Why row over Baby Reindeer sleuths will change real-life drama for ever | Television


Baby Reindeer was meant to be a close-up, complex – even funny – look at mental health problems and the way sufferers can feed on each other’s different illnesses. According to its millions of fans worldwide, the Netflix drama achieved these tricky goals. But the show, which shot to the streamer’s No 1 slot, is also now likely to change how fictionalised crime is seen.

The fictionalised series tells an intimately personal story already explored by the show’s writer, Scottish comedian Richard Gadd, in a couple of acclaimed one-man fringe theatre shows. It follows a depressed Scottish barman called Donny, played by Gadd, as he becomes enmeshed in the life of a female customer, “Martha Scott”, who is stalking him, sending him more than 41,000 emails, 350 hours of voicemail, 744 tweets, 46 Facebook messages, 106 pages of letters and torpedoing his other relationships.

In the last few days, the writer, actors – and the real people portrayed in Baby Reindeer – have been drawn into a fiery debate, driven by the work of determined social media sleuths, with lawyers and the police called in. One misidentified high-profile man is threatening legal action against those who suggested he was guilty of a sex crime portrayed in the show.

Media lawyer Mark Stephens, of Howard Kennedy, said: “The new culture of people trying to solve a crime, or becoming internet detectives, is incredibly dangerous. Of course, ­programme-makers like to say it’s a real story, but it is only a matter of time until an investigation is ruined by amateurs, perhaps by spoiling a crime scene or damaging evidence.

“Perhaps we have got to the stage now with true crime entertainment where we need warnings to viewers and listeners saying, ‘Please don’t investigate this yourself’, of the kind already made to a jury. Certainly, drama makers may need to go further to disguise people, routinely changing some of the fundamentals, and not just names, to prevent people being identified or misidentified.”

Nigel Tait, managing partner at law firm Carter-Ruck and head of its defamation and media department, argues that television producers are only liable for what they put out. “That’s what matters legally. It is nothing to do with them what people do afterwards online. If they have taken some care, it is not really their responsibility. However, an internet platform might be held responsible if they have been put on notice and not taken something down.”

Richard Gadd has told fans that the characters in Baby Reindeer are not ‘fact-by-fact profiles’ of real people. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

The actor who plays the stalker, Jessica Gunning, has won plaudits for her portrayal, but last week urged fans to stop tracking down the real woman involved, a convicted serial harasser. “It’s a real, real shame,” Gunning said, “because it shows that they haven’t watched the show properly.” Yet the momentum created by Baby Reindeer proved impossible to stop. A vulnerable woman picked out by internet sleuths as the probable culprit has now stepped forward. Her own personal details make her claim to be the actual “Martha” convincing, and her reactions certainly chime with the tone of the emails featured in the show, which Gadd drew from real exchanges with his stalker.

Posting on social media two days ago, she claimed she scarcely knows the “failed comedian” and has been “attacked by crazy stalkers on the internet”. She added: “I was in Richard Gadd’s company on occasions but I didn’t stalk him like he claims.” Her version of events is disputed.

Gadd himself has called on viewers to hold back. On his Instagram account, he pleaded: “Please don’t speculate on who any of the real-life people could be. That’s not the point of our show.”

He has also explained the efforts made to protect those portrayed. “We’ve gone to such great lengths to disguise her to the point that I don’t think she would recognise herself … What’s been borrowed is an emotional truth, not a fact-by-fact profile of someone.”

Although Gadd is in the more powerful position of storyteller here, he is also a victim: someone who made mistakes, as he admits in the drama, and who struggled with depression after surviving sexual abuse at the hands of an influential figure in the entertainment business, “Darrien”, a real man, so far unidentified.

In the show Donny blames his initial delayed reporting of Martha’s stalking on his recent experience of abuse, explaining: “When it came to the point of going to the police, I just couldn’t stand the irony of reporting her but not him. There was always a sense that she was ill, that she couldn’t help it, whereas he was a pernicious, manipulative groomer. To admit to her was to admit to him, and I hadn’t admitted him to anyone yet.”

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Many viewers of the show – made by British company Clerkenwell Films – point out that while “Martha” is sensitively portrayed, in a story told first in the 2019 stage show Baby Reindeer, the real “baddie” of the show is “Darrien” (played by Tom Goodman-Hill), an abuser discussed in Gadd’s earlier 2016 show, Monkey See, Monkey Do. Fuelled by anger, fans are forensically examining the comedian’s career for links to the guilty man.

Last week, the Tony-nominated actor, writer and director Sean Foley was wrongly accused of being the inspiration for the character. When Gadd backed him and asked people to desist, Foley quickly posted on X that: “Police have been informed and are investigating all defamatory abusive and threatening posts against me.”

West Midlands police confirmed they are investigating reports of threatening messages on social media. “Enquiries are at an early stage and we are gathering information from the victim,” they said.

Aside from the legal fallout, a moral row still rages. Even some admirers of the show suggest it should not have been made. Yet Michaela Coel’s huge critical hit, the BBC’s I May Destroy You, was another popular drama depicting a real-life trauma. In 2018, Coel confirmed to an audience at the Edinburgh TV Festival that she is a survivor of a sexual assault like the one in her show. “Part of my heart hopes that people who have had experiences that are traumatic watch this and feel less alone,” she has said.

For Sam Hobkinson, director of the Netflix documentary Lover, Stalker, Killer, about the Cari Farver case, viewers will always have an appetite for true stories: “And once something is being watched by so many millions, it will take on a life of its own. There is a duty to realise that fact, and in our experience every care was taken. Even with our story, one very much in the public domain, we saw how careful you have to be.”

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