There is no doubt that serious factual is on the rise and fast becoming a regular fixture of audience’s weekly viewing habits and, if Twitter is anything to go by, really capturing the public’s imagination.
Producers now treat documentaries like they would a cutting edge drama; it’s compelling story-telling with strong narrative arcs. Whilst a swath of rig shows such as 24 Hours in A&E, One Born Every Minute, and The Catch are pulling in big audiences, there’s still room for the more traditional approach.
At our recent Turn On, Tune In event at The Hospital Club, we were delighted to welcome James Newton, series director of the gripping and dramatic three part series, The Detectives. The critically-acclaimed BBC Two series gave a close-up view of the day-to-day operations of the Serious Sexual Offences Unit of Greater Manchester Police, the first dedicated rape investigation team in the UK.
“I was Rob Benfield’s researcher in the 1980s when he was a producer/director on a regional ITV current affairs doc series called Facing South (and immigration minister Phil Woolas was a co-researcher!). Rob remembers that the series was run by journalists at the time and that he was brought in to make the series more visually interesting when the prevailing “mission to explain” ethos made programmes duller to watch. Complaints about the dumbing-down of docs began 25 years ago. No doubt, I did my bit to help the process too…”
A month ago I asked whether documentary production is really in demise, or are we just grumbling? The holiday season has proved harder to crack than I’d thought, and I’m still waiting for the indies and commissioners I’ve contacted to get back to me on the subject.
Never say never, but I’ve had some interesting offline feedback from, Michael Waldman, a veteran of BBC’s Forty Minutes doc strand, and maker of The House, Daisy Daisy, Stephen Fry In America and many more. And I can offer the academic’s viewpoint from, Rob Benfield, who runs the TV production degree course at the University of Westminster.
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.
If British broadcasters are under more pressure than ever to succumb to commercial pressures, what place does documentary filmmaking hold in the commissioner’s line-up? This week, I look at whether support for documentary filmmaking is about to become a lavish extravagance of the past.
It would be interesting to know how many ProductionBase members initially pursued a career in television because you wanted to make significant documentaries which could be watched by millions. I expect that a sizable number did, regardless of the genre of production each of you have specialised in since starting out. In practice, freelancers can find themselves pigeon-holed by genre; you may have taken that job on a popular satellite shopping channel, but you took it because you were trapped by financial responsibility, not because it fulfilled your creative desires. If this is the drift which takes people away from documentary, then where is the documentary itself drifting? In UK broadcast television, the documentary world has been changing fast, and here is what I see happening.