review

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The Independent Culture
Documentaries, unlike gas fires, do not come with an accompanying certificate of safety. There is no television Kitemark, a symbol which might offer some guarantee of protection when you allow a film crew into your life. Which is why, despite repeated instances of bad burns to self- esteem, people continue to expose their tender parts to the superheated scrutiny of documentary directors. "We're not like the people in that golf club," they must think. "We'll come out alright."

The latest community to suffer the experience is the Robinson Willey factory in Liverpool, a small company making gas fires from outdated and uncomfortable-looking premises. Only those who work there will know to what degree the smarting sensation caused by some of these scenes is to do with the revelation of truth or merely with the director getting smart. For the rest of us it is a little more difficult, but there were a couple of scenes in "Tell Me Who My Boss Is Please", the opening episode of Paul Watson's The Factory (C4), that alerted you to the possibility, at least, that it was the latter.

Watson's film was nothing if not skilful; within 20 seconds of the start you had the arresting plot-line - a small company with problems, pinning all its hopes on a new product line. A roomful of grim-looking salespeople are told that failure with the new line will have "serious consequences regarding the future deployment of where we are going as a salesforce", a warning that isn't quite in English but still requires no translation. Then Watson cuts from the last gloomy sentence ("this is absolutely critical to our success") to a similar phrase in a Pathe newsreel, full of post-war exhortation about Britain's industrial future. It turns out that Watson has actually edited this newsreel, incorporating in it black- and-white scenes from the Robinson Willey factory. The factory, this edit implies, is archaic in its methods and positively archaeological in its industrial relations. What followed rather bore out this view, but then such a categorical and early verdict has a way of affecting what you see.

Other devices were even more troubling. Filming the company telephonist, Watson had found a way to convey the detached tedium of her job. As she sat between calls, her voice on the soundtrack read from the romantic novel open in front of her, breaking off whenever the phone rang. On the last call, however her reading continued as the bell rang on. In one sense, of course, you knew that this scene had been constructed in the cutting room - the receptionist's readings had to be fitted together with film footage and the sound of the telephone. But was she really aware that she had collaborated in the depiction of her own indifference?

The new managing director, John Grear, might equally have some grounds for grievance. He is partly the architect of his own misfortunes. To say "I don't know if I've got charisma or not. I suspect I haven't", is to offer an irresistible temptation to any director. But he might legitimately complain about the way that troubles back home in the factory were intercut with scenes of him travelling around Canada on a research trip. Even if you accept that the chronology hadn't been tampered with, the larger implication was fairly clear - an absentee MD, so preoccupied with new markets that he fails to see how much trouble his old methods are causing him. Whatever relationship The Factory bears to the reality of life at Robinson Willey, these powerful effects are the consequences of skill not inadvertence. Watson should get the credit and the blame.

In a film full of elegant allusions and graceful visual puns, Horizon (BBC2) explored the prospect of a very different kind of shop-floor - the microscopic, hands-off world of nanotechnology, in which machines the size of dust motes assemble molecules themselves into hitherto undreamt- of materials. No shop-floor at all in fact, and certainly no complaints about the lavatories.

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