Spirit voices: how do you make an ethical documentary?

Both Channel 4’s Interview with a Murderer and the BBC’s Koko: the Gorilla Who Talks to People exhibit disquieting storytelling methods.

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The Sunday newspapers were madly excited by the prospect of Interview with a Murderer (Channel 4, 12 June, 9pm) – and, as they predicted, it did make for uneasy viewing, though not necessarily for the reasons they or its producers had in mind. I think we were supposed to feel horrified by the spectacle of Bert Spencer, the man many have long suspected of murdering the Staffordshire paperboy Carl Bridgewater in 1978 – and the former ambulance driver’s performance was indeed repulsive: his ghastly snivelling and phoney bonhomie; his self-aggrandisement and creepy mentions of “silent prayer”; his prissy speech-making and rancid talk of the conversations he had supposedly enjoyed with the victim from the other side. Above all, it was disturbing that this man had seemingly got away with his crime, leaving four other men to be wrongly convicted of it.

But wasn’t there something disquieting about the film’s methods, too? It wasn’t a Rough Justice kind of a programme, an offering of carefully sifted evidence; in terms of ethics, it was more Lynda La Plante than Janet Malcolm. Its impulses were theatrical, from the opening scenes in which Spencer rehearsed a speech to camera in front of a religious painting, to the closing shots of him in the flat Lincolnshire countryside, the backdrop a sky the colour of an old dishcloth. Then there was the pop-eyed, hammy performance of Spencer’s interrogator, the criminologist Professor David Wilson.

His tone – “What would you say to Carl now?” – seemed dubious to me: not unethical exactly, but too full of relish. Asking a narcissist and convicted killer (Spencer served a life sentence for the later murder of a farmer called Hubert Wilkes) what he would say to a dead 13-year-old struck me as obscene in this context. I suppose he was hoping for Spencer to break down, to confess. But given that he didn’t, its inclusion in the film felt both stupid and salacious. Wilson seemed, here, to be channelling not David Jessel or Ludovic Kennedy, but Robbie Coltrane’s character in Cracker. He delivered one bombshell, of course: Spencer’s ex-wife, Janet, spoke for the first time of a green jumper he had first washed, and then lost, in the hours after the murder. But the film, for all that it withheld this information until the final moments, seemed to think the facts were vastly less important than Spencer’s strikingly odd and unpleasant personality. Would a court of law agree?

Koko: the Gorilla Who Talks to People offered itself as a film about the fraught world of animal communication (BBC1, 15 June, 8.30pm). In one corner, we had Penny Patterson, who has been chatting to a gorilla for 44 years. According to her, Koko knows a thousand words of sign language, loves cats and DVDs, and finds male human beings eminently fanciable. In the other corner, we had scientists such as Professor Herbert Terrace, who famously ran the chimpanzee language experiment Project Nim, and believes that Patterson’s claims are nonsense. Koko, he says, is merely responding to prompts.

The science is with Terrace these days, for which reason ape experiments such as the one Patterson has been conducting since she began her PhD at Stanford are a thing of the past. But that’s not really the point. Most of the fascination of the documentary, which somewhat minimised the controversy that has tracked Koko’s life, lay with Patterson. In 1971, she looked blonde and peachy, as if she’d strolled straight out of a Polanski movie. In 2016, she looks like any other Californian pensioner, by which I mean that all the avocados in the world cannot disguise her stoop. What has happened in between? Very little. Koko has got a lot bigger. Having passed on the chance both of a serious career and a human family, life for Patterson has been one long round of feeding, cuddling and occasionally disciplining her, the reward for which has been daily conversations that go something like this:

Patterson: How are you today, Koko?

Koko: Happy, fine; that’s me.

Patterson: Would you like some food?

Koko: Happy, food; that’s me.

Patterson, smiling hard, gave no sign that this might be lonely. She does not regard her zealous love for her charge as either misplaced or unreciprocated. But to me, Koko’s cage seemed an unspeakably bleak place, a prison in which they are both now condemned to live out their days. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 16 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink