Some thoughts on ‘The Kennedys’

Every once in a while words fail me. As a writer, academic and broadcaster, I am sue that you can imagine that this is a problematic situation. However, such a situation occurred recently after watching the TV miniseries, The Kennedys.

Before I go any further let me state for the record my interest in this material. It may be hard to believe, but as a young guy growing up in Thatcher’s Britain I was a little unfocused. At 14 I imagine most guys are. Certainly I was more interested in football and girls than in studying and accordingly my ‘forward thinking’ teachers assured me that I would never amount to much, and would certainly fail any A levels that I should attempt.

And then something interesting happened. British television screened a miniseries starring Martin Sheen as the lead role in Kennedy. Broadcast over consecutive nights I was hooked, even if they finished too late for me to watch the end of them.

From then on I was hooked on American history and by extension, politics. Martin Sheen’s portrayal of JFK probably had as big an impact on me as anything ever put on screen. I started reading about the president, the family, the assassination and later on wider issues pertaining to the nation and its history. Like a ripple in a pool, my interests widened, but always with JFK at the heart of things. Eventually we studied the assassination at school and for the first time, I knew more about an event than the teacher.

So, it’s important to note that 1) I’m interested in the subject matter, and that 2) I’m no academic snob. I’m of the belief that whatever it takes to get people interested in history or politics, or whatever, is a good thing if it inspires people to develop an interest.

So, to end the digression and return to the subject at hand….

Earlier in the year, controversy arose when it was revealed that The History Channel were producing a lavish $30 million dollar mini series examining the Kennedy family. Key members of the Kennedy entourage spoke out against the project having seen drafts of the shooting script. This included the late, great Ted Sorenson, whom I had the very great honour of meeting before his death last year. The fear was that this was to be a conservative interpretation of events that would raise all sorts of scandals and portray a very different idea of Camelot than I had experienced in 1983.

With former Kennedy Aide, Ted Sorensen

Things came to a head when the finished project was turned over for broadcast. Realising the state of the finished article, the History Channel passed on the project. Having financed it, they now refused to broadcast it, claiming “this dramatic interpretation is not a fit for the History brand.” Channel after channel passed on the project until it was later picked up by the ReelzChannel at a cost of $7 million, plus a further $10 million in advertising and broadcast the series in April 2011.

What you would be forgiven for not knowing having watched The Kennedys

 1. That Ted Kennedy ever exited

2. That Joe and Rose Kennedy ever had more than 4 children (only Joe Jr, JKF, RFK and Rosemary are identified)

3. That Marilyn Monroe sang Happy Birthday, Mr President

4. That Frank ‘The Voice’ Sinatra organised the Inaugural gala

5. That JFK gave more than 3 speeches as president

6. That JFK ever travelled overseas as President

7. That Kennedy signed a nuclear test ban treaty

8. That JFK and Jackie ever had civil world to say to each other

9. That Jackie miscarried in the 1950s

10. That JFK was 6ft tall and not shorter than most people around him

11. That haircuts changed from 1952-1968

12. That someone named Martin Luther King existed

13. That RFK went on a voyage of self discovery from 1963 to 1968

14. That anything of any importance happened between 1963 and 1968

15. That there is any dispute over the deaths of the Kennedy brothers.

16. That Joe Kennedy was American and not British.

17. That Joe Kennedy had his stroke in the winter of 1961 and that the administration carried on fine for almost 2 years after that.

18. That JFK had a group of talented individuals around him who worked on key issues and ensured a successful delivery of the administration’s policies and messages.

19.That there was anyone else in the cabinet except Bob McNamara (who looked nothing like he did in this series and was pictured sitting on the wrong side of the President in key meetings.

20. That Secretary of State Rusk was not the same person as Ambassador Stevenson. Time and again the show allocated sentiments and statements articulated by US Ambassador to the UN, Adlai Stevenson, to Secretary of State Rusk.

I could go on, but time and space prevent this!

Problems abounded in the production. There was a lack of tension, music was terrible, the use of non-related, pretentious quotations at the start of episodes was distracting. The habit of starting episodes with the climax before rehashing events that led up to events was repetitive and didactic. And then there were the haircuts…

I don’t know how familiar any of you are with fashion, but over a 16-year time span, they change. But not on this show. JFK and RFK are shown with the same wigs throughout this entire time period, ensuring that RFK looked exactly the same at the start of Ike’s America, as he did at the peak of the hippy movement in 1968.

This was nothing more than a Pantomime interpretation of history. The real tragedy will be if anyone accepts it as history, or worse is repelled from this incredible story due to the awful portrayal of events in this travesty of a show.

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