The telly's no place for reality
The editing procedure produces not `a slice of life' but a story, as calculated as `EastEnders'
Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Exeter, Philip Hensher was among Granta 20 Best of Young British Novelists in 2003. The author of six novels, a collection of short stories and an opera libretto, he has won numerous prizes including the Somerset Maugham Award and the Stonewall Journalist of the Year. His 2008 novel, 'The Northern Clemency', was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Commonwealth Prize. A regular presence in the British media, alongside his Wednesday column for The Independent, he writes for The Spectator and Mail on Sunday.
Friday 04 September 1998
The makers of the documentary, Blast! Films, and Channel 4, had been duped by an elaborately staged piece of acting by the girl, Victoria Cheetham, and her boyfriend, Stuart Smith. Their motives seem to be pretty clear. Miss Cheetham is trying to make it as a model, and the kind of exposure which a Channel 4 fly-on-the-wall documentary provides could only have helped her career. Victoria Cheetham may not have quite such high principles of honesty as you or me, but she can hardly be blamed for thinking that her career would be helped if, as reported, she were prepared to vomit over a camera in front of the eager nation.
Channel 4 promptly pulled the film from the schedules, and started making highly serious noises about legal action against the couple. The film- makers had been deceived into thinking they were watching real life; the channel had thought so too; and now they were jolly well going to make sure that the public weren't fed fiction in the guise of reality. "It is important," the deputy director of programmes was reported as saying, "that none of our viewers has been misled."
Really and truly? I must say, this seems rather an amazing sort of thing to say, as if no misleading ever went on in fly-on-the-wall documentaries, as if the reporting which these films indulge in were completely naive, without invention or fantasy. I don't mean the few occasions when a director has asked someone to act out a scene that has previously occurred - that woman who couldn't drive, for instance, who was filmed by the BBC practising her knowledge of the Highway Code in the middle of the night. Or the confessional shows, where a sensationally baroque sexual tangle has all too obviously been contrived by the participants. No, I mean the constant low-level invention, the falsification of reality, that goes on in fly-on-the-wall documentaries.
There was a French post-structuralist who declared that the Gulf War hadn't taken place, that through the heavy veil of CNN, highly edited TV drama, and media highlights, little, if anything, in the way of "reality" could be perceived. He'd have had a field day with Driving School and its grisly offshoots. Consider, for a moment, how these films are made. A job with dramatic, or at least visual, potential is settled on by the film-makers. Traffic wardens who get shouted at in the street are good; novelists who sit on sofas eating toast-and-marmite, while wondering whether that comma ought to come out, are not so promising.
Locations and subjects are scouted out; a traffic warden who is intensely talkative and, say, with a burning ambition to be the next Robbie Williams, will be deemed "good TV". The extrovert subject is followed round day and night for months on end; is asked to talk about his life for the benefit of the camera, and altogether to show off like an eight-year-old at his birthday party.
And then it is edited. We've got used to certain conventions of film making - the hand-held camera, for instance - that signal "reality" to us, so that, switching on in the middle of a TV programme, we can immediately distinguish by its visual texture a documentary or a drama. And it's only these flimsy conventions which allow us to ignore how incredibly artificial the result is, how the editing procedure usually produces not a "slice of life", but a story; a film in the end, which is as calculated and laden with morality as EastEnders.
It's difficult to get worked up about Victoria Cheetham and her boyfriend's deception on Blast! Films: they were giving the film-makers precisely what they wanted. And film-makers, in turn, give viewers what they want: a good story.
Will Keith achieve his dream and become a singing star? Will Carol overcome years of heartbreak and become pregnant? Will crippled little Samantha ever dance again? Well, of course they will: because there's no point in telling an against-all-the-odds story if the odds triumph. That's not a story, that's real life; and real life is not something anyone is interested in.
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