Production values: The art of letting people speak for themselves

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The Independent Culture
Programme makers are looking for new ways to avoid embarrassment by getting rid of the commentary. A recent South Bank Show, for example, narrated a whole film very successfully using nothing more than wispy fragments from Ossie Clark's diaries. Each time the voice of the narration is diminished, the people in the programme can be more easily heard. Traditionally, it has been the disinterested and non-combatant commentary that has sung of arms and the man. But several of the television events commemorating World War I in recent weeks have relied on nothing more than the old soldier's voices.

The interviewees in Veterans (BBC1), centenarian survivors of the Fist World War, also took a significant step beyond the conventions of the documentary. It cannot be easy to get someone born in the 19th century to give a late 20th century interview. The eye of the camera is hard and mocking, but never once did anyone look like a poor old git with nothing but memories - a tribute to the use of the relaxed atmosphere as a creative tool. The programme led with its people; the commentary followed on behind, gently marshalling personal memory into historical narrative. Emboldened by the conviviality, many of the old soldiers started to sing during the interviews. Public singing is potentially cringe-making; it has blighted more than one party conference. On this occasion, however, it galvanised the whole programme and transformed the familiar archive in a way that no amount of talk could have done: these grainy faces had all sung once, we could see it in their eyes.

Another war series Shell Shock (Channel 4, Sunday) is working with the same ingredients - archive and interview - to a different end. It is telling a formal and detailed history of military psychiatry and it must necessarily speak, not with the voice of the punter, but in a commentary that never falters and makes no judgements. This is the voice of the academic paper and the newspaper leader and, as such, is it a vital part of human discourse. On television, though, it is not always terribly good with people. The songs and spontaneous gestures of the soldiers in Shell Shock, even when they appeared, were always secondary to the voice of authority which was monopolising the conversation.

Anatomy of Desire (Channel 4) has been having similar problems. We met people who were up to a variety of things, but none of them broke the conventions of television, so they never became more than convenient exemplars of a theory of psychosexual evolution. The ideas in the series are fascinating, but there are situations where the commentary finds it difficult to cope: we watched a group of men assessing photographs of women while inhaling essence of vaginal mucus through plastic masks - and the voice had to remain completely serene and dead-pan. The men on screen seemed at ease, but we were aware that, off-screen, an embarrassing social situation was developing.

There is no obvious solution to this problem: jokiness, lasciviousness or squeamishness are just not options for Mr Voice-Over.

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