A TRASHED CULTURE: THE REAL WORTH OF REALITY TELEVISION


By Paul Watson    02 June 2008



Last week hanging out in a bar on the Isle of Inishturk western Ireland, all in the cause of research, I was asked, by a ‘cockney barman’ whom I presumed to be running away from something but wasn’t, no, as he exhaustively explained it was toward something. Ah, a new documentary coming on I thought as he asked what was it I did for a job? And in what is, apparently, my usual self aggrandising pompous ass way, I read that aggrieved phrase in the letters column of Broadcast, I heard myself saying I was a filmmaker.


“On the Telly or like real films?”


“Documentaries”… the barman is already losing interest.


“Like what, Big Brother?”


In suitable silence I look away. Apologetically and somewhat cautiously, I name a few films. It’s a game, one I hate, but one you hope will be quickly over when they recognise something you’ve made. Not in this case. My list had length but no recognition.


“What’s your name, mister?”


My name being short produced less impact than my list.


Why couldn’t I be French and in France where filmmakers are gods. Un film par! Here in England we unfortunately know our place, it’s usually at the end of a long list of squashed up unreadable credits competing with a voice over telling us the wonders of the next programme. A case of out of sight out of mind!


My inquisitor persisted.


“Have you been honoured?”


Dropping my eyes I avoid his earnest inquiry, I don’t really see me as an Awards man, true, true, it’s getting to people with a message that matters more than the gongs.


“I mean given you’ve made so much stuff” he added.


So I remembered an Honour; an RTS lifetime achievement “Don’t take it dad - you’ll never work again! A Grierson and more recently a BAFTA!”


“At Buckingham Palace?”


“No! Not these days the Queen’s not too happy with documentary makers”.


He turns away. I’d lost him. OK I could have told a lie, shall we call it a reality lie; not a real lie you understand, just a little fabrication something to improve the entertainment and audience appeal. Nothing sack-able!


But I didn’t lie. Nor have I ever in my work!


And no guilt seeking company or ill informed lawyer has convinced me otherwise.


If documentary gives in to the simplistic demands of the entertainment format, the ill chosen word, the ill informed comment. The lie! Re-enactment, faking, then all these simple acts do is accelerate the vacuous, toothless plaything documentary is becoming. Some might say has become. I do say! Even some of our grand prize winners are little more than entertainment documentaries that on their way to collecting awards and further commissions trash important subjects. Made by Independent companies modelled on the old theatre Rep Companies they churn out mannered reality.


Matinee matters that simply celebrate the ‘coo and ah.’ Celebrity! Within these myriad productions there is rarely any information that refreshes the brain, or strengthens the backbone of a civilised society.


My Irish cockney interrogator continues cleaning the single Guinness glass at the far end of his bar, occasionally glancing at ‘this loser’.


Desperately I give him one last shot.


“David Attenborough has won all those awards. Heard of him?”


“Course I have, David Attenborough”. He stops wiping the glass and recites the name in approval, “David bloody A. Have a drink, on the house”.


“Thank you” I say. “Cheers”


“Yes, good luck to you and maybe one day you’ll make a film as good as his, ‘A Bridge to Far’ or that ‘10 Rillington Place’. He’s a Lord ain’t he? You a Lord?”


“No, but like the Lords, documentaries and their makers are an endangered species.” I down my drink in despair.


Documentary filmmakers are, as anyone who has tried to live with them will know and I’m groping for kindly words but fear the truth will emerge are “a pain in the bum.” Even so every worthwhile society should have some, but my worry is that as a few of us fall out of the trees there are too few equipped to climb the branches and take over our perches.


‘Reality!’ Never has the word been so cynically used! Reality TV, both in its guiltless greed and Philistine format has left us with a fifteen year glut of unquestioning, undemanding, mostly unable filmmakers; products of the ‘format’. Today, all the young wannabe has to do is turn the screw and not upset the selected mark, money for old rope! And the ‘format’ looks after everything else. Firstly, its cynical criteria has found the needed character, a perfect fit stereotype that will do as told, then ‘format’ arranges the action and answers. Finally, in the cutting room ‘format’ makes the same programme week in week out. Like athletes who let up on the training the filmmaker relies more and more on the ‘format’. Now they blame others for the position in which they find themselves; automatons. But they took the shilling and obeyed orders and history has proved that to be no defence.


Having debased the language of production they are now, I like to believe, being declared bankrupt by a diminishing audience. Viewers that more and more are declaring themselves dissatisfied, dirtied, by their watching graceless subjects with an LCD intellect enduring production bullying and traducing traps, all for their five minutes of fame and small fortune.


And now, again, yet again, (is it something to do with get out costs?) we prepare for or are being prepared for the imminent arrival of the Emperor Big Brother and his gladiators armed with broad cut swords made of papier mache words. Real people yes incarcerated in an unreal situation, where, ill armed with only soppy words they are manipulated by the production team in some spurious, pseudo-scientific attempt to find out how they will behave and cope with unlikely challenges. Light entertainment, relying to a large extent on the fact that these very carefully and again, cynically chosen participants, will make fools of themselves; people about whom we have no everyday information, no background, so have no way of judging their actions. Are they behaving inside or outside the norm of their upbringing, do they come from anything like our own background? Or are they just ‘rent a mob’ there in order we might laugh at them? Bedlam invented that format. Documentary it is not! I may have invented ‘documentary soap’, recognised might be a better word, but I have nothing to do with this fabricated reality, where goaded by systems of torture, humiliation, sneers and inanity, Channel Fours off shoot (just how much is a get out clause?) will, in the words of an ex big wig who called it ‘an important social experiment’ will attempt yet again to inform us of this countries contemporary social condition. And despite all the justification, jargon and pseudo-science, will still fail to do so.


Until the programmes architecture is radically altered, Big Brother will again fail us, and its reality house inmates. A series, a much imposed on us series, pushed to the point that one wonders who is trying to prove what to who, is hoovering up a pile of cash each season that might better be used nurturing new ideas and wannabes keen to tell meaningful stories that both entertain and explain contemporary lives in a much needed modern form.


More and more often I hear the words, “I’m sorry I didn’t see your film. I don’t watch television these days. There’s nothing worth watching.” And the commissioners know that. So Big Brother gets the big push. The watch, please watch push, the gimmick push, the final push, a push about as well informed and futile as a push on the Somme. Meanwhile out among the Independents a renewed energy, usually fear induced, the workhouse beckons, goes in for formats which get ever more unbelievable, ever more fast and shallow, appearing like Y-front smears on our screen. 


Those who recently viewed with pleasure Marilyn Gaunt’s biographical film about her class mates lives since leaving school will confirm that ‘slow telly’ and its absorbing attention to storytelling detail beats any day the zip and zap of mindless formats. The film was about us its audience. We were able to have a conversation with those in the film encountering similar social issues. We did not laugh at but empathised with. Like the old men of India who sit under the Banyan trees recounting their tales of love and worth and daring do we sat transfixed happily paying the small fee. All that is needed of those who run Television is that they recognise and understand stories that matter and commission ‘slow telly’. And that means getting out and hanging about in the real world, not inviting people to visit them safe in ‘piglet ground’. Got to pay the staff, pay the rent, the same trouble the BBC had before redundancy. Big is not best!


Who should one blame? Is there anyone, any thing to blame other than ourselves? Yes! I blame the politicians who encourage the diminution of Broadcasters’ bravery who, for spurious reason, fearfully fail to fight back. Then there’s the proliferation of greedy, production fee earning Independents, doling out the format stuff because it’s quick, easy and cheap, with lots of turnover. Corporate thinking, middle management and Julian Jobsworth or as A.A.Gill would have him called, Crispin, also have a hand somewhere in the conspiracy but then of course ‘stupid boy’ there is no conspiracy only ‘Bread and Circus’ hence the gladiators and their pretend swords. 


Certainly there is no such thing as a free idea or cheap talent and bravery rarely shows above the parapet. Nurture is needed. Difficult things need to be said, should be said, in words and visuals that inform our social ambitions. And they should be encouraged. Programmes should be enthralling, sometimes radical, always relevant and never ceasing to entertain with out diminishing; easy words, but much more difficult as deeds. But possible if the ‘talent that is out there’ could get the slots, the cash and Commissioners’ nurture. Media schools are on the whole patently failing. But if the Broadcasters could arrange the nurture then they could bring on those who want to be a proud and useful part of the once revered Fourth Estate.


But ladies and gentlemen, I am hardly the person to storm the gates and those rich keepers of ‘Reality TV’. After all as the posh red tops will tell you, wrongly, I fathered the stuff. Why would I want to be a father to such bastards? Others say I am manipulative, anti-Establishment, a faker unfortunately bringing very un-entertaining, unpleasant subjects, people and attitudes, onto the nation’s telly, that I represent no one, nothing but my own malevolence toward the world in which I live. Malignant I am! So I’ve read or been told. I’m a dissident! Not a follower of fashion. It’s a wonder I shave in the morning. There are occasions when I feel like the dog all other dogs growl at when out with their masters on neighbourhood watch. What is it about that poor beset upon dog that provokes such noise and venom? Anyone who knows my work will expect me to feel something for the under-dog and I do. I pity its plight. The bullying ignorance invokes my anger as does the smugness of those who own the tormentors.


To the charge of being manipulative I would have to agree. But! Manipulative for those of them who use it of me, is pejorative. For me manipulation is simply another way to say editing. Using an important element, time, present tense actions and comment, I construct a sequence of shots, small revelations, many out of order to their shooting and the chemistry of their union will, I hope, reveal an inner reality, an inner truth. I call it editing to enhance understanding, not misunderstanding, not faking. There are many examples of this way of editing in my film concerned to better understand the nature of alcoholism - Rain in my Heart.


People tell me that my portraits have contradicted their previous expectation of subjects they believed to be stereotypes - The Block (1971), The Family (1974), my first working class portraits of people many presumed to be ‘thick’; Nobody Asked Us (1980), a film of ‘selfish’ steel strikers in Corby trying to destroy the nation, and Convictions (1986) where I posed the question to three criminal brothers as to who was responsible for their anti-social crimes, themselves, their family or us?


As for the charge that I am anti-Establishment I would answer no; only questioning. All that my films ask of their audience is that the pictures and words on offer are allowed attention and time to reveal an alternative way of viewing the Establishment position. And that alternative way comes from filming people and places directly involved in the consequence of State action. The films are documentaries not dramas and when finished should be an honest basis for discussion, even for changing one’s mind. Too often programmes offer a simplistic ‘them and us’ situation, there are many more ways to view a complex three dimensional idea.


If that is to be subversive then I plead guilty. I want to reveal, explain, so that when those wannabe Parliamentary suits come knocking to kiss our babies and seek our vote they are met by a ‘complex voter’. I hope my films make the buggers sweat, it’ll probably be the only time they are confronted by real people in a Parliament’s lifetime.


I make documentary films to enable those taking part, the experts enduring the problem, to inform an audience about issues that matter today; poverty, inequality, greed, education, love, marriage, births, illness and death. As the News of the World used to say, all human life is there! I have been privileged not only to create the subjects of my films, but to have, when needed, the time to make them in the present tense, an organic story, for today’s audience.


Almost as important for me is that I am making films as Markers for History, certainly Roger Graef has been  aware, Films of Record, but it does seem to be an important aspect of documentary overlooked by today’s commissioners. Long after television has perished my dream is that someone will find, under the floorboards of a vast estate of middle management homes built somewhere in West London, will find tunnels giving up their rejected treasures. Abandoned documentaries unsaved because they failed to change the world, told too little too late, or just never achieved an audience of millions. Some of them I hope will be mine. One of them especially, ‘In Solidarity’, is a four hour account, all in Polish, of a group of men sitting in my Warsaw rented house, drinking bottles of BBC bought Scotch, planning how they will govern the new non Communist Poland. And they succeeded! However, in the UK the films were not such a success, half a million viewers per episode on Saturday and Sundays, figures that looked terrible in the late eighties, but not to Alan Yentob who smiled indulgently while ruefully scratching his stubble.


I wonder whether today we’d ever get that commission, never mind the prime time slot. But when our EC partner Poland gets its turn to run Europe, the films which reveal who did what to whom and the new rulers true feelings about life on Mars, Western hypocrisy and Lech Walensa will become an important Marker for History.


As a child my own beginning was as something of a tearaway, but a grammar school in the North of England turned me round and sent me off to the Manchester School of Art. It was to be a painters’ life for me! Political adventures on the Mexican border and dodgy street life in New York eventually sent me back to the Royal College of Art, where Iris Murdoch was my tutor. She failed my degree thesis on the violence of Tom and Jerry cartoons, something she had warned she would carry out should I proceed with the epic, on the grounds that she “found them intellectually adorable little creatures”. It was not how decanted mental hospital patients looking for sixpenny worth of all day warmth in the railway cinemas responded. Screams and bellows and reciprocal violence followed every hammer blow and scissor stabbing by the “intellectually adorable little creatures”. Both David Hockney and I got first class honours despite my bloody mindedness and his refusing to write the thing, “I came here to learn to draw not spell words”, It’s no wonder then that my conversation is spattered with references to art.


“You need to be in control of your craft”.


“Documentary making is like portrait painting”.


“Film making is the opera of art”.


And I’m not Annigoni painting the Queen, nor Richard Cawston filming the Queen. I’m more like Graham Sutherland painting Churchill, a nasty, venal, bad-tempered bugger of an old man who he caught brilliantly. Churchill’s wife took the painting, paid for it and then burned it. It’s a back handed compliment to Sutherland. It’s the same making documentaries,  you must expect to lose friends. You are making a portrait of a subject which may not be the way people want to see themselves in the mirror when they shave. But in truth it has to be done that way.


Forty two years ago I gave up painting pictures, ‘art’, to make documentaries, seen by many in television as, ‘not art’. I wanted to make films in order that a BBC audience better understood itself. Today, sadly, I’m beginning to feel that was probably a waste of time. Television now, is back to where I started. The individual filmmaker’s voice is not much in demand.


The unique view has been incarcerated in a fake reality.


An arena of spectacle that mindlessly sells needless objects of desire and celebrity, fake lives in which people seem only to do and say what is expected of them, often predetermined for them. On command they respond with the risible, the ridiculous, until the greater depths of LCD are plumbed by the ‘show’s ringmasters’ and while the real world is ignored, we all drown in a pool of worthlessness. As the companies make their millions there are a few who shout from the sidelines, but as I say their voice is not much in demand. Unlike the gauche heroine in my recent Radio Four play; How Now TV, when I joined television I wasn’t foolish enough to think I could change the world. I just wanted to change the message and its method of delivery. In the 1960’s documentaries were rather grand, balanced essays, mostly by men, usually from an Oxbridge tradition. Words were the ordered style from start to finish and their subjects spoke in meticulous balance against a bland miscellany of wallpaper. The institutions they claimed to be revealing were presented in reverential tones. Majesty was edited into perfection. The filmmakers knew their place, as did the workers. There was only one song on the hymn sheet and all sang in seeming harmony. A subversive alternative view was not wanted in documentary. Loyal words were wanted, they were easily understood; pictures much less so because they could be dangerous. Into that world, aged twenty four I lumbered, seeking work and to make my mark.


(c) Paul Watson 2008                                                                                                    {Ref 1006}

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