Before the age of reality TV

A look back to 1988 suggests that we've lost the art of making documentaries


Mostly, I'm a defender of television. I have certainly never subscribed to the idea, perpetuated first by one's parents, then one's teachers and then, finally, one's favourite newspaper columnists, that television is a force for ill in the world. Big Brother is a force for ill; television is not. Remember that show we used to watch in the school holidays? It was called Why Don't You? and starred a load of hyperactive kids who made go-karts out of a few crisp bags and an unwanted sock. The theme music, sung by said kids, went: "Why don't you just switch off your television set and go do something less boring instead?" Even at the age of six, I knew this was dumb: if I switched off the television set, how would I know how to make the go-kart out of the crisp bags? This is a belief to which I have remained true ever since: "Stay tuned. You never know what you might learn."

Even so, it comes to something when the best documentary of the week was made in 1988. More4 is screening a retrospective of the work of Peter Kosminsky, and it is hard to be anything other than grateful. Stack up his TV work, and it becomes obvious that he is the best film-maker of his generation: a mile better than his adored (though not by me) contemporary Stephen Poliakoff. Thus, we got a chance once again to see Afghantsi (17 June, 10pm), the documentary about Russian conscripts in Afghanistan that Kosminsky made for Yorkshire Television's First Tuesday.

The past week has been a particularly bad one for documentaries. BBC2 began screening an abomination called Tribal Wives; in the first show (18 June), a glum local government worker spent a week with a remote tribe to try to get her privileged western lifestyle, like, totally in perspective. But then I guess that, beside Afghantsi, anything would have looked pretty flimsy.

As the number of British deaths in Afghanistan passed 100, not only was the film gloomily relevant; it was a bleak reminder of how much we miss the art of silence. Kosminsky let his subjects speak, even if this meant many human pauses. In the age of reality TV, most film-makers - or their goonish presenters - feel obliged to dance for the camera like a bear on the side of a dry Turkish road.

I don't suppose anyone needs me to point out all the echoes of our present war. When the baby-faced conscripts said things like, "The enemy weren't quite such a pushover as we expected," we might as well have been listening to some poor boy from Aldershot as one from Andreapol. When a voice-over reminded us that, after ten years of fighting in Afghanistan, the mighty Soviet army pulled out of the country, having lost some 13,000 men, I wondered again at the hubris of the likes of Des Browne, always talking of "progress", when all that that means, very often, is a few hundred yards of stony land.

Of course, there are differences. These men, unlike Nato troops, were conscripts, badly cared for by their leaders. One explained that what they all dreaded was being sent to an "outpost" far from Kabul, where 14 men would serve for 18 months with no leave, two hours on and four hours off around the clock. And Kosminsky, who also interviewed veterans back home, was skilful at reminding us what they would return to, if they survived (grey blocks of flats in grey cities, and no hero's welcome).

But it was the similarities that gnawed at me: the unnatural wisdom of terrified young men; the boredom; the futility. As for Kosminsky's diligence, I can't quite get over it. How long must it have taken him to arrange such access? And how much danger did he put himself in? He went to one of these feared outposts, a place where a helicopter visited once a week to pick up the dead, only he didn't make a fuss. Not for him the flak-jacket money shot.

This feels so odd: a documentary from 1988 (not so very long ago, after all), and on a subject we know well, yet it came to us as from another age. It's possible that I'm wrong about this, but I am pretty sure that this feeling has nothing at all to do with me getting old.

Pick of the week

Top Gear
22 June, 8pm, BBC2
The Neanderthals in cars are back.

Upstairs Downstairs Love
23 June, 9pm, Channel 4
Story of the Victorian writer Arthur Munby, who fancied his maid.

Snowdon and Margaret: Inside a Royal Marriage
25 June, 9pm, Channel 4
Eye-popping. Spoilt doesn’t even begin to describe them.

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 first appeared in the 23 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Truly, madly, politically