19 May 2024

Baby Reindeer: How are we still talking about it?

11:49 am on 19 May 2024
Richard Gadd as Donny Dunn in Netflix's Baby Reindeer.

Richard Gadd, the star and creator of Baby Reindeer. Photo: Supplied/ Netflix

Occasionally there are films, TV shows or memes that capture the collective public consciousness and take on a life of their own. During lockdown, it was zoo underworld documentary Tiger King. This year, it's Baby Reindeer.

Since its release a month ago, nearly 60 million people are thought to have watched the show and it remains in Netflix's top five. While the storyline was the topic of conversation initially, the aftermath has become another beast. And it's still unfolding. 

Baby Reindeer is adapted from a one-man Edinburgh Fringe show of the same name and stars Scottish comedian Richard Gadd. It tells the real-life story of Gadd's experience with a stalker.

In the show, the stalker is a woman named Martha who becomes obsessed with Gadd's character, Donny Dunn, after meeting him at the pub where he works. She appears to be upset and he offers her a free cup of tea. It's an act of kindness that changes the course of his life. 

In the following years, Martha sends him more than 41,000 emails, 350 hours of voicemails, hundreds of tweets and more than 100 letters. But that story is told alongside another event (which took place several years earlier) when Dunn is groomed, raped and sexually assaulted by a well-known television writer and producer. 

Gadd first performed Baby Reindeer at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It became a West End hit and won a prestigious Olivier Award. The Netflix show is a well-made, well-acted and slick production. It's a black comedy, but a harrowing and wildly uncomfortable story from start to finish.

At the start of the show, there's a declaration - "this is a true story". Not "based on a true story" or "inspired by true events".

But perhaps, most famously, the film and TV show Fargo says "this is a true story" at the start and it's completely fictional. 

Netflix made its first public comments about the show earlier this month. Senior director of public policy in the UK and Ireland, Benjamin King, spoke in a Parliamentary hearing saying Netflix went to great lengths to disguise the real-life identities of the people the characters were based on.

King said every reasonable precaution was taken "striking a balance of veracity and authenticity of Richard's story because we didn't want to anonymise that or make it generic to the point where it was no longer his story, because that would undermine the intent behind the show".

Richard Gadd, right, the star and creator of "Baby Reindeer," poses with cast member Jessica Gunning at a photo call for the Netflix miniseries at the Directors Guild of America, on 7 May, 2024, in Los Angeles.

Richard Gadd and Jessica Gunning pose for a photo call for Baby Reindeer, in LA, on 7 May. Photo: AP/ Chris Pizzello

But internet sleuths were quickly able to identify the woman they believed to be the real Martha - Fiona Harvey. There were also searches and images being posted of the person suspected to be the TV writer and Gadd's alleged abuser. 

Following the relentless search for the real-life people, Gadd made a plea on social media for audiences to stop speculating who the real-life people were. He said it wasn't the point of the show. 

Then, UK TV host Piers Morgan interviewed Harvey. So far, that interview has racked up at least 11 million views. Harvey says she was forced to come forward after receiving online death threats. 

Telling her side of the story, she describes Baby Reindeer as a "work of fiction" and "hyperbole". She says she sent Gadd a couple of emails, one letter, and some tweets. In other words, nowhere near the amount of messages detailed in the show. 

Towards the end of the series, Martha pleads guilty and is convicted of stalking and sentenced to nine months in prison. Harvey says she has never been to jail. 

Harvey says she'll be suing Netflix and Gadd for defamation. Lawyer Chris Daw KC told Deadline he's working with Harvey on a defamation suit.

Entertainment publicist Tamar Munch told RNZ she was "flummoxed" watching the Piers Morgan interview. 

Audiences who've watched both will note a striking resemblance and speech pattern in the way both Jessica Gunning portrays the character of Martha and alleged real-life stalker, Harvey. 

"I watched the Piers Morgan interview thinking I was going to see a skinny blonde woman…  and then sitting there is the spitting image of the character that's portrayed in the show.

"That bit feels like a massive failing," says Munch. 

Harvey was paid around $500 for the interview but is now seeking closer to $2 million dollars. Morgan says that won't be happening.

But was the interview exploitative? Munch doesn't necessarily believe so. 

"Even if she has mental health issues and if she is the stalker - none of which have been proven, I believe, she should, as a grown woman,  still have a right of reply to the accusations that have been presented."

Munch observes that, despite all the ongoing commentary, the English tabloids were unusually quiet shortly after the interview.

"If this is the biggest entertainment story of the moment, you find a reason to perpetuate the story beyond the interview - essentially drawing clicks - but it hasn't been picked up by the English tabloids."

Munch suggests it's possible there have been gentle conversations behind closed doors from Netflix to editors recommending the story isn't perpetuated further, as a duty of care to Harvey. 

"Having been part of many of the re-telling of real-life New Zealand stories, there is a huge amount of development and pre-production process that goes into the duty of care. Not just from a legal standpoint.

"I can't believe that Clerkenwell Films - wholly owned by BBC Studios and Netflix - didn't have multiple eyes on this. Not just lawyers, but comms people, PR people giving advice about what the repercussions could be.

"That's how you manage risk."

Munch says those involved had to have anticipated this scenario, regardless of how successful the show may be. 

Jennifer Gunning as Martha in Netflix’s Baby Reindeer

Jennifer Gunning as Martha in Netflix's Baby Reindeer. Photo: Supplied/ Netflix

This week, Gadd has reiterated that plea saying "if I wanted the real-life people to be found, I would've made it a documentary".

He added he doesn't think he'll ever comment on it again.

Now there have been further developments. Scottish National Party (SNP) MP John Nicolson is now asking Netflix to substantiate its comments about the woman who inspired the Martha character.

King had said the show was "obviously a true story of the horrific abuse that the writer and protagonist Richard Gadd suffered at the hands of a convicted stalker".

But Nicolson believes the evidence given may have been inaccurate.

The SNP MP says "the charge made - of a conviction - is very important. Journalists can find no evidence to back up the Netflix claim."

Knowingly misleading a committee is a contempt of Parliament. 

While Fiona Harvey has identified herself as the person Martha is based on, neither Netflix nor Gadd have confirmed this. 

It's a mess. But is it a mess for Netflix?

"At a base level, Netflix wants subscribers and views. It's doing that but at what cost? I think there's a cost to the performers," says Munch. 

Gadd and Gunning have both been praised for their performances and this week, appeared at the BAFTA Awards but avoided interviews on the red carpet.

"They should be riding high off this hugely successful series - that they both appear in, and Richard Gadd is a creator of, but the fact they had to avoid those press interviews, is kind of a shame."

In his story, Gadd is a victim. In the show, Donny's character doesn't claim to be perfect. The character admits he leads Martha on at times and he engages in drug use and reckless sexual encounters. 

But now it seems, following the show, perhaps Harvey has become a victim too. 

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