Thursday, December 11, 1997
In the last month, the best tv shows I’ve seen have all been documentaries. And all of a particular type.
Not for me the hard-hitting expose of big business corruption or political shenanigans, nor the tragic and moving story of an ordinary person’s fight against illness or adversity. Nor for me gutsy journalists on the front line in Bosnia, or with refugees in Rwanda.
No, the only type of documentary I’m watching these days is fly on the wall programmes covering (supposedly) normal life.
I’ve seen the plummy stewards at work at race meetings, hyperactive couriers zooming round London in a maelstrom of rage and sexism, good-natured workers at a Liverpool hotel cope with a military marching band in their ballroom, and two Leeds girls out on the pull in Ibiza.
These shows have minimal narration, and very few questions from interviewers, the idea being to immerse you in a new world without any mediation. Of course the programme makers get to ask questions we never hear, and to choose what we see, but the illusion of immediacy is maintained.
The ‘story’ as such doesn’t matter; these programmes are at their best in giving an insight into the slightly warped personalities of even the most apparently normal people. In the series about the Adelphi Hotel, the manager has grown to be a star. When she’s not shouting at an unfortunate staff member or moving furniture she’s being hospitality itself to charmed guests (so long as they’re not trying to sneak a take-away up to their room).
In Sky’s surprisingly good Ibiza Uncovered series, the stars were ordinary people engaging in extraordinary debauchery on holiday. We watched a woman who was a responsible marketing manager 50 weeks of the year discover the best place to meet men in clubs was the gents toilets. Her policy of showing her pierced and chained nether regions to the clamouring hordes certainly paid off, and we saw it all.
The popularity of these shows is easy to understand – we’re all curious, and of course the truth is much more dramatic than any fiction that we could believe in. But why people let themselves be filmed in this way is another question. Graham Taylor, the former England football manager, became even more ridiculed than he was before after a deeply unflattering Channel 4 documentary – ‘Do I not like that?’ we said.
At least he was a public figure in a public role. The current crop of shows are powered by ordinary people letting the cameras into their lives. One series follows couples as they go through marriage guidance counselling. Suddenly you don’t feel like you’re just observing, you’re intruding. Can having a film crew in the room really help any?
British tv is falling over itself to make more and more documentaries of this sort, based on the success of palpable hits like Modern Times and several brilliant Cutting Edge shows. How long before we have a film crew following a film crew around – a parasite on the fly on the wall?
(first published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, 11th December 1997)