Meet Anna, my new best friend

Production values
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The Independent Culture
I have, in my time, made programmes about ideas, even about inanimate objects, and I can tell you that - as subject matter - people have a lot going for them. Human camera-fodder is, in fact, so important to the documentary industry that there are special phrases to distinguish the folk in front of camera from the manipulators behind. They are called "ordinary people" or "real people". These phrases are really not satisfactory. "Ordinary" is plainly unflattering and, anyway, if they are so ordinary how come you put them in your television programme, turkey? "Real" may initially sound charmingly self-deprecating: a rarefied elite recognising that it is not, in fact, at the centre of things. In reality, however, it more often comes over as a coded way of saying the exact opposite.

The elite posture is actually becoming less and less tenable as salaries decline relatively and the power of the producer is eroded. Combined with cheap and easy-to-use camera technology this gives people (with or without adjectives) a chance of getting more rounded treatment from the medium.

Video Diaries turns this possibility into a series. Week after week, at slightly unpredictable times, programmes of rivetting human interest, humour, and drama slip into our homes with no apparent mediation from the unreality of the professional. The sheer volume of its success is impressive: I have never seen a bad one. In fact, it is hard to imagine how an episode could turn out badly - perhaps it would look like a professionally made documentary.

The pre-title sequence of Modern Times: Kerb Crawling (BBC2, Wednesday) looked like a Video Diary. We saw Anna, a prostitute, standing on a street corner talking to punters while her own voice-over offered intelligent musings on her life and opinions. It was the misfortune of this well-edited and well-constructed film that prostitutes now appear so often on television that the tactical advantages of shock and surprise were lost. It was almost a disappointment when the programme turned into an observational documentary.

The story was of a scheme whereby men caught kerb crawling by the police were given the option of going to rehabilitation classes. The "John School" seemed mainly to involve the captive audience being verbally abused by women committed to the abolition of prostitution. There is, I am sure, more to it than that, but the school had to be filmed and edited in a way that did not identify the punters, which inevitably made the conversation seem a bit one-sided.

Credit should go to the programme-maker, Emma Hewitt, for getting the access to this project in the first place and for navigating through the labyrinth of mistrust that doubtless hung about its making, but the lasting memory of the film is not of a story or of an issue but of the chance meeting with Anna. It is actually possible to reproduce on screen the pleasure and interest simply of meeting someone. This is the Video Diaries effect: we have always known in theory that people in documentaries had lives of their own, but now we know they can have them on television, unencumbered by commentary or journalism. At home, in front of the box, undisturbed by shyness, the danger of sudden violence, or the embarrassment generated by the English class system, it is amazing what a wide range of people turn out to be real.

Those who work the ancient connection between sex and money will always be good subjects - they are easy to find, accustomed to performing, and attract audiences - but television's new relationship with people has a general effect: it changes the balance between the individual, the journalistic story, and the current affairs issue.

Take, for example, Kifah Mihidi, a government minder in Iraq. During his encounter with British viewers in the recent Modern Times: The Minders he crossed the boundary between programme maker and real person by actually picking up the camera and carrying on filming while the director tried on the coat Kifah had just given him. The minder was such a nice bloke, I wonder how he is now.

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