The exact origins of the mockumentary are unclear, but it very well may have started as an April Fool’s joke. In 1957, Panorama – the longest-running current affairs programme not just in the UK, but in the world – aired a segment concerning the Spaghetti-tree harvest, where the Swiss would grow strands of pasta from trees.
Being the biggest hoax TV had ever attempted, it would soon sow the seeds of the mockumentary. Arguably, the daring of the BBC to pull it off could be traced back to 1938, when Orson Welle’s frantic radio broadcast of War of the Worlds created a widespread panic, as the USA started worrying it was actually being invaded by Martians. Welles’ accident would be our gain.
It was not until the ‘60s and ‘70s when filmmakers began to grasp the potential of a style that, while outwardly deceptive, would be one that their art would flourish in. In 1964’s A Hard Day’s Night, the premise is simple enough: We follow The Beatles as they go on tour, play to thousands of fans, and generally get up to mischief.
Except that it’s entirely scripted; John, Paul, George and Ringo are essentially playing versions of themselves (think last year’s This is the End), and following a screenplay that envisions their lives in near-parody. Of course, the one thing missing from A Hard Day’s Night is the acknowledgement of the camera crew as a presence, making the movie, formally speaking, more of a straight comedy than pure mockumentary. But regardless, the tone would be incredibly influential.
Elsewhere, the format was starting to find its feet. Woody Allen directs and stars in 1969’s Take the Money and Run, which chronicles the endeavours of Virgil Starkwell, an unbelievably incompetent bank robber. Virgil’s (Allen) bank heist attempts are narrated by none other than Jackson Beck, whose well-known voice served as the backdrop of numerous documentaries in the 1940s (‘Destitute and in love, Virgil attempts to change his life with one bold stroke…’).
Back in Britain, Monty Python’s Flying Circus was experimenting with the format even further; the ‘Hell’s Grannies’ and ‘The Funniest Joke in the World’ sketches are all served with deadpan narration, like Allen’s film, establishing just how funny this blossoming new comedy form could be.
Real Life, released in 1979 and directed by comic treasure Albert Brooks, continued to ride the mockumentary train, but actively spoofed an existing property. An American Family is hailed as the first true reality TV series, a documentary that followed the highs and lows of the Loud family; Real Life cast Brooks, playing himself, into a family’s home for an entire year.
This paved the way for perhaps the most beloved – and famous – documentary of all; This is Spinal Tap! was released in 1984, and is still watched to this day thanks to its pitch-perfect performances and uncanny eye for detail. Its gag-fuelled deconstruction of the rock star myth gets it regularly voted as one of the funniest comedies of all time; the movie simply wouldn’t work if it were anything other than a mockumentary, a term which the film’s director, Rob Reiner, actually popularised in interviews for the film.
Since then, the mockumentary has enjoyed all types of variations and successes; 1995’s Forgotten Silver, directed by Peter Jackson and Costa Botes, trumpeted the groundbreaking work of fictional filmmaker Colin Mackenzie, while in a heavily meta motion, 2002’s Dark Side of the Moon looked at how Stanley Kubrick helped fake the Apollo 11 Moon landings while simultaneously nodding to its own fabrications.
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan was a huge hit in 2006, and blew the style wide open again for mockumentary makers everywhere. It’s a subgenre, form, style, and perspective that still feels like it’s got plenty of mileage, and if What We Do in the Shadows doesn’t necessarily discover new areas of the artform, then it at least proves it’s one of the funniest.