What’s The Documentary Evidence?

What's The Documentary Evidence?

Is documentary all what it used to be and as a format is all documentary still worthy? Welcome to Part 1 of my documentary dissection.

“I have worked in and around television production in one way or another for twenty years, and every single year I have heard that documentary production standards and production funding were in decline. Is it true? Has it really got a bit worse for docs every single year?

My nature is to suspect that things always look better in retrospect, that we all have a tendency to idealise our actions in the past. But we know that the culture of television shifts from decade to decade, so why not our attitude to the documentary as well? I have been prompted into trying to find answers to the fate of the documentary by two of my long-standing friends.

The first friend is the same age as me and is an experienced senior producer. He has made political and social documentaries at home and abroad, and covered some of the bloodiest war-zones in Africa and the Balkans of the last twenty years. Now working for a big terrestrial broadcaster, he despairs of the vacuous nature of the programmes he is expected to make – expensive shots and popular presenters take precedence over content, and frequent recaps of what you have just watched several minutes earlier seem to be designed for viewers with advanced dementia and no critical faculty. He says it now takes 50 minutes to establish intellectual content that would have taken a few minutes in the past.

My second friend is a specialist factual department head, who for years loved making innovative and eye-opening science and history programmes. Now he resents being part of a production line of docs made on ever-shrinking budgets but unchanging expectations of high production standards. Many are now made in co-production with a range of commissioners’ tastes in different countries, making it impossible to cover the subject in the depth that they require. The resultant films have arguably less to add to our understanding of the world around us than the average Ladybird book.

My BT Vision TV programme guide lists The Apprentice in its ‘Comedy and Entertainment’ section rather than making any claim to its factual content. Has BT caught the zeitgeist ahead of the rest of us?

But this is also the decade of A Child Of Our Time, Walking With Dinosaurs, Iran And The West and That’ll Teach ‘Em. Are these really less meaningful than Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation, The World At War, Seven Up or Blue Planet?

Of course, these are flagship productions of one sort or another. Where we are lacking now is in the regular documentary series which provided hours every week across the broadcasters and employed a small army of dedicated documentary-makers, making programmes of widely varying quality and interest. Within those series’ lay our docs training ground and the promise of reliable mortgage payments.

I am nagged by the thought that the alleged father of British documentary, John Grierson, was commissioned to make his best-known films as corporates for the Post Office, rather than for a broadcaster. If documentary is alive and well now, could I be looking for it in the wrong place?

This is really the first section of a two-part Moray’s Word of Mouth, and it’s a bit of an experiment. I plan to defy the holiday season and ask a range of documentary heads, commissioners, bureaucrats and academics over the next couple of weeks whether they think that the production of significant documentaries is in decline in the face of cheaper shallow factual programmes with no solid core.

I should be able to give you their answers by the end of this month. In the meantime, I would like you to add your thoughts or questions below this, and I will try to address them in the second part.”