And not a blue light in sight

watch this face . . .. . . IN TELEVISION Stephen Lambert is a documentary maker who doesn't chase ambulances. Ratings are important, obviously, but at Channel 4 the advertisers loved `Cutti ng Edge' because they found a well-crafted documentary delivered attentive audi ences By Jim White
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The Independent Culture
During his monologue on Christmas Night with the Stars - a sort of pyschotic's seasonal address to the nation - the beery Scot Rab C Nesbitt gave his predictions for the new television year. It will, he said, stink. Given that this statement was m ade onthe biggest turkey of the Christmas schedules, a show so dire its gags would have been ejected from a Dick Emery script meeting, it is hard to gainsay the old string vest: he may have been hard to understand, but he made sense.

And it is not just to the field of comedy that the gloomy Glaswegian forecast can be restricted. In most television areas, the evidence of last year would support the Nesbitt prognosis. In children's television, the satellite channel Nickelodeon launcheda lottery which cynically exploited the rapacious greed of the under-10s ("come on everyone," yelled some shouty youth presenter every minute of every day, "there's £300 worth of Toys R Us vouchers just waiting for you"); in current affairs we in the capital were offered London Tonight, surely a send-up of The Day Today; and, in drama series, there was Revelations with its tales of ecclesiastical dysfunctionalism.

One area might, at first glance, seem the most depressing of all. Where once the British television documentary was the master of the thorough, researched, original piece of journalism, during 1994 a different school became dominant. Called the If-In-Doubt-Slap-A-Lapel-Camera-On-An- Ambulance-Driver approach, shows like Blues And Twos spent their entire time chasing blue lights and fast cars with funny paint jobs and seeing what happened. Sometimes the programme makers (if that title doesn't over-qualify their trade) didn't even need to go to the expensive waste of shooting the film themselves. They could stitch together the best bits from the emergency services' own videos and get Alastair Stewart to make pious comments about driving too fast, over shots of caravans careering comically across the motorway.

For the accountants who now run television, such an approach was logical, it delivered what they love above all things: viewing figures at minimal cost. What the accountants simply cannot take on board are film-makers who spend weeks, months, years stalking prey which at no time will yield any blood, gore or profanities.

Which was why it was such a pleasure to see True Brits last year. This beautifully paced examination of the inner workings of the Foreign Office was to Blues and Twos what Three Fights, Two Weddings and a Funeral was to Christmas Night With the Stars; itwas a triumph over the prevailing forces. Stephen Lambert, the series's producer, spent a year following Tristan Garel-Jones about. Imagine selling that one to the ambulancechase mentality.

"I haven't seen much of it," said Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, at the time, in a paradigm of diplomatic language. "But I am told it is very good."

The film, a model of under-stated observation, made an unlikely star of Garel-Jones, whose indiscretions would have shamed Madonna: "Thank God it's only a game, eh?" he said after a spat with an Italian official over Euro-policy. "Just imagine if this was for real."

Oddly, the most memorable shot of the series was of a flashing light. Lambert's camera caught a faulty bulb flickering in the corridor of a once-palatial diplomatic residence, a lovely metaphor for the manner in which the cost-cutting puritan drones weretrimming cavalier collars. A metaphor, actually, for what's going on at the BBC.

Thus the news that Lambert is to take charge of Modern Times, the replacement for the venerable 40 Minutes which begins in February, is the best since Steve Coogan decided to go into showbiz. Lambert, 35, was responsible for the best moments of 40 Minutes' heyday. His skill lay in identifying big issues before they became current, spending time on them and discovering character within them: there was Hilary's in Hiding, the 1990 film about a sexually abused child, Who'll Win Jeanette?, a fil m about a private adoption battle made in 1989 and Children of God, the 1990 film about South African police.

"I'm very keen on moral ambiguity," Lambert said, from a phone-box during his Christmas break. "I like people to feel warm about the people we are making films with, even if they don't expect to."

Now he has made the substantial leap across the table from cunning film-maker to commisioning editor. It is some responsibility to take on BBC2's flag ship series of one-off documentaries. The name change, although in part inevitable since the individualfilms within the strand will be 50 minutes long, also indicates a new direction: 40 Minutes had, in its latter stages, become something of a byword for soft and fluffy, losing ground to Inside Story and Cutting Edge. Modern Times, Lambert insi sts, willtry to reclaim the two principal strengths of the old 40 Minutes: character and plot.

"I'm not against institutional films," said Lambert. "But getting access isn't enough. I want films which deliver a story as well as show the inside."

Such an approach would please many film-makers. Like Molly Dineen, who made The Ark, the award-winning documentary about London Zoo.

"Let's get back to looking at the fabric of life, rather than life in the front line," Dineen said. "We're all nosey."

Guy Davies, the development director of Folio Films, a production company which has "a number of proposals on Stephen Lambert's desk", agrees that the blue light is not the only way to chase ratings.

"I'm not sure if we have gone down that road inevitably, I think it was a vogue," he said. "Ratings are important, obviously, but at Channel 4 the advertisers loved Cutting Edge, because they found a well-crafted documentary delivered attentive audiences. And I think what really makes audiences attentive is strong stories, which have a beginning, a middle and an end."

So far Stephen Lambert looks as if he will fulfil most of these expectations. To have elicited an extra 10 minutes' worth of funding per film suggests the accountants take him seriously. It will also enable him to compete for the best film-making talent,previously attracted by longer showcases.

He has, moreover, revealed the canny sense of salesmanship of a seasoned commisioning editor, garnering some healthy advance publicity for his strand by buying in Death on Request, the Dutch film about euthanasia. A film which, incidentally, when it is screened in March, will show a real death without a blue light in sight.

"I've seen all the films now in the first run, and I'm very pleased with them," Lambert said, before his phone card ran out. "What I'm hoping is Modern Times will become a regular date in everyone's diary."

Maybe even Rab C Nesbitt's. Now that would be a story.