If you haven’t yet tuned into it, get thee to the BBC I-Player to watch the first part of veteran director Vanessa Engle’s series Inside Harley Street. I’ve watched every minute, fascinated, and think it’s an exemplary portrait of a unique community – something very tricky to do. What Engle does so successfully is weave a rich tapestry of the human condition, through the many storylines we bear witness to over the three hours. Engle’s approach is very direct: conducting interviews, on site, as people undertake, or administer the myriad of medical, cosmetic and complementary treatments on offer in the Harley Street neighborhood. She also speaks to the community that keeps it humming, from the florists to the cleaners, to the rather fantastically powerful behind the scenes uber-landlord, who treats the neighbourhood like a Monopoly board (and indeed gleefully shows Engle his own custom made board replete with his properties).
Despite the simplicity of its construct, it’s clear that Inside Harley Street must have been a monster to put together. I spoke to Engle on the telephone to ask her just how she got inside the exclusive neighborhood:
Can you explain a little about the research and development process which went into making this series?
It was immense. I had this fantastic assistant producer called Liz Kempton. We started with all the conventional medical doctors, which is what Harley Street is best known for. And she just contacted enormous numbers of them…The levels of complication in putting this particular jigsaw together were beyond anything I’ve ever attempted, and I’ve done some pretty complicated ones. It’s not unusual for me to do a series where I have between 80 and 100 contributors. But for each contributor you had to get the doctor to go with the patient, you also had to get permission from the clinic. If they go for a scan in another hospital, you have to get permission from that hospital…the permissions proliferated. I’d never come across anything as complex as this. And they’re not only places where medical confidentiality is an issue but they are all private businesses who are extremely protective of their clientele and their reputation. So you can imagine the difficulty. But the starting point was Liz contacting literally hundreds of doctors as an initial approach. She met quite a lot of them. If she thought there was something there then I would meet them as well.
I know often when you go about getting access, people tend to club together one way or another. Did things get easier or harder for you?
My experience in any community is once you’ve got some really impressive names that have said yes, then it does get easier, it gets significantly easier.
And that happened with you?
Yes. With some of the doctors in the film, they hold a lot of sway – their reputations go before them – so once they say yes then others will follow.
Did you use any of your films as a calling card?
I do do that – I absolutely do that. And quite a lot of people in a lot of the clinics, they have hefty marketing and PR departments, and some of them asked to see my films and others checked me out online.
There have been quite a few series which are location based on British television lately, like Inside Claridges and Welcome to Mayfair. How did you plan your approach for this series – did these influence you at all?
That’s a very good question. There has been a spate of commissioning around luxury brands. I’m sure it is possible that Harley Street was also commissioned in that spirit – that there appears to be an audience for films about luxury. For me, right from the outset and in the original treatment I wrote, I always knew the series wouldn’t be about that. To make 180 minutes of television – as long as two feature films – on a premise that would just be ‘here are some rich people, and here they are paying for stuff the rest of us can’t afford’, for me as a filmmaker that doesn’t take me anywhere. There is nowhere to go with that proposition. And it’s certainly not going to keep me going for three hours. Not if you are a genuinely curious documentary maker and trying to find stuff out about humanity at a slightly deeper level. Rich people buying expensive shit isn’t of enough interest to me personally and I always knew that. It was clear from the outset that there would be huge issues thrown up about aging, about illness, about how we feel about our appearance, about why women are altering their appearance frequently, about why people are choosing treatments and therapies that are anti-scientific when we live in a scientific era. It was obvious to me that there was something meaty there that was never just going to be about rich people.
I’m very proud of the access that we did achieve. Because it’s one thing to make a film where you say to someone ‘oh you can afford a ruby necklace, or you can afford an expensive hotel room’. But to say to a very rich person, who is paying a lot of money for privacy and discretion, ‘can we film you butt naked having your prostate gland removed?’ is access of a different order really.
By the way, I love the soundtrack…
I’m glad you asked me about that. That’s what I mean about this series: I just worked so hard. All films are hard to make, but some films are really a lot harder to make than others. For this I listened to over 1,800 tracks to get the music for these films!
Episode 2 of Inside Harley Street screens Monday, 20 April, 9pm on BBC Two.