Reality bites at the Beeb

What do you need to make a movie ? a good script? Stars? Try a background in documentary TV.
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The Independent Culture

The beginnings of a brave new world of film-making have been rumbling along quietly at the BBC for a couple of years now, but, buoyed up by the success of their first three projects, David Thompson, the head of BBC Films, and Alex Holmes, the creative director of BBC Documentaries, have decided to go public about their groundbreaking collaboration.

It's the first time the pair have talked openly about their initiative to raise the profile of BBC-backed films to the heady heights achieved by FilmFour, and they want everyone to know that they're open for business and ready to be deluged with proposals.

In retrospect, the first sign that something was afoot was the critical success of Pawel Pawlikowski's Last Resort – given the Michael Powell Award for best British feature at Edinburgh a year ago. Not only was this deceptively simple, but thoroughly affecting, tale of love on the margins tackling the asylum issue head on, it was a BBC Films production made without a script and directed by a little-known documentary film-maker.

Another project quickly followed: Nice Girl was an improvised drama on the consequences of teenage pregnancy directed by the professionally damaged documentary film-maker Dominic Savage, who became front-page tabloid news when his Channel 4 Cutting Edge film Rogue Males, about petty inner-city criminals, failed clearly to define the boundaries between fact and fiction. One of the subjects went to the papers with the "news" that certain scenes had been staged, which led, in turn, to an apology from Channel 4. All Savage would say was that "perhaps the whole thing should have been more dramatic".

Following the brouhaha, Savage could easily have found himself in a creative wasteland. It's indicative of the maverick nature of Holmes and Thompson's project that they chose instead to nurture the film-maker's genre-crossing experiments.

Savage's new film, When I was Twelve, premieres at this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival. Again, it's a drama with a factual research base and non-actors, this time exploring the choices facing young people living on so-called "sink" estates. Again, there is a welcome freshness and energy to the piece, which manages to be provocative without falling into didactism.

All three films came about thanks to Holmes and Thompson deciding to take a risk. Unsurprisingly, the merger was suggested by the relative newcomer to the corporation: "It did take a certain naïveté on my part," admits Holmes, laughing. "I'm longer in the tooth at the Beeb these days, and that blind belief I had – that if an idea was good enough you could make it happen – well, I think that's gone."

It couldn't have hurt, either, that Greg Dyke's arrival at the BBC heralded the demise of the internal market; the previous unwieldy division of every department into discrete budget houses mitigated against financial – and thus creative – cooperation. Nevertheless, it was creative practicalities that drove the merger. Holmes had originally been talking to both Pawlikowski and Savage about documentary projects. As he says: "Here were a couple of interesting directors who had already pushed the boundaries of their own form and were free from any preconceptions about how drama should be made."

He claims no originality in the idea of bringing documentarists to single drama, he just happened to be the first person to get on and do it. "If I'd just packed these directors off to BBC Films they would have got lost" he says, "they needed the right project, and they needed what amounts to a sponsor, I suppose."

Luckily, Thompson hails from the factual side of the creative divide himself, having worked on everything from Everyman to The Firm, Alan Clarke's searing portrait of football hooligans, which was based on documentary research. "I think TV drama is at some kind of crisis point at the moment," he says. The truth is the audience doesn't care about the costumes and the lighting. What they want are powerful stories, well told, that demand to be watched, and the documentary technique lends itself to that because it's more ballsy, more grabby."

Documentarists are, by their inquisitive nature, likely to turf up contemporary stories that an audience will relate to: "That immediacy is exactly the point," concurs Thompson, adding, rather contemptuously: "Too much British drama – on television and in films – is emotion, recollection and tranquillity. It's too calm, too ordered and too unreal."

BBC Films has long been trying to launch its single dramas on to the big screen à la FilmFour, but few have made the leap. Last Resort transcended both its tiny budget and the small screen: "It cost about £450,000," Thompson says. "That's cheaper than we were making drama 10 years ago."

It may be cheaper, and it may be based in fact, but Holmes is quick to point out that what this initiative isn't about is the kind of hokey nonsense – wobbly cameras, jump cuts – employed by some drama directors to give their work a documentary feel ("Most documentary film-makers spend their lives trying to eradicate that kind of thing from their work").

"What we're interested in is the documentary-makers approach. The fact is that documentaries are fundamentally the vision of one person; there is a creative freedom in documentaries that doesn't exist in traditional drama."

Holmes balks slightly, when I suggest it sounds like documentaries without the rules: "I don't think there are no rules," he counters. "And I don't think that you can underestimate the commitment made by the film-makers on films, which necessarily take a long time to come to fruition."

Working with real people to generate drama from real experience, Holmes argues, increases, rather than lessens the film-maker's responsibilities: "A traditional drama researcher can walk away and have no further contact with the people they have been talking to; fictionalising everything is supposed to put a barrier between the drama and its inspiration. But documentary makers don't ever accept that such a barrier exists and that gives them a unique skill in dealing with and supporting people."

Though they are both high on the possibilities of the venture, Thompson admits there are drawbacks. "It's very volatile because you're not working with scripts – and we all know how dreary improvised drama can be when it doesn't come off. It's a risk and you've got to be prepared to fall absolutely flat on your face.

Though they haven't set up any formal session to discuss this new thrust, Holmes is heading to Edinburgh hoping for lots of informal discussions: "I'm looking for really innovative ideas from the minds of those with a passion to make them." So, if you're a documentary film-maker with a nifty little idea for a ballsy social conscience drama with no script attached, just head for the bar and look for a scrum of passionate wannabes waving proposals in the air: chances are Alex Holmes will be somewhere underneath.

'When I was Twelve' screens at the Edinburgh Festival on 25 Aug

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