The Grierson British Documentary Awards were handed out last week, the winners ranging from Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares to BBC4's Asylum. I am sure it was a lovely night but its chairman, Jenny Barraclough, had done her maths. The analogue channels have screened 1,222 reality documentaries this year. "Yet, overall," she wrote in Broadcast, "companies making the high-minded docs are getting fewer commissions". The problem, she wrote, was that serious docs are short on the feel-good factor.
Rain in My Heart was Paul Watson's good deed in this naughty world. It followed the treatment of four alcoholics in one NHS hospital in Kent (the only one that would let him in). One of the patients, a caption told us at the end, was now "in recovery". Another was "drinking less" but needed a Zimmer frame with which to walk; she's 43. One died early in the filming, the fourth on camera. In an age of formatted reality with, as Barraclough put it, "guaranteed dynamics and resolutions", these are not the denouements you could promise or manipulate. Rain in My Heart followed the arrhythmia of life - which, after all, is what documentary, as opposed to, say, art, is supposed to do.
Watson, the director of the original fly-on-the-wall doc, The Family in 1974, was defensive about what had happened to the genus he spawned. Lest we mistake Rain in My Heart for a reality soap, he so jumbled the editing that a funeral preceded the death it marked. As he went about his business, on one shoulder sat his video camera, on the other his conscience, chirping like Jiminy Cricket. As Nigel Wratten, an alcoholic who had been dry for ten years but whose liver disease had marched on, lay dying, Jiminy piped up: "What right do I have to film Kath's grief? Why am I asking you to watch Nigel die?" Nigel's wife Kath had, Watson replied to himself, wanted viewers to see the consequences of alcoholism. Repeatedly, he intercut the story with footage of his subjects pleading that no one understood them. The film asserted: "We're trying."
Ruthlessly honest, Watson showed us the innards of a less successful relationship he had with Vanda Easdown, an intelligent, occasionally beautiful, woman who at one point had her drinking down to three bottles of wine a day and solemnly swore never to drink again when she left hospital. Watson visited her flat only to find she had just popped out to the shops for a bottle of vodka. He agonised as she drank it, but nevertheless took the opportunity to get her to open up about the "monsters" in her head - her childhood rape by her father and the death of her brother. (She had begun drinking again, Watson noted, on the anniversary of this bereavement.) "Are you sorry you told me?" he asked. "I am a little bit pickled," she replied. "And I took advantage of you?" "Obviously." At the end of the film, Vanda refused his hand of friendship.
For anyone who has followed Watson's career, whether with admiration or fear, his self-flagellating scrupulousness here was fascinating. As much as any young reality documentary maker, he has been accused of exploitation and manipulation. In Australia, arguments still gust over the editing of his Sylvania Waters docu-soap in 1992. The prospective Tory MPs stitched up so beautifully in The Fishing Party in 1984 remain convinced he ruined their lives. Watson has recently been ill, having had a stroke during filming a previous programme. It is as if he wanted in this one not merely to redeem "his" genre but to clear his name before the film-maker met his Maker.
Nobody who watched Rain in My Heart could doubt the value of "reality" television. It showed that alcoholism was an illness, a psychological one in its early stages, a physical one later on. It demonstrated that medical intervention was not, for most people, a cure. Alcoholism, it argued, was a symptom as well as a disease since, in at least three cases, its victims were clearly mentally ill. And it made a powerful case that doctors need more back-up from the social and psychiatric services. If Watson is right and reality TV has led television to be seen by society as an enemy rather than a messenger, Rain in My Heart will have helped make access to hospitals such as the Medway Maritime a little easier for the next Paul Watson. I only hope, as he must, that he or she is not working for Endemol.
Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times
Pick of the week
Cathy Come Home
26 November, 11pm, BBC4
Back from when TV thought it could change things, Ken Loach's 1966 drama heralds BBC No Home week.
Tsunami: the aftermath
28 November, 9pm, BBC2
Tsunami: the TV movie.
638 Ways to Kill Castro
28 November, 10pm, Channel 4
A not so short history of exploding cigars, toxic milk shakes and femmes fatales . . .