TELEVISION / Filming head and shoulders above the rest

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The Independent Culture
I RECEIVED a leaked document the other day. This doesn't happen often when you review television programmes and my enjoyment was only slightly dampened by the broadly innocuous nature of what I had been sent. Not John Birt's P60 or ITV's plans for News at Ten but a four page briefing document for directors working on Carlton's 'people-led' documentary series, The Big Story. It was interesting chiefly for the robust contempt that it displayed for the established players in the field.

'The style of the average World in Action or Panorama,' it said, 'too often can be summed up in one word - boring. Interviewees are shot from head height behind a desk, establishers are wallpaper shots of guilty buildings or people on the telephone.' There followed 13 'ABSOLUTELY COMPULSORY' dos and don'ts, my favourite of which was number 12 - 'It takes no longer to shoot an interesting shot than a boring one. ANYONE WHO COMES BACK WITH A BORING SHOT, SAYING THEY DIDN'T HAVE TIME TO GET AN INTERESTING ONE CAN EXPECT A P45.' The same reward awaits anyone who 'directs an interview with someone behind a desk'.

No advice about how you persuade Douglas Hurd out from behind his Foreign Office mahogany and on to the monocycle but it's clear from the rest of the document that Big Story crew-members can't afford to be blushing violets. 'Think about how you can use Dermot (Murnaghan, the show's presenter) to make him more interesting,' the note continues. 'If he's doing an interview about buying a tank, get him riding on one, not standing by it.' If I were Dermot I might feel that could have been better phrased, but you get the general idea; action at all costs, even in the establishing shots which are used to tell the audience where they are; 'If you're filming Heathrow,' the author suggests, 'get a porter to push a long line of trollies across the front of frame to give you a strong image and a natural wipe.'

What's consistent here is the almost hysterical belief that documentaries can only pull a large audience with style rather than content. At another time Panorama or World in Action would have been able to wave airily at the awards on the shelves and ignore such ambitions. Not now. The watchword at Panorama, it's reported, is 'Drive for Five' (in other words all programmes, even those on public policy, have to aim for a 5 million audience).

Under its new editor, the BBC's flagship current-affairs strand has already moved away from the dry Birtian ethic of analysis and exposition towards stories with an investigative or sentimental drive, a move that has been reflected in higher figures. Last night's edition, on the growing debate about a universal pensions policy, provided an interesting test-case in the battle between showmanship and serious reporting. Almost everyone has an interest in the subject but that doesn't mean everyone is interested - thinking about pensions ranks somewhere near pulling hairballs out of the bathroom plughole as a disagreeable duty.

In the event, Panorama delivered a clear and interesting survey of the question, presenting its arguments and figures through real pensioners and sketching in the ethical and financial issues in a way that left you primed for further debate. Most importantly, they held to the faith that it's what people say that is interesting rather than the angle at which their head is framed. I could only detect one example of outright hucksterism. To be fair, though, it's no easy task to make the National Insurance Fund's headquarters sexy. 'At the heart of this six acre complex,' the reporter said, 'we found its electronic nerve-centre.' The cliches suggested razor-wire and belly-crawls along guarded corridors - the reality was that the press officer showed them to the computer room.

Forgivable, as I say, but a tiny sign that the natural habitat of that once abundant species, the talking head, is shrinking every day.