TV & Me with Series Producer Michael Waterhouse, whose credits include The British, Secret Homes and Art of the Sea. Michael has just finished The Bible, a hugely ambitious ten-part dramatisation for The History Channel.
What was it made you want to pursue a career in television?
The career I’ve had is a long way from Rawhide, but if there was a seed, I think it was watching westerns as a kid, and being enthralled by the landscapes and the gunfights. Landscapes have featured quite heavily in my subsequent documentary career. Gunfights not so much.
How did your television career start, what was your first big break?
I had an odd entry into television. After university, I joined the Community Service Volunteers, which seconded me as a general assistant (a ‘Runner’ now) to HELP!, a local social action programme produced by Thames Television. That was the foot in the door. From there, I had two distinct breaks. In those days, it was extremely difficult to get a researcher’s job in ITV without an ACTT ticket and the Catch-22 was that you needed to work on a production to join the union. Occasionally, there were vacancies for non-union applicants. I went for any that came up, and after about six months, I was lucky enough to be given a researcher’s job on This Is Your Life. My interest was in documentary-making, but TIYL, to some people’s surprise, gave you a very good grounding in factual research. A year later, I applied to be a reporter on an ITV afternoon arts magazine called Afternoon Plus. I didn’t get the job, but the head of that department invited me to apply for the post of Producer of Religion & Arts – and that was the ‘big break’.
You have just finished a ten part dramatisation for the History channel which was shot in Morocco. How was this experience?
We shot The Bible in Morocco over a period of four months. I was out there for three. We were based in a place called Ouarzazate, which is a centre of the country’s film industry. The surrounding landscape and ancient towns and villages make it a perfect location for films about antiquity. There are places where you feel you’ve effortlessly stepped back 2,000 years! Overall, I would say it was one of the great experiences of my working life. We had wonderful support from the Moroccans. Everyone, from production staff to crew members, to actors and extras, brought a wealth of experience and professionalism to both the pre-production and the shoots, and I am extremely grateful to them. We were fortunate in having a Production Designer, Alan Spalding, who’d worked in Morocco many times before, and he skillfully transformed the indigenous mud brick structures into the biblical settings we’re all familiar with. All that said, Morocco can be tough. Temperatures will rise to forty-seven degrees. It’s easy to become dehydrated, and that slows up the pace of work. Changes to the set, make-up and costume changes, keeping the actors, extras and horses going: it’s all that much harder in wilting heat. Making the day in those conditions was sometimes quite a hike, but the whole team was brilliant!
This drama explores different stories in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible – were there strict guidelines to follow, or was there scope to make adaptations?
There are, of course, no rules, no guidelines to help steer you through a production of this kind. You’re always conscious that people will have their own view of what’s right. But the strategy we adopted was, I think, the right one. We consulted extremely widely, endeavouring to capture as broad a range of opinion as we could. On the face of it, dramatisation should be uncontentious. The stories are what they are. But every construction of a scene has its inflections and, in the end, every film about the biblical story will be an interpetation. Ours is the result of careful thought and plenty of advice, and I think audiences will enjoy it.
How much planning goes into this kind of a project?
Tons! When I joined the production, it had already been in preparation for over a year. A great deal of research, consultation and initial scripting had taken place in that time. I was recruited to produce three of the episodes, and after twenty years in documentary and drama-doc, this was my first venture into full drama – an exciting, not to say daunting, prospect. Dramatisation meant that the biblical stories, culturally and historically distant as they are, had to stand alone, very largely unaided by narration. Of course once you opt for that, you ratchet up expectations of performance. We gave a great deal of attention to casting and managed to bring together a really fine group of actors. The scripts being in English, most of our principals were from the UK, but the support roles were taken by Moroccans and the quality of their work was excellent. And every department was the same, putting time and effort into making this production look fantastic!
Religion is a difficult topic to attract a mass audience because it is so subjective – what was your method of tackling this?
In one sense, you’re right. People frequently come to The Bible with a preconceived view, for or against. But, as the promos and publicity for this series will show, the Old Testament struggle of the Jews to establish themselves in Israel and the New Testament celebration of the life of Jesus are stories packed with riveting and intensely personal drama, and the most moving moments in human history. In terms of entertaining a general audience, then, these stories have a narrative appeal that can transcend individual beliefs. By concentrating on the characters, and the crises we can all identify with, we have tried to be inclusive and to avoid the pitfalls of theology. But, of course, it will be the viewers who will decide for themselves how successful that effort has been.
In what ways do you think factual entertainment and documentaries have evolved over the years?
There has been a shift of emphasis, away from what you might call issue-based programming and towards narrative-driven subjects. I remember a time when if an issue was intriguing, you might well see a programme made about it. In today’s much more competitive industry, when slots are gold dust, I don’t believe that’s enough now. There has to be a powerful story behind the issue for the proposal to be commissioned. In many ways, that’s right. We’re in the entertainment business. Viewers have a right to expect an entertaining story from their documentaries. The drawback is that not all the issues we might want to engage with generate compelling narratives. Life’s often too bitty, too fragmentary and unresolved, to do so. The field has narrowed in consequence. Look at how few current affairs documentary strands we have now, how few documentaries deal with issues abroad. That’s a loss, I think, to our imaginations. On the other hand…the coverage of history and science has improved immeasurably during my career and continues to do so. And I love Big Fat Gypsy Weddings.
How important is it to keep factual documentaries as neutral and unbiased as possible in order for audiences to form their own opinions?
As documentary-makers, it’s not our job to tell people what to think, but it would be naïve to imagine that we don’t help shape people’s understanding of our culture. To take the example of history, I suspect many people’s idea of this country’s past owes as much to television and the media as to their education at school. If documentaries have that kind of influence, accuracy, neutrality and due attention to both sides of an argument are vital responsibilities for programme makers.
On a personal level, what has been your favourite and proudest project to date?
I’m very proud of the period I spent as Series Producer of BBC1’s Heart of the Matter and I think it’s a pity that kind of discussion of ethical and political values has largely disappeared from our screens. In more recent times, it was a real pleasure producing and directing the BBC2 series Great British Journeys, which followed in the footsteps of eight historical explorers, who took ambitious journeys all over the UK and wrote about them. The series appealed to my love of landscape and my love of history. It was wonderful to work on HD for the first time and I had a great team to work with.
How has technological advancements changed the way you work?
I’ve been in the business long enough to witness quite a number of technological changes. The worst, I think, was the initial move from film to tape. I found myself offlining with VHS tapes, which meant that by about the fourth cut, the picture had degraded to the point where it was almost impossible to see it on screen! Generally, though, technological advancement has enhanced my work. Computers have, I believe, improved scripting and editing. We’re much tougher-minded and self-critical about improving and revising.(Shorter production periods, I admit, have moved us in the opposite direction.) Digital cameras have come of age. They’re much more robust now, and able both to function in a variety of conditions and produce fabulous images. That has undoubtedly made me more ambitious about what can be accomplished, especially in the wild outdoors! Give me rain and snow any day!
Michael Waterhouse is a freelance Series Producer and ProductionBase member.