The Film Interview: Chris Atkins

The documentary-maker on his "urban fox hunting" hoax - and why he frightens TV executives.

Chris Atkins is a British documentary-maker. His films include Starsuckers (2009), an attack on celebrity culture which involved Atkins and his researchers selling fake stories to Britain's tabloid press, and Taking Liberties (2007), a polemic against the New Labour government's record on civil liberties.

You hit the headlines recently with a video spoof that purported to show a new craze for "urban fox hunting". How did that come about?

In my teens I was quite active in animal rights. I have always felt that fox-hunting is the most ridiculous thing that British society has ever created, really, and after the fox attack on the twins in Hackney, the misreporting of that went off the scale. My film-making hackles get raised whenever I see misreporting - I saw misreporting about terrorism and civil liberties, so I made Taking Liberties; I saw misreporting around celebrity, so I made Starsuckers. It kind of just grabs me really.

In what way was the fox attack misreported?

Well, I suppose the fact that it was reported so much, the fact that it was reported over and over and over again. The media clearly wanted to continue the fox narrative and in my mind that was all part and parcel of the fact that the the coalition government said they were going to have a free vote on fox hunting. All of this sort of demonised foxes to the extent that MPs would be able to turn around and say "Oh we're going to vote against the ban because the public's behind us." What they'd mean is the Daily Mail, they don't really speak to the public.

Were you surprised by the extent of the reaction to the video, which provoked criticism from the RSPCA?

I was, to be honest with you. We didn't think it would be taken seriously. With some of these things, often they sit online for three or four weeks before people notice them; this was noticed within two hours, then within 12 hours YouTube had taken it down and within 48 hours it was in the Mirror.

I wouldn't say it backfired, but I would say it was far more successful than we intended it to be. We intended for it to be taken seriously and for people to get whipped up into a lather about it. A news reporter from BBC London was even dispatched to Victoria Park to a "crime scene" and did this whole piece to camera. It looked like something straight out of Brass Eye and I have never laughed so much in my entire life as when I saw that report, so you know, Mission Accomplished.

Did we mean to upset quite so many well-meaning animal lovers? No we didn't and we saw the level of anger from the public, which I thought in a way was quite comforting. The point of the film was to show people what really happens when you kill foxes.

You seem to have an ongoing concern with news values and the way the mass media operates. Does that make your films political?

I think it's more sort of social, it's more about people. Taking Liberties was about the rights of individuals and I suppose Starsuckers in a way was the right to not be bombarded by a media saturated with celebrity. Either the government or media corporations or whoever are out there trying to do us harm, and my films tend to expose that.

[My films are] about boring things like good and bad and the fact that there are people out there, people in power who do not have your best intentions at heart. What I find interesting is that television has singularly failed to make these films. Television in Britain has stopped making documentaries, they are terrified of making anything that has a point and a value. They will make twenty series of Wife Swap, but they wouldn't dare fund something like this.

Is that why you make films for cinema rather than TV? Because it's the only space you have to make them?

I like the movie, I love the format, although it's a pain in the arse in so many ways - you've got to persuade people to part with ten quid on a Saturday night to go and see it at the local Odeon, which is frankly an impossible task. But you're exactly right, it's the only medium left for somebody like me because television refuses to make anything like this, they're terrified of it.

They're terrified on two levels. One is they don't know what they're going to get. If they make Wife Swap - and I've been told this by senior commissioning editors - they can say at the end of the second quarter before the ad break "this chap is going to shout at this chap and then they'll fight," and they can guarantee that and they know people will come back after the break. I can't give them that - I can give them something better, possibly, but I can't guarantee that before I make the television programme.

Secondly, I grew up watching things like World in Action and really good Panoramas, great investigative journalism. That position is now dead, basically, because they're so terrified of upsetting people in power. They'll have a go at little people, they'll have a secret camera that catches traffic wardens and they'll go for people who say they'll fix your car and don't, they'll do that, but do they go after people in power? Absolutely not.

How encouraged are you by new media as a way of circumventing that?

The internet provides us with a medium to go from the producer to the viewer instantaneously and cut out Channel 4, cut out the BBC. We've just got to work out how to make it pay, and that will come, but the structure of us going directly to the public and cutting out the broadcasters I think is a wonderful thing.

In the meantime, you need to keep on convincing people to part with their ten quid on a Saturday night. How do you make your subjects work as films?

Well I suppose you need two things and I think we just about get away with this: you need a very strong argument, you need an argument that develops, but a very clear one, so you can say to people, "I am here to convince you and here is a series of points." It's like an essay really: Point 1 - freedom of speech; point 2 - habeas corpus; point 3 - ID cards; point 4 - torture; conclusion - we've lost our civil liberties. Secondly, you've got to have narrative, you've got to have human stories that the public can relate to and say "that's like me".

Certainly for my kind of films you need both of those. Something like Touching the Void just has narrative - and bloody brilliant narrative it is too - or Man on Wire. Those are solely narrative stories, but I think if you're going to invite that kind of emotional engagement let's do something with it rather than just pat each other on the back and go "What a great story".

Humour seems to be an important part of that emotional engagement as well.

Of course, you've got to make people laugh. If you've got an argument movie, nobody wants to go and sit in the cinema and be bashed over the head for 90 minutes. I certainly don't, I can't stand those sorts of films. So, if you make someone laugh, you release a lot of tension and kind of clear their head a bit and they go "OK, you've just bought me five more minutes of polemic."

You've got to keep topping them up on laughs, but the laughs have got to take them somewhere. There are so many moments that you have on films where it's absolutely hysterical but they don't take you anywhere, just people falling over or someone saying something witty, but it's not proving a point. But if you can get Tony Blair saying you can start giving Asbos to children before they're born, everybody laughs but they're also saying "Oh my God, this guy's a lunatic." You do something with the giggle.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times