Media: From Catford to Chernobyl

How a BBC director fufilled his life's ambition.
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The Independent Culture
YOU CAN imagine Paul Merrick as an East End barrowboy. He has the manic, engaging banter of a salesman who knows there are plenty of others just like him . Then there's the character in his voice. "Sorry to interrupt," he says in the middle of a question, "but I just gotta tell you about" - and he's off delivering a rapid-fire parcel of his story.

Until three years ago Merrick was indeed shouting the virtues of grannies, goldens and satsumas from a stall in Catford. An intelligent man with a darting mind, his dream since childhood had been to make television documentaries.

Earlier this month, that dream came true. BBC2 screened Merrick's moving, rather harrowing documentary about children from Belarus who have suffered as a result of the fire at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in 1986: cancer, leukaemia and growth impairments are rife. It contrasts the children's lives there with what they see in Britain on a visit organised by the charity, Chernobyl Children's LifeLine.

"It was fantastic to do it, absolutely fantastic," says Merrick now, sitting in his home in southeast London. "I still can't quite believe it's been broadcast."

The programme was part of the BBC's first-ever talent-spotting week for budding documentary makers, called Picture This. Series producer Peter Symes has been unearthing new talent for years, including Claudia Nye, who went on to direct several Cutting Edge documentaries, Francesca Joseph, who made Driving School and The Matchmaker, and Gillian Lacey, now head of animation at the National Film and Television School. Part of a renewed talent-spotting drive, it is the first time the channel has devoted a week of hourly peak-time slots to its new discoveries.

Paul witnessed the horrors and joys of the media first-hand when he was just seven: his father was one of the Pentonville Five, dockers jailed during a bitter dispute in 1972. "It was amazing to see the power of the media at that young age," he says. "I started watching documentaries and I loved the idea of making them, but I hadn't a clue how to go about it... When you're working class, it's pummelled into your brain that you can't reach out and achieve the bigger things in life."

He left school at 16 to work in the market. His friends were happy with their lives, but he wasn't. His restlessness punches out of every sentence. But in working-class southeast London, his mates just laughed when he said he wanted to make documentaries. "They'd say, yeah, and I wanna be king," he says with a rueful smile.

When he turned 30, Paul handed his market stall over to his brother and took time off work. He was still unemployed when he got married a year later. Eventually, he confided to his wife that he wanted to work in television. She told him that he would only be happy if he tried to fulfil his calling, and that she would support him.

Invigorated, he applied to the National Film School, who told him curtly that he would not gain admission with his qualifications. He ended up at Ravensbourne College in southeast London, where sound and lighting engineers train. Pushiness got him a work placement at the BBC's documentaries division

He was unburdened by the middle-class reserve that frowns on in-your- face contact making. "I used to be a right flash bastard - you had to be in the market, and I suppose I used some of that at work," he says with a grin. You suspect that what saved him from upturned noses was his enthusiasm, his thick skin and his ideas. "I expected them to be a bit snotty, but everyone was really friendly," he says.

The Chernobyl programme was commissioned last year, and in the wake of its success, he is shortly off to Kosovo to make another, again on a BBC commission.

Symes is delighted with his discovery. He says that Merrick is particularly impressive for his organisational and people skills, honed free of charge in the Catford Market school of management.

Making television documentaries without the safety net of contacts assembled through the years must be very difficult. But Paul Merrick knows that he has left Catford Market behind forever.