Articles Modest Proposals Television UK

Documenting Reality

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)

Articles Life Modest Proposals

Advent adventures

Thursday, December 04, 1997

When I was very young my sister and I would both have advent calendars on the mantelpiece. The idea of sharing one was unthinkable, and so every December morning between the toast and Marmite, the tea and the Today programme on Radio 4, we’d dash into the living room and each open another window.

Some years we’d re-use them from the previous year, and so when we opened the doors, we’d have to be careful not to tear them off, as other more reckless friends did. That way, we could push them all flat again for next year.

Why was it so good to open the doors? Not because of the pictures behind, that’s for sure, as I hardly glanced at the Christmas tree, or snowscape, or Santa Claus. Re-using the calendars made no odds, because the enjoyment wasn’t in the richness of the images in the first place.

Part of the attraction was the ritual of the whole affair – this was the authorised countdown to the big day. Opening the first few doors, you felt the expanse of the weeks stretch out in front of you, but slowly the days passed.

But part of the appeal was also in the self-discipline. I spent hours in the build-up to Christmas searching for my presents, managing to find a 3’ snooker table between the mattress and base of a bed, and a bicycle in a box in my neighbour’s attic. I was indignant when Mum took the presents to work with her and left them there until Christmas Eve. 

Even when they were wrapped up, I’d still gingerly peel off Sellotape and peek inside. People started labeling my presents as if they were for someone else, but I still smelt them out. So when it came to presents, I felt like everything I did was fair game.

With advent calendars, however, I was much more self-controlled. It would have been so easy to open a few doors ahead (especially when they were being reused, and the flush machined fit of the door on the card had been loosened already), but I never did. I think the reason for this is that I didn’t have anything to gain from cheating. Because the picture didn’t matter, the only enjoyment was in resisting the temptation to spoil the fun. The suspense had to be self-imposed.

So the Internet advent calendars that don’t let you open the doors for future days might be technologically advanced, but they miss the point. Those that allow you to cheat (and then hope that you don’t) more accurately reflect the feel of the originals.

Most people seem to have grown out of advent calendars long before I did (but then again, I was still desperately searching for my presents when I was at college). Even though the holiday season itself might have lost something of its sparkle, the beginning of December (especially when the weather is as crisply glorious as it’s been in Dublin for the last 2 days) always makes me think of picking open little paper doors. 

(first published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, 4th December 1997)

Posted by David in • Modest ProposalsLife