Forget about romcoms – we want shop docs
London's Liberty department store follows Claridge's in allowing television cameras in
Susie Mesure writes interviews, news and features for the Independent on Sunday, Independent and i, and has done for the last ten years or so give or take two lengthy maternity leaves. She is interested in just about any topic, especially anything Scandinavian, food, or consumer-orientated, and used to be the Independent’s Retail Correspondent
Sunday 01 December 2013
They are the institutions that make up the fabric of British society, for the gilded few at least. And now their inner secrets are being exposed in a new genre of "posh docs" that have sent broadcasters scrambling to find the next victim.
The historic London department store Liberty will be the latest to star in its own three-part series, which starts tomorrow night on Channel 4. It follows the BBC2 hit Inside Claridge's, which aired last December.
Industry executives promise that more are on the way, with luxury hotels, other upmarket retailers and high-end restaurants all on the radar. Magnus Temple, chief executive of The Garden, the company behind Inside Claridge's, said there was a "proliferation of posh-world docs. Everyone inside the industry is talking about this trend".
Not that broadcasters are being exclusive. Nick Mistry, who oversees documentary output at Channel 4, said there was an "equal fascination" with the other side of the coin: poverty, citing its popular Skint strand. "We're an extremely divided nation, between wealth and affluence, and poverty and hardship," he said. "Both those extremes are drawing audiences in because we're all trying to work out what kind of society we are."
Sheldon Lazarus, creative director of Rize USA, which is making Liberty of London, called the Claridge's show a "game-changer" because it "showed there was an audience for real stories as opposed to stories that are helped along by reality TV". It also showed businesses that "if handled carefully, there's nothing necessarily to be scared of in terms of allowing the cameras in".
Technology has played a major part in all this. As cameras have shrunk, they have become less obtrusive, which helps those being filmed to forget their every move is being recorded. However, the series that changed observational documentaries for major institutions was BBC2's The House, which exposed the mismanagement of the Royal Opera House in 1996.
Liberty of London, which was rushed out to be among the first of the latest wave of documentaries, is likely to make stars out of some of the store's longer-serving members of staff, notably Shukla, 70, who has worked there for 40 years. Mr Lazarus scotched any suggestion that Liberty's executives would get to vet any of the footage first. "Absolutely not. It has to be impartial or you'd let the viewers down," he said.
Emma Willis, the BBC's head of commissioning documentaries, said that the appeal of shows such as Inside Claridge's, which peaked at 4.8 million viewers, lay in telling "compelling human stores while offering fresh perspectives, warts and all, on subjects that matter to contemporary Britain and open a window into a world we don't normally get to see".
Early next year, the BBC will "go inside" institutions as varied as the Salvation Army and Greater Manchester Police's new public protection division, which investigates sexual crimes. Mr Lazarus said production companies were not limiting their targets to the UK, adding that two famous American department store chains, Macy's and Neiman Marcus, were on his wish list. Elsewhere, India's Taj Hotel in Mumbai, scene of deadly terrorist attacks in 2008, is believed to have let the cameras in.
Liberty, meanwhile, is likely to see a rise in customer numbers in the crucial pre-Christmas period – and didn't need to spend £7m on an advert to do it.
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