The stitch-up merchant...

... at least that's how some of the subjects of his documentaries might describe him. The man himself prefers "devious" and "subversive". James Rampton meets Paul Watson
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Paul Watson is the fly-on-the-wall who gets up everyone's nose. After the documentary producer has buzzed around his subjects, they often try to swat him, but he just flies off to bug someone else. In nearly 30 years and over 300 films, Watson has built up an unrivalled reputation for warts-and-all film-making. The mirror he holds up to nature rarely flatters. He's the last man you'd invite to shoot your wedding video.

"The Fishing Party", his 1986 portrait for 40 Minutes of four braying Hooray Henrys from the City, had the distinction of being Mrs Thatcher's least favourite film - a fact which makes the producer chuckle that he "will die happy". As Watson filmed them sounding off about capital punishment and race - "These bloody blacks in Africa, it's all right for them to go and shoot each other, but if I go and shoot one, I get told off" - the press worked itself into a lather about the "Red under the Bed".

That was merely a warm-up, however, for the storm that broke around Sylvania Waters, Watson's 12-part 1993 documentary about a nouveau riche Australian family, headed by the formidable Noeline Baker Donaher. The Australian Deputy Prime Minister condemned the hard-drinking Noeline as symbolic of the nation's working-class health problems. Yobs graffiti'd the plush waterside Sydney suburban home of the Baker Donahers and verbally abused them in the street. Noeline had no doubt who was to blame. While plugging her book, video and single (called No Regrets), she angrily claimed that Watson had stitched her up. "He messed around with my family," she fumed, "and made us out to be worse than we are. He annihilated me and the people I love."

The battle raged on when later that year Watson left the BBC, where he had worked for 28 years and was then editor of 40 Minutes (in his words, "I was kicked out ... the BBC can't operate with one or two so-called mavericks"). Noeline couldn't resist revelling in his misfortune. "I'm glad he's hit rock-bottom," she exulted. "What he did to me was character assassination. He made me a monster. We were never told the sort of film he was going to make and we trusted him. He reassured me so many times

As the dust settles two years after the publicity war, Watson, a magnetic, balding 53-year-old smartly clad in dark blue shirt and trousers, relaxes on the sofa in his south London front-room, an elegant space bedecked with striking war paintings. (You know you're in the presence of a leading documentary-maker because Dox magazine lies on the coffee-table and a Bafta stands casually in the fireplace.) He says he has a clear conscience about Sylvania Waters. "I make no apologies in any form to Noeline about the way she's portrayed in Sylvania Waters. None whatsoever. She now wants to do a second series."

Watson is equally bullish about his professional critics (a senior figure at the BBC reportedly called some of his work "amoral"). He vigorously dismisses accusations that he is a stitch-up merchant. "I'd even take a lie-detector test," he asserts. "I have never set out to stitch anyone up. I absolutely hand on heart haven't ... I liked Noeline. I liked the Fishing Party. I did not set out to stuff them. I set out to understand those views I didn't particularly like.

"People accuse me of manipulation and I admit to manipulation - in the cutting-room. It's called editing. If you shoot 10 shots, what do you do? You exercise prejudice, passion, certain proclivities. You build up an authored view. Hydrogen and oxygen on their own are boring, inert gases. Whack them together and who'd have thought they'd make this thing we all need called water? I'm interested in putting the essence of something in a sequence."

Once he builds up a head of steam, he's hard to stop. "I'm a devious, subversive, difficult sod of a film-maker," Watson continues, "because now I know my craft skills so well I can make people five days later feel the hidden agenda to a film. Hidden agenda sounds so Machiavellian, but it isn't."

Peter Moore, the Channel 4 head of documentaries who has commissioned Watson's latest work, The Factory - a well-made, relatively sober, five- part observational film about the last working factory in Liverpool 13 (an inner-city district) - gives a less subjective view. "In The Factory, Paul has been more restrained and accurate in his juxtaposition of the managers and the workers. They're not crude, cut-out caricatures."

Watson, a self-confessed obsessive, has a reputation as a difficult man to work with. Shouting is not unknown in his cutting-rooms, and he pushes his crews hard. His defence of his approach is characteristically macho: "People say I'm difficult because I will not suffer slick willies or schmoozers. The best programmes are made by people who are out there amongst it all, doing it." He rejoices in his role of agent provocateur: "The people that watch my films sometimes want to kick in the TV. They think they're being got at, or they want to argue with their partner. The point is they don't go to bed and say nothing."

Difficult, devious, subversive, manipulative - these words follow Watson around like a tenacious documentary film crew. But it is worth remembering that, throughout all the controversy, Watson has produced some landmark films. The Family (1974) will go down in history as the series that gave birth to the fly-on-the-wall. States of Mind, about life in the US, won an Emmy, and his A Year in the Life in 1968 picked up that Bafta which now nestles in the fireplace.

Michael Cockerell, who made political portraits for Watson when he was head of documentaries at BBC Elstree, avers that "he is an extremely controversial figure. Views about him are totally split. He is a person who inspires both devotion and detestation, but I'm on his side because he's an original. Sparks fly when Paul's around. He is someone who has pushed the ways of making documentaries forward. He's an observer of real life who doesn't wrap it in sugar-coated parcels." Peter Moore offers more. "Paul is a legend, one of the greats of this generation, if not the greatest. For young film-makers, he's a marvellous icon. We need more mischief-making programmes. You shouldn't be in television unless you occasionally upset the apple cart and have a nose for mischief. Television would be terribly dull if we just massaged the egos of the rich and famous. My view is we're here to cause trouble - and long may it be so."

n `The Factory' starts on Channel 4 at 9pm on Monday.