented female Victorian writer. Lush colour photography, lush music, but we were confused. Were we watching a pic about the woman’s failed love life? Where was the story of the genius of her writing? I am sure if it had been a film about a male writer, the love life would have been deemed incidental, not central.
Similarly, a bio pic about a famous scientist who happened to be gay, in an era when homosexuality was illegal. I can just hear the cliché wheels of the Hollywood executive minds turning: Gay loner – what a great story – a film about a difficult genius who succeeds against the odds. Except, when you look up the bio of the man, he was neither difficult nor a loner; he was both admired and liked by his colleagues. I don’t know about you, but I take it personally when people from the past are painted in a diminished and distorted way by lesser individuals from the present.
Of course, a bio has to be entertaining, or nobody will engage with it, but there is a heavy responsibility on the shoulders of a biography writer to paint the person as they were, not how the writer would like them to have been.
I had direct experience of this when I was contacted by Jasper Rees, the official biographer of the famous English comedien and song writer, Victoria Wood. Victoria was a university contemporary of mine, but more significantly I had organised her first ever concert, where she performed with my jazz group. I told biographer Jasper Rees an anecdote of visiting Victoria at her flat when her radio was enthusiastically announcing the upcoming wedding of Princess Anne and fellow equestrian, Captain Mark Philips. “That’s good”, said Victoria, “I’ll be able to send them a postcard congratulating them on the birth of their first foal.” I found out later that Jasper double-checked my story, going so far as to research the date of the radio announcement, that it corresponded to the brief window of time when I knew Victoria. Did this revelation cause me offence? On the contrary, I was impressed. I felt that a man who took so much trouble to check a minor detail could be trusted to write a biography true to Victoria’s life. If only all biographies and biographers could be like that.
(c) Sahlan Diver