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4 December 2006updated 27 Sep 2015 2:59am

The slow death of inquiry

Real television has been usurped by reality television, serving a diet of the smug and the false. It

By Paul Watson

Last week, in these pages, Andrew Billen wrote a kind review of my BBC2 film Rain in My Heart. It struck me how lucky I’d been, in these “reality” times, to get away with what some will call an old-fashioned subject. Who really wants to know about selfish, self-destructing drunks? And we all know the film-maker will be a left-leaning, moralising, bleeding heart – and no one needs a preacher before Christmas.

It may be that the word “real”, inherent in the film’s concern with alcoholism, was close enough to the telly buzz-word “reality” that it slipped easily on to the fashionable “reality bandwagon”: a crude construction that trundles ever forward, crushing anything “real” that pokes out through the scum of docusoaps and trivia.

Last year, when I set out to make Rain in My Heart, an inquiry into drunks and the gremlins that drive them to drink, I knocked on many hospital doors. The barely considered responses were all “No”. “Why?” I bleated. “Because reality TV is not interested in seeking explanations,” they would intone. “I don’t make reality TV,” I’d answer. And some would reply, “You started it.” Exposed by fame and the Daily Mail! “I don’t want my hospital represented in a way that makes me and my board feel dirty.” “Are you the chief executive?” “No, but I am paid to advise him.” “Can I write to the CEO?” “Yes, but the letter will come back to me.” And so it went on, hospital after hospital, until I met someone who knew someone. (Insider dealing, surely illegal?) Permission in my hand, I then had access and four – the only four – volunteers.

Four battling alcoholics, to whose whims and ways I would have to adjust, not control. There would be no formula of false relationship; no script; no traducing. I would simply work hard, reducing my impact with people who, against the fashion, trusted me and themselves. The resulting film was a chance to inform an audience better about who their neighbours are in this society.

But this magazine’s TV critic is right to suggest that I may soon have to face further despair, as I watch the formatted reality versions of Rain. Made by ill-equipped, short-contract programme staff, many of them wannabes by default (no nurturing, no training by cost-cutting owners), who fail to understand that it requires insight and trust to make television that questions and informs.

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Supercilious sneers

Regrettably, I see a new raft of films making profit out of every sacred cow in the land.

Out there, in the real world, there are still some people who rightly do not trust our TV versions of their world: telly accounts of life that deal more in ratings and supercilious sneers than insights. In these vainglorious worlds of fabricated reality, only the cliché counts and the unsettling facts give way to the LCD needs of entertainment. Grown producers have knowingly taken leave of their sensibilities – indeed, all sense of real life – in order to create a “reality world” that ideally troubles nobody. Smugly, their audience laughs at, not with, those set up for our amusement. “Formula” is the producers’ way to fame and fortune, and seeing nothing to disprove the fact, these anxious schemers spend their time rummaging the extreme detritus from the emotion-filled dustbins of life; angles on angles, fleas on fleas, all to what end: a better understanding of the human condition, or profit? Foolish question. While all this is taking place in the name of our public channels, much of our television documentary-making is debasing its own hard-won currency of objectivity, forgetting to decode a world desperate for its reality to be understood.

Reality, a word I once thought I owned, has been reduced to a game show, something that will not displease the politicians. Something that will bring a smile to the lip of Mrs T as she and a glass snuggle into the pillows for a dreamless night’s sleep. Reality television is no accident: it’s been a very long passing blip – more than a decade, with more intended.

So, fearing the worst, those that watch us, “that once fabulous fourth estate”, guard their own institutions by pulling up the drawbridge and saying “No” when we ask to inspect the realities they administer in our name. Television has only itself to blame, when the institutions see us spending so much time and money faking reality. The guardians and their doorkeepers no longer trust us to look and question their truth, their estates. Questioning is a job that needs skills, skills that seem eroded by the inanities demanded of those who toil in the entertaining world of reality documentary.

The fourth estate has become a toothless guard dog surviving on a diet of soft, predigested food; fast food, profitable food. Even if we were to convince those that run the box, would anyone listen and believe our portrayals of “real” needs and problems? The commissioner’s pot is depleted, the slots given away. The new suits have splashed the cash on the inconsequential. Very little is left for those brave teams (and there are a number of them) of talented people who want to ask questions about the important issues of life. But the ephemeral needs of fashion are against them. Observation is largely out, scripting is hugely in.

Occasionally a question is asked of Blair’s Britain, but mostly because of Tony Blair himself: cash for peerages, his desperately wanted legacy, Iraq and departure dates. But the real list, the list I want to make my films from – education, health, transport, poverty (the list is too long, too worthy) – is rejected. The trivial has become the fashion. And that fashion, surprisingly, frightens those who might once have opened their doors. Doors that even then took a good deal of opening, but now remain mostly shut. Once no longer compelled to explain, the keepers find a common excuse.

For almost two decades television has too often exposed its shallow roots. Like a beech tree, TV in a good climate is majestic and grows tall, but in bad weather, when the wind blows, the shallow roots fail to hold and, as with the good Dr Kelly and other events, they fall. Documentary has been served in a similar vein. Yes, I am accused of being a hypocrite – “You created the stuff, and now you disown it.” No. Just as any artist, I move on.

While today my 1974 series The Family looks benign, it was of its day, political: not party, but socio. Sylvania Waters, which I decided to make only because of my son’s death – travel and hard work to assuage the grief – was, because of its Australian genesis, concerned with the politics of family. Mistakenly, its copyists saw only party, party, party.

All films that matter are political. The authored view and how such insights are joined into film form are dangerous chemistry. This may be the wrong magazine in which to explain further, but believe me, rarely have I made an apolitical film, and reality, the real stuff, is what sharpens my cutting. Caveat emptor!

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