Saturday, July 30, 2011

I've had it with the "pudding first" school of TV documentary

Started The First World War From Above on the iPlayer. After five minutes I turned it off. It seemed to have all the things that drive me mad about today's factual programmes:

* A script machine assembled from a Scrabble set of clichés: "bird's eye view", "like a lunar landscape", "today's state of the art technology", "those brave pilots", "from the intimate to the truly epic" and so on;
* More shots of the noble presenter, Fergal Keane, looking at the things which are supposed to be interesting than of the things themselves;
* Swelling music to reassure us that the programme will be emotional as well as informative;
* The insistence that the programme will "uncover one of World War One's secrets"' - a "secret" being anything that's not been in this time-slot before
* A three-minute opening section desperate to shoehorn in a taster of everything that's coming up in the next hour, up to and including "the extraordinary encounter at the end of my journey when I meet the daughter of the airship pilot of ninety years ago" and the obligatory shot of somebody crying when they see some film of their father.

There's nothing wrong with making factual programmes entertaining but techniques like these seem to be rooted in a growing belief that we won't eat our greens unless we're first assured that there will be pudding. After a while we lose our appetite.


  1. Well nailed, Sir. I'd add to this the instance of certain presenters to be constantly in the shot (Alan Yentob step forward).It's not enough to have a documentary about Monet. We have to have several shots of Botney looking at the Monet paintings, as though somehow the fact that we are gazing upon him gazing upon the painting will reveal some innate truth that we would otherwise not be able to discern on our own.

    Oh, and whenever I hear the phrase "and now with the aid of state of the art computer graphics we can reveal how it would have looked" I reach for the remote. Roughly translated it means "Tarquin our 12 year old producer doesn't think the proles will be able to use their stilted, withered imaginations so we better join the dots and get the computer crayons out for them."


  2. Must admit I did watch it to the end but am annoyed in similar way by art and history docu. The hyperbole is always annoying they're like those "colon" popular history books always over claiming. It's always the "world's first terrorist war" "the Tudor 911" etc.
    For instance I have enjoyed the series on uk painting "British Master " and have learnt one or two things. But the presenter insisted on over claiming all the time, rounding up one show trying to claim that some relatively obscure artists "gave the UK it's reason for fighting WWII" or some similar guff.

  3. And have you noticed that,instead of showing you an archive document or picture, every BBC Four presenter shows you it on an iPad, rather than show you the item itself?

  4. Couldn't agree more - tired of being treated like an idiot by these docs. But I suppose, if this doesn't sound too toffee-nosed, the producers have decided their target audience is people who don't know anything about the subject at hand, or anything much at all.

    Town is another one. Almost drowned out by portentous music, the presenter solemnly intones, 'As a geographer, I believe that towns are the communities of the future.' Thanks, prof...

  5. Claire: yes I've noticed the out break "ooh look we've got an I-paditis" lately I'm sure it'll pass although on "british masters" we had reoccurence of slide photos projected onto a railway arch so who knows.

  6. Precisely why in my dotage I've taken to shouting at the TV when docs are on in the same way I used to admonish rubbish ITV drama.

    Another excruciating doc standard these days is the pre-adbreak summary. they tell you what you have just seen and tell what's coming up, which is what they told you at the beginning of the programme. Then, after the break, they tell you the same thing again.

    Documentary makers - I really can follow what you are telling me. I understand. I don't need to be told umpteen times.

    Or is it because your programme isn't quite as interesting as you have made out so you have to fill.

    This is especially bad when you watch a programme on BBC that has been made with an eye to sell on to a commercial channel. Several summaries but no ads.

  7. that's a pretty... inclusive criterion for clichés you have there.

  8. I agree with everything everyone has said.

    It's all founded on the patronising, inaccurate belief that everyone (yes, that's everyone) has a miniscule attention span and is a bit stupid.

    Well I don't and I'm not.

  9. As above, everyone is spot on with this. The patronising summaries before and after ad-breaks are particularly annoying, as are the need to have "mission statements" all the time to justify the exercise (as if people can't just be interested in things).

    Anyway, the point is that I caught a documentary on Finnish nuclear waste (no, really) a couple of months ago that was so astonishingly brilliant and used none of these techniques in making a simple and fascinating film. It was like going back 20 years. This links to the More4 page where it isn't available, but beg, buy or (ahem) "find" a copy if you can...

  10. Most - possibly even all - BBC documentaries these days are coproductions, usually with US cable channels. Their money, their rules.

    Nobody says "Ooh, there's a potentially gripping chronicle of the search for Attila the Hun's spear on Horizon tonight at 8:20." What people do is surf the half dozen or so documentary channels available on their TV platform until they hit on something that catches their eye and ear. And it's only going to do that if you can quickly figure out what's going on and decide whether the programme is going to be worth your time. So every ten minutes you get a recap of what's gone before and a juicy promise of the absolutely incredible utter amazingness to come.

    I hate it too, but I suppose it's not surprising that a completely new way of watching television should have given rise to a completely new way of making documentaries.

  11. Reading a book about Ypres at the moment by a participant (Backs to the Wall by GD Mitchell) and I think it would be almost impossible to depict the utter squalor and bestiality of the place and events in any TV programme. Some of the things he describes simply would not be allowed to be portrayed in a TV broadcast in any kind of direct or realistic way. They would be deemed 'inappropriate' by the compliance team.

  12. I wholeheartedly agree with all of the previous points. Though I do think there is a place in the market for documentaries that come with a certain amount of packaging, as long as it doesn't patronise. I recently watched Marcus Du Sautoy's extremely interesting 'The Code', which was basically a documentary about mathematics. Obviously realising that if presented as such only a small audience would take any notice, the numbers were presented as part of a mysterious code (no doubt trying to tap into Dan Brown-induced conspiracists). Yes, there was over-dramacised lighting and presentation. But I thought the fact that they were trying to present what could've been a very dry subject in an way that may engage a different audience was smart, and should be commended.

  13. My pet peeve (cliche!) is when the voiceover not only tells you what you have just seen, but often uses the exact same words as the subject.

    "I can't believe my father had a brother!" ("Janet finds it hard to believe that her father had a secret brother")

  14. Alan: he pre-adbreak summary. they tell you what you have just seen and tell what's coming up, which is what they told you at the beginning of the programme. Then, after the break, they tell you the same thing again.

    Oh God they do that in the UK too now? It's standard procedure here in the States with docs and reality shows and with so, so very many commercial breaks it leaves little actual show to watch. They're about 75% them telling you what you've just seen and what you're about to see.

  15. Anything involving Fergal Keane will always be gag-making greens for me. He is a living, walking emetic (I suppose I should qualify that rather extreme statement by adding, 'in my experience').

  16. It's just as bad on Radio 4. Whenever there's a report from an external site, the first thing to be heard, before the presenter speaks, is an inappropriate, timewasting sound-effect. It has to be a brilliant documentary to get me to keep listening.