Tuesday, 01 December 2015

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Character assassination

It was an odd move for the BBC to buy in The Kennedys (BBC2) for screening almost immediately after a prime-time series run on the History Channel.

It could have been a dodgy move too – a decidedly bad one, in fact – since critics had hammered the dramatised biopic of America’s most iconic super-family as an embarrassing flop, just weeks before it hit the Beeb’s weekend schedules.

Those sniffy, scathing opinions of a badly cast, cheesy, once-over-lightly, US propaganda trip, were very nearly enough to put me off choosing to waste time on a soft-focus version of what I’d known and lived through many moons ago. Thankfully, in the end they weren’t.

True, some of the casting leaves a little to be desired. Greg Kinnear, for instance, is a less than convincing John F Kennedy and Barry Pepper as his brother Bobby is even worse.

But there are pleasing revelations in the superb performances of Tom Wilkinson as the scheming, controlling and truly sinister patriarch Joseph Kennedy – a man no one dared defy – and of Katie Holmes as Jackie Kennedy, Jack’s undervalued, long-suffering, decorative wife, who, so far I could see, married beneath her... twice.

You might expect a supremely polished, skilled portrayal of Kennedy senior from a veteran character actor such as Tom Wilkinson.

But it comes as a satisfying surprise to see that there’s a lot more to Katie Holmes than her weird husband Tom Cruise and Dawson’s Creek.

Dramatised history always does make a deal of not allowing facts to spoil the story. But maybe US critics who hated this series actually balked at the few facts left in this drama, rather than any void left by the removal of others.

There is no doubt this is not a rose-tinted nostalgia exercise. Joseph Kennedy is seen as a manipulating, cruel and ruthlessly ambitious man; a wartime Nazi sympathiser, mover and shaker in fringe mafia circles, corrupt accumulator of huge wealth and an habitual briber of any and all who could ease his family’s driven route to the White House. Only the White House would do, to balance the weight of the massive chip on his shoulder, borne of his poor, Irish background.

His son Joe, shot down in war, had been his favourite child – the one he’d dreamed of becoming president. Jack came a poor second, in his father’s eyes – but not in the hearts and minds of the American people, who fell hook, line and sinker for the Kennedy myth woven by old Joseph.

You think you lived the history, when actually all you remember is the assassination from which still hang hundreds of conspiracy theories.

The family history is something beyond those old TV newsreels of Dallas. It’s intriguing, it’s shocking and disappointing. It’s illuminating of how so many of the people can be fooled for so much of the time.

And it’s clearly terrific material for dramatisation of how a sophisticated nation can remember with fabled fondness the thoroughly unpleasant dynasty which held a tight grip on all its power for very personal, none-too-wholesome, reasons.

No wonder their critics hated it.


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