Skip to main content

London Calling!: Nonfiction Opportunities Knock in the UK

By Martin Curley

While documentary and television aren't the same thing, to the majority of documentary filmmakers in London and the UK, they have become inseparable. The BBC has a long and honorable tradition in the genre, but, because of its remit to commission from independent production companies, the alternative, risk-taking commercial channel, Channel 4, which was launched in November 1982, came to represent the land of milk and honey for up-and-coming documentary filmmakers.

Before the coming of Margaret Thatcher, there was a more corporatist tradition in Britain in which a number of enclaves were spared the rigors of the market. British broadcasting was one such enclave. Thatcher set about the dismantling of these structures with great determination. Paradoxically, the birth of Channel 4 was part of the process of deregulation, the liberal child of a strict, conservative mother. The more liberal establishment saddled the fledgling channel with a charter that encouraged diversity of point of view and program production. It was a great time for independent production companies, especially smaller ones.

Before the coming of cable and satellite channels in the 1990s, the big players in British television were expected to reserve a number of slots for less populist and often more intellectually challenging programs. A good number of these went to documentary filmmakers who made interesting and thoughtful films, quite a few of which looked beyond the confines of this little island to what was happening elsewhere in the world. Times are changing, however. Now that all the broadcasters face increased competition for audiences, the slots for serious programs have either moved to the margins or disappeared altogether. In many ways, factual entertainment has taken the place of traditional documentary. 

This hasn't put off the growing numbers of people interested in making documentary films, however. The technology for making high-quality films is now widely affordable and people are keen to improve their skills, learn more about the genre and meet other like-minded people with a view to making films they're passionate about.

Andy Glynne, a British clinical psychologist, became interested in documentary while studying in Queensland, Australia. He returned largely because of the liveliness of London's documentary scene. "People do come here and manage to work in documentary, unlike almost any other city in the world," Glynne maintains.  "The quality of the work and the type of film being made is a different story, but there's a feeling that something is changing and that we might be on the cusp of a re-birth of the medium."

Keen to bring filmmakers together, Glynne set up the Documentary Filmmakers Group (DFG) in London just over a year ago.  "There was an overwhelming response," he says. "We hired a pub and between 50 and 60 people came quickly went up to 100. We were doing events every two weeks, showing people's work; mostly films that hadn't been broadcast, often films that were never going to get broadcast. We got directors down to talk about their experience of getting a broadcast commission, people talking about distribution, commissioning editors from Channel 4 and some of the cable channels."

The DFG attracts would-be filmmakers, so it's no surprise that questions of how to get distribution and commissions are very much part of the buzz. Most films made by new filmmakers are never acquired by broadcasters, although some attract interest from distributors. "What has happened is that people who made good films have won a certain reputation and then have gone on to get a commission," Glynne points out.

Glynne would love to see more first-director initiatives like the Metroland series, produced and broadcast by the production arm of London-based Carlton Communications. "Metroland is a fantastic initiative. They're incredibly supportive; not only are they commissioning new directors, but they're training them as well. As you might imagine, it's massively competitive, as is Alt TV, [Channel 4's] slot for new directors."

Given that making a strong film is the best way to get funding for future projects, many filmmakers are eager to improve their skills via education. There are a wide variety of courses available in the London area—part-time, full-time and weekends. The DFG has teamed up with Elisabeth Wood, an educator who's taught documentary at a number of top universities, including the Royal College of Art and New York University.

"I wanted to set something up for the people out there who had a PD-150 and an editing system, but didn't know much about the documentary form," Wood says. Despite her background in education, Wood's main focus is creating a videotheque devoted to documentary. "The Doc House idea is to create a library. We're interested in having copies of documentary films available for the general public to borrow, with a database so that you search our catalogue and those of affiliated institutions. We want to make it easy for people to find as wide a range of films as possible from one location. Being able to search by subject will open it up to people interested in specific subjects, as well as those just interested in the form of documentary." She is exasperated at the UK's neglect of a field of achievement of which it should be proud. "We're the home of documentary...and yet we don't have a center. We've got a century of material which is a part of our heritage. It should be accessible."

Education is one way to establish credentials for filmmaking, but traditionally the people making documentaries for television have mostly earned their stripes working their way up the ladder at the BBC or at independent production companies. Some do come directly from film schools, but for many industry insiders there's still the suspicion that film school produces arrogant, incompetent people.

Dick Fontaine, head of the documentary department at the National Film and Television School (NFTS) just outside London, thinks that it's not as meritocratic as it might be. "As with so much in life, you get your foot in the door and you get noticed and people start to say, ‘That's a bright person,'" Fontaine notes. "You may get to direct something because you've done a media course or because you're somebody's cousin; that still applies. Maybe if they stopped hiring their nephews, they'd give more respect to film schools."

The NFTS offers what is perhaps the most prestigious qualification available—a two-year master's in directing documentary. Producing just six graduates a year, the NFTS is undoubtedly an elitist institution, counting Nick Broomfield and Molly Dineen as former graduates. "Our students make five or six films while they're here," says Fontaine. "Hopefully, that allows them to leapfrog into a position where they're considered as potential directors, rather than runners or researchers."

The transition from film school to real world can be tough. The need to make a living often means compromising on the type and the style of film that gets made, but as Fontaine points out, graduates don't shed their carefully nurtured sensibilities just because they want television commissions. "A recent graduate, Emily James, made The Luckiest Nut in the World, a political musical dealing with protectionism in the American peanut trade. The film was shown on Channel 4 and a reviewer from The Guardian called it a work of genius. [James] got something odd and quirky into that medium. She'd made three films like that before and that gave Channel 4 the confidence to give her a commission. That's the kind of filmmaking we're seeking to encourage."

Fontaine is a defender of mainstream filmmaking when originality and craft are brought to the mix. "Cinematic documentary can be highly populist—Dickens was populist, so was Shakespeare. Accomplished filmmaking needs to be given the scope and money to make that work."

For Peter Davey, head of development at Carlton Productions, a populist subject is really non-negotiable. He's pitching ideas for primetime documentaries to a wide range of broadcasters, and he knows that it's essential that the programs deliver audience figures appropriate to their slot.

"When making a film for television, there's got to be a balance between a filmmaker's ideals and what the broadcasters want," says Davey. "Often the best films are the ones that people are most passionate about. You get your topic and you pursue it all the way through and you get it made, but at other times you have to pick up on what people are commissioning and what the commissioners think the general public is interested in."

He cites the controversial Michael Jackson film produced by Granada as an example. In a multi-channel environment, commissioning editors want to get profile and get viewers. The hot idea is "punching through the schedule. With something like the Michael Jackson interview, you can do this. It's a one-off, something they can trail, something the channel can get up a head of steam about." 

The broadcasters have also found that a brand that people can dip in and out of—the kind of series where it doesn't really matter if you miss part two or part four—can attract huge audiences. There's no narrative structure across episodes. Loose and heavily contrived formats like BBC's Wife Swap (where women swap homes and families for a fortnight) and Channel 4's Faking It (where unlikely candidates are trained to become imposters in various jobs) are doing well because the audience quickly gets to  know how the program "works." Davey thinks there's something reassuring in this: "While the characters may change, there are sign posts along the way that mean you always know where you are and where you're going."

The purists may not approve of these innovative formats, but Danny Cohen, a commissioning editor at Channel 4, thinks their antagonism is misplaced. "Channel 4's role is quite broad. It's a broadcaster. It's got to have quite a broad reach. We will make programs which will appeal to a niche interest, but the majority of what we make should appeal widely."

Commissioning both formatted and more traditional documentaries, Cohen recognises that the commissioning policy has changed since the early days of the channel. "When we started, [we] had one other competitor in the commercial sector; now there are dozens. If we don't make money via ratings, we won't have money to make interesting programs. That's the circle, and you can't ignore that." He defends the quality of the output and points to one of the more traditional documentary series the channel produced last year. "We did a series called Marrying a Stranger, about arranged marriages, earlier this year and it reached a really big audience. To be honest, we were surprised that it was so popular, but it was a really well made series about modern Britain, made by a talented director, Daisy Asquith."

Cohen also defends the channel's commitment to bringing on new talent. The channel operates what it calls a talent ladder "that starts with 'The Other Side' documentaries—low-budget films made for late-night broadcast by first-time directors. People who do a good job might get offered a more generously budgeted slot—say an Alt TV program which goes out at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays."

Nick Fraser, editor of the BBC's flagship documentary series Storyville, echoes Cohen's lack of patience for those who bemoan the increased commercialism of British television. He has a bountiful, 52-hour-long slot for documentaries from all over the world. He believes that the documentary genre was never better. He compares what's happening now to the advent of "New Journalism" in the US in the '60s—though he complains that he would like more proposals from the UK. His advice to filmmakers is to forget about commissions. Instead, he says, they should make the film they want, then go to distributors and broadcasters. This is happening, albeit not very often. Fanny Armstrong self-financed her films McLibel and Drowned Out and got and teamed up with indie distributor Journeyman. Armstrong might not have made a lot of money making the films, but she covered her costs and has become something of a beacon to the grassroots community.

All in all, it's an exciting time to be involved in documentaries in London. Filmmakers will have to become more self reliant and savvy, but there are signs that this is happening. Co-productions are increasing, and the occasional documentary (mostly American) is making it to the multiplex. The low/no budget scene looks likely to continue to grow and develop alternative venues for screenings—in the real world and the virtual one. As Dick Fontaine puts it, "Audiences aren't stupid, and that means that filmmakers will break through. I don't think we're seeing a decline into decadence, but were that the case, there'd be a revolution, then something else happens."


Martin Curley is a North London-based freelance writer of arts features. He's currently working on a documentary about the gender imbalance in Caucasian/Asian dating.


Documentary Resources in London