Factual Format or Documentary?

By Edward Milner

“I think it’s totally impossible to make a film with an audience in mind . I make a film to satisfy my own internal standards as to quality and integrity, and I try like hell to make it meet those standards”. – Frederick Wiseman

The creative documentary made for major terrestrial television has virtually died in Britain, assaulted and left for dead by an industry that has jettisoned any serious interest in the world around it in an unsustainable chase after ratings. The idea of a discerning audience has been discounted. The very word documentary has almost been lost in the clouded waters of factual programming.

guatemala-1990-peter-chappell.jpgEnd of the day for a cane cutter, Guatemala 1990 ©Peter Chappell

The mass of television output, even news, has been dramatically dumbed down. Perhaps it is an inevitable consequence of deregulation and subsequent deskilling of the production process at every level from camera operator to commissioning editor. Television executives still claim to support the concept of public service broadcasting but a disturbing defect of vision has become apparent, narrowing the viewers’ choice to a few predictable formats. As the filmmaker and author, William Rabiger has pointed out, documentaries can be slow and make demands on the audience’s concentration; ” they are considered “unentertaining", poor ratings material and for an anxious television executive… therefore dispensible.”[1]

At its best, through the creative combination of images and sounds, words and music, the television documentary can explore complex ideas by working at more than one level. Different directors can provide very different insights, affecting “a whole orchestra of emotional and intellectual possibilities” as Catherine Delmar, Joris Ivens’ assistant, has pointed out.[2] The best documentaries make compelling, if emotional, viewing – quite a different experience from seeing a news report or a newspaper article, or even reading a book or visiting relevant places.

madagascar-1998-peter-chappell.jpgA once-a-day meal, Nosy Lav Island Prison, Madagascar 1998 ©Peter Chappell

I trace the demise of the documentary in Britain back a decade or so to the time when “fly-on-the-wall” first became the fashion. Taking their cue from the apparently artless but penetrating documentaries of Frederick Wiseman a number of producers “redefined” the documentary by taking apparently banal subjects and filming them at excessive length. The underlying analysis informing Wiseman’s films was missing and frequently all that was left was – meaningless footage of insignificant and self-obsessed people. All sorts of exaggerated claims were made about these programmes, disguising the fact that the complex craft of documentary had been abandoned for a much simpler and superficial effect. They were also faster to make and therefore cheaper, and they apparently succeeded in reaching new, but obviously less discerning audiences. What you saw was what you got, and the idea that there could be any underlying analysis, or that a programme could work at different levels, might even have something to say about society – was rejected as too worthy: “a turn-off". The role of the documentary had indeed been refined, as a more serious, reflective and attentive audience was largely abandoned. Quantity was more important than quality and to suggest otherwise was to be dubbed elitist. No senior executives questioned the trend; the channels followed each other and “fly-on-the-wall” soon began to elbow out every other form of documentary. Like today’s makeover programmes “fly-on-the-wall” was everywhere. But does anyone remember any of those programmes today?

What followed was a refinement: the docu-soap. This purported to be similar in style but more exciting i.e. with the boring parts edited out. In fact these programmes which took their agenda from the tabloid press turned out to be banal reality, often with suspect emotions for dramatic effect. But with enough hype and tabloid coverage, these in turn became flavour of the month, appearing on all channels in a similar vein, although they soon had to be manipulated to maintain interest. They began to cross that threshold of trust between the programme-maker and the audience. So no-one knew whether what they were watching was for real or not. It was presented as reality, though even the most unsophisticated viewers found some scenes difficult to believe. Soon enough unhappy participants started to speak up and it became clear that in many programmes the audience had been misled, even lied to. Ros Coward has coined the term “Mansfield’s Syndrome” to characterise these programmes, after the BBC executive responsible for the docu-soaps Driving School and Airport. She defined this as, “the compulsion to parade fake emotions in public."[3] At the same time the focus of factual programming became ever narrower, its claims to popularity outweighing any other aspect of criticism. Serious topics were unfashionable and tended to be rejected or dealt with in misleading and publicity-seeking ways. Depth as well as breadth was being lost.

The next fashion was “special access” – ideally involving under-cover shooting. All the terrestrial channels once again jumped in the same direction. Independent producers were told that as competition for airtime was getting tougher, unless startling revelations were on offer, there would be little point in putting forward proposals for factual programmes. Since it was often the least experienced film-makers who were prepared to make the highest bids, the result was bigger and bigger claims resulting in poorer and poorer films. This constant search for a “fresh approach” resulted in the expulsion from the production process of many experienced producers with real knowledge of their subject matter – a process alarmingly exposed by Karl Sabbagh in his article for The Observer, ‘Betrayed by the Bosses of Channel Four’.[4]

nursery-edward-milner.jpgNursery in Ho Chi Minh City ©Edward Milner

It was perhaps inevitable that this trend would end in tears. Programmes began to be revealed as fakes. The audience was not being shown the real world at all. Even the superficial topics chosen were treated with contempt. Research was cut back, checking of crucial facts neglected, producers hired, some of whom “didn’t wholly subscribe to the sanctity of the truth"[5]. An era when Anthony Smith could claim that “television is a serious medium, taken, on the whole, seriously by those responsible for it” had passed.[6] The new era finally plumbed the depths with The Connection – a film commissioned on the basis of the extraordinary claims of an inexperienced but fast-talking director. But the programme was finally overtaken by its own hype and exposed for what it was – a fake. “Substantial claims in the programme were false and ... the programme should not have been broadcast.” concluded Carlton Communications’ own investigation panel.[7] The company was forced to broadcast a public apology, pay a substantial fine and return prizes and awards.

The demise of the documentary has had knock-on effects. Coverage of international issues on all channels has dropped alarmingly over the past decade in both quantity and quality. John Vidal identified this shift nearly two years ago when he suggested that “we almost certainly know less about the rest of the world than we did 10 years ago. TV hardly gives us a clue (about) what is happening in most parts of the world.”[8] Unfortunately many people haven’t understood this yet. Polls show regularly that a large majority still claim to get most of their information about the world from television. No wonder September 11th took us by surprise. In her article, ‘Know nothing about Afghanistan? Blame the death of the Documentary’, Charlotte Raven identifies the genre of factual programming that now “casts other countries as problems to be overcome".[9] In recent years there have been virtually no documentaries which would help inform the debate about current issues which will affect all our lives – Afghanistan, Kashmir, Palestine, global terrorism, globalisation and the diverse resistance to it, conflict resolution – to name a few. The foreign documentary, once a major strength of British TV has disappeared.

Restoring credibility to the documentary will not be easy. As Anthony Smith has pointed out, when broadcasting “finds a level of taste at which it can successfully aggregate its audience it becomes culturally valueless". There is already an idea abroad that documentary should be regarded as niche viewing and relegated to specialist channels. But for a developed and highly complex democracy lodged in an increasingly interdependent world there is an urgent need to redefine the role of public service broadcasting. The courage to admit that this may involve other criteria than instant popularity may be required, whatever the pressures. More respect for the whole audience might then follow. Perhaps the contribution that the creative documentary can play is due for a rethink.


[1] Michael Rabiger, Directing the Documentary, 1998
[2] Catherine Delmar, 1979
[3] 'Telly Trash', The Guardian January 2000
[4] Karl Sabah, The Observer 27.8.2000
[5] Jack Saltman, Guardian Letters, December 1999
[6] Anthony Smith, Shadow in the Cave, 1973
[7] Report for Carlton Communications, Dec 1998
[8] 'Wars, famine and lions. How the west views the world', The Guardian 28.2.2000
[9] Charlotte Raven, The Guardian, 30.10.01

Edward Milner is an award-winning documentary and news director who has made over 100 films for British and overseas television. He is managing director of Acacia Productions.