I’m just coming up for air after a bout of intensive lecturing. I teach a few different classes for American university students in London, but my favourite, semester after semester, is my documentaries class. It is here, in a deliberately darkened classroom near Holborn, that I share the highlights of twenty years immersed in the world of British documentary. We cover the whole factual spectrum, from independent feature documentaries to heavily formatted reality, and everything in between.
Usually, my students arrive having been exposed to roughly two kinds of factual fare: worthy subject based documentaries, like Ken Burns’ marathon series that their parents watch, or the far-from-real world of the Real Housewives or Kardashians. If I’m lucky these days, and frequently I am thanks to Netflix, they will have streamed a few American documentary features like Blackfish or Girl Model. They know Sherlock, and Doctor Who but have never heard of Louis Theroux or the term “fixed rig“. They are a blank slate when it comes to British factual, and I have fifteen weeks to make my mark.
I have to begin by introducing them to something else they have never heard of: Public Service Broadcasting. For while the BBC is in a perilous state at the moment, with no reprieve in sight, the PSB tradition it stems from is crucial to understanding just how the Brits got so great at making documentaries. I wrote my entire MA thesis on the topic. It’s important.
In class, after we look at the notion of public service broadcasting, and how it was extended with the creation of Channel 4 in the 80s (also, sadly, under threat), we turn to John Grierson, who coined the term documentary, defining it as the “creative of treatment of actuality”. We have a look at Grierson’s most famous sequence in his seminal film Night Mail, which shows the postal train rhythmically chugging north to Scotland, to words by W.H. Auden and music by Benjamin Britten:
We learn just how Grierson came to make propaganda films for the British government, by dipping into Britain Through A Lens: The Documentary Film Mob, made by the excellent Lambent Productions. It includes a clip from Grierson’s box office hit Drifters (1929), about the British herring trade. While I recognize I need to tread softly and not show Drifters in its entire, silent, black and white glory, my students were gratifyingly engrossed when I showed a modern take on deep sea fishing, Channel 4’s recent The Catch, a fixed rig series which was mesmerizing from start to finish.
After our crash course in PSB and Grierson, we look more in depth at contemporary examples of Grierson’s creative treatment of actuality, in its many guises. We explore the topic with the help of a specially curated Flipboard Magazine; I often ask students to use articles in it as a starting point for further research. We also hear from a number of leading filmmakers – Kim Longinotto, Brian Hill and Christopher Hird have all been recent guest lecturers.
As students gear up to make their own three minute film for a final project, it’s critical for them to see how a simple construct can make a powerful film. Marc Isaac’s beautifully made first film Lift – shot entirely in the elevator of a tower block in East London – is a great example.
While it would be a joy to spend our entire time looking at the work of talented British independent documentary makers, my charges are about to enter the real world and many are hoping for a career in television. So a large chunk of our time is spent looking at the world of formats, with the occasional help of the always entertaining Gogglebox and Charlie Brooker. My students are surprised to learn just how many of the American shows they watch are British formats made by British production companies. But our focus is not so much on this crossover as on those reality formats in the UK that traditionally haven’t had a hope in hell of appearing on mainstream US television. In the hopes of fostering transatlantic fertilisation, I spend a lot of time exploring the intersection of public service and reality, looking at how some UK production companies are doing both, in really interesting ways. For more on that, stay tuned…