Dubai Diaries: Are documentaries dumbing down?
Can The Lost Pirate Kingdom be called a doc?
When did documentaries become more about entertainment than learning? Far be it from me to say ‘it was better in my day’, because generally I welcome time’s evolutionary processes. “No, dad, packets of crisps and chocolate bars aren’t as big as they once were, but your trousers fit a bit better right?” However it was after being seduced into watching Netflix’s new The Lost Pirate Kingdom a thought crossed my mind: “are we missing out on these series’ purposes: to acquire knowledge about history, in favour of merely recounting racy pirate stories?” A similar flashpoint arose when clicking on the streaming giant’s Roman Empire (2016). Following much the same formula as TLPK, stories of Caesar, Caligula et al. are presented as true study with trite analysis from various bespectacled experts whilst a classic British actor narrates the action, though for the main part the programme consists of a collection of shonky vignettes performed by actors whose combined wage bill could not have outweighed the catering budget. The footage invariably shows reenactments of violence, passion, deception or a combination of all three.
I remember documentaries where you were lucky to catch sight of an artist’s impression to illustrate what the stuffy academic was banging on about. Many of them were often set up much like a school lesson where said windbag was always sat in front of a black screen staring down the barrel of a lens attempting to teach the viewer about Lactococcus lactis’ wondrous role in cheesemaking before referring to a blotchy slide on the overhead projector unsubtly rolled in halfway through the lecture. In The Lost Pirate Kingdom a considerable duration is dedicated to the main characters in various states of undress. Agreed, the first one may have been boring, but I’m still busting out Gram-positive bacterium facts at dinner parties to this day! I can’t recall an awful lot of bankable pirate knowledge aside from, given their propensity to rip, blouse craftsmanship must have been very poor back then. Then there’s the sly packaging in which these docs arrive. Dressing them up with the tinsel that is hiring a voiceover veteran such as Derek Jacobi to give the broadcast an air of gravitas may have actually worked, yet was completely nullified by having him read out, and this is a genuine line, “the islanders were freaking out.”
Now, I don’t want to ruin peoples’ fun, nor am I campaigning for a return to the ‘matchsticks holding your eyelids open’ stolidity of yesteryear. Surely there’s a happy medium? As a lover of history and its dissemination, it’s brilliant such a popular outlet is taking to investing in somewhat educational material, but this Keeping Up With The Scholars style is just a little thin on wisdom.