Metamorphoses of a Genre: British and Italian Sound Docudrama in Context and Contemporary Production

  • Sabina Macchiavelli

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    Situated at the crossroads of fact and invention, docudrama constitutes a challenging field of investigation for Media Studies. Its hybrid nature produces resonances in terms of knowledge and perception of reality that make it infinitely enriching both for creativity and for thought. Nevertheless, scholars have mainly concentrated on film docufiction while the radio counterpart remains a much neglected area. The present thesis aims to fill this void. Its focus is an analysis of the hybrid genre docufiction/docudrama in radio production –or, considering today’s extended availability through podcasting, in sound production. In tackling such a wide-ranging area of study which presents a number of difficulties descending from its ambiguity in terms of framing and knowledge construction, this work concentrates in particular on issues of structure and form, on the one hand, and on the type of understanding of events conveyed by docudramatic programmes, on the other. It contends that the impermanent nature of sound combined with the paradoxical aspects typical of in-between forms allows for an alternative understanding to the one avowedly granted by factual broadcasts, for example documentary reportage and news programmes. Central to the exploration is how sound acts upon the mixture of documents and imaginative narration/exposition that constitutes the texture of docudrama. To this end I employ the concept of continuum, that is, a spectrum spanning from works of a journalistic kind (constructed on a balanced combination of factual material and expository text), at one end, and fully dramatized ones (readings and plays), at the other. I investigate the various manners in which sound–i.e. effects, music, recorded actualities, the aural rendering of voices and silence –takes up a semantic function exerting a fictionalising action on all productions situated in between these two poles and characterized by a varying degree of interchange between real and invented materials and renderings. Fictionalization as a counterpoint to factuality implies that sound not only accompanies and comments on the words but also actively contributes to the construction of further signification, to the point of modifying, warping and often conflicting with the information load of the programme well beyond the makers’ intentions. Analysis demonstrates that this is true even of broadcasts labelled as ‘documentaries’ that pivot on notions of objectivity and pursue a rational, clear-cut explanation of events. The outcome of the interplay between the fact-fiction blend and sound’s action is a subversion of accepted knowledge and the production of an
    alternative view of personal and historical matters, complementary, when not openly alternative, to conventional truth. In this, as will be apparent from the development of the argumentation, sound docufiction moves about the same territory explored by poetry and art in general in the direction of a polysemous comprehension of reality.

    The present thesis displays other elements of novelty in relation to the adopted methodology. The first one is the comparative angle. The research scrutinizes case studies drawn from the production of the British and the Italian national networks –the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the Radio Audizioni Italiane (RAI). Such approach is sustained by the belief that the two notably divergent situations as regards the variety, amount and formal traits of broadcasts is indicative of differing perspectives on docudrama which may contribute to highlighting the workings of sound, pinpointing the characteristics of a ‘genre’ and building up a possible typology. The second aspect is the time-span chosen, the output of the last thirty years (1980s-2010s). This is a period little explored by British academy and virtually ignored in Italian literature; in particular, the association of a contemporary viewpoint with a comparative interest constitutes an approach fairly uncommon in Radio Studies. Today’s docudramatic output can be viewed as the resultant of a meandering and sometimes controversial evolution. Interestingly, after a similar flourishing and parallel experimentation in post-war radio up to the 1960s, Italy and Britain have developed different creative and institutional attitudes to the form. Nowadays we are presented with two diametrically opposed situations: the huge amount of programmes aired by the BBC, on one side, and the comparatively remarkable void displayed at the RAI both in production and in broadcasting, on the other. Another noteworthy element of this research is that investigation is firmly anchored in case-study analysis, be it an extensive survey of broadcasts representative of a style or an approach or a shorter review of programmes that help point out one relevant aspect of sound’s function. Finally, the thesis also includes a section on personal radio practice. It investigates one broadcast piece, Arrivederci (2014),based on one of my short stories and produced by Roberto Benatti with my contribution as a writer and an advisor. This part highlights the relevance of creative radio making even for research that is not directly practice-led or practice-based. It shows how reflection on the writing and production processes of sound docudrama and on creativity-related issues plays a fundamental role in clarifying one aspect of the central argument of the thesis, namely how sound acting on the area of intersection of personal storytelling and recorded evidence can help novel viewpoints emerge which may have some relevance also for historical research.
    Date of AwardAug 2019
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorMarta Minier (Supervisor) & Geraint D'Arcy (Supervisor)

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