Will you be watching them watching us?

What do you get when you turn the media's gaze in on itself? An awful lot of social leakage.
Click to follow
AGEING FANS of the Sixties children's TV series Zoo Time, fronted by Desmond Morris, may remember the occasion when the producers decided to film a pride of lions in captivity, and do it live for maximum effect. To the puzzlement of a million watching children, every male lion at which the camera was pointed immediately mounted the nearest female and began enthusiastically to mate. It was an unusual reaction to the power of the television camera.

There is something remarkably sexy about the one-eyed technological monster - both penis and vagina, something that prods and pokes you into response and simultaneously draws you inside it - but non-actor humans, when confronted by it generally do not react by what Desmond Morris would call an exhibitionistic display. Instead they become a-flurry with what he would call "social leakage", raising to an unprecedented degree the tiny mannerisms which betray our discomfort at being seen too closely.

The standard human response to having a video camera trained on you is to wave it away like a wasp; when it's a TV camera, and you cannot afford to be seen by a million viewers flailing your arms about as if being pelted by invisible stones, your response becomes more restrained, more subtle and diplomatic. But the evidence is there, all the same, that you're flailing inside.

Look, for example, at Channel Four's Cutting Edge documentary, "Independent Rosie", which goes out at 9pm tomorrow night. It has a special resonance for the staff of the newspaper you hold in your hand, and their relatives (who will, I suspect, constitute the bulk of the viewing audience), since it is set in the walkways and offices and open-plan expanses of the Independent newspapers, 18 floors up the Canary Wharf obelisk, and concerns the first 40 days of Rosie Boycott's brief reign as editor of this organ and the Independent on Sunday. Transmission of the programme has been eagerly awaited for some weeks. The top brass of both papers travelled en charabanc to view it at Channel Four's headquarters. A samizdat video circulated the 18th floor, distracting journalists from their work. Rumours flew about who had made a total prat of themselves, who had been disloyal, or slimy or divertingly, indeed suicidally abusive to their betters.

What you take away from the show, however, isn't so much insights into journalistic endeavour and the loneliness of power, or revealing, off- duty unbuttonings of emotion in E14 wine bars. What you get is body language. At one point Rosie Boycott is seen getting tough with the deputy foreign editor. Upset because he has failed to get the job he thought he deserved, the hapless man starts to go on about improved circulation figures. Boycott snaps, "You're displaying a massive lack of cool, if you don't mind my saying so".

But what she herself displays throughout is a whole repertoire of giveaway mannerisms: Rosie examining her nails then lifting her steepled fingers over her face, peek-a-boo fashion, while listening to unwanted praise; Rosie untangling her telephone cord with ferocious concentration while struggling with budgets, Rosie's girlishly innocent, gap-toothed smile at the height of her Legalise Cannabis march, Rosie's right hand comforting the left as she phones Security to ask to be let her into her new office...

She is not alone. Students of Behavioural Oddity might like also to check out the performance of the home news editor, as he drubs the air with bare, ham-bone forearms while explaining to the deputy editor the correct approach to rival broadsheet papers who are trying to pinch your photographs; or that of the arts editor, a walking volcano of truculent sarcasm, whose eyes gleam with unearthly Dalek malevolence as he explains his hatred of his new editor's broadsheet coarseness, shortly before being fired. Of the hundred other giveaway tics of impatience, tension or dislike - the jiggling of biros, the savage chewing of gum, the okay-I'm-lying flicker of a dozen eyelids, the audible fluffs and Freudian slips (as when, for instance, one J Walsh can be heard airily, but mistakenly, reminiscing about the time he edited the paper) - it is too painful to speak.

Whether the newspaper or its quondam editrix emerges with dignity or credit, I leave to the television reviewers. For participants, the only thing that can be salvaged is the feeling that the fly-on-the-wall documentary never tells the truth, that people never behave as themselves. As with Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, the quality of the results is fatally compromised by the shortcomings of the retrieval system. For one thing, the fly on the wall sees details in massive close-up, hence the foregrounding of personal behaviour rather than communal endeavour. For another, the documentary crew cannot operate with a cast of silent, unco-operative employees; they must find show-offs, controversialists, mutinous dogs, impromptu speech-makers.

On the first day of filming, they asked around: who were the real characters at The Independent? Who could be relied on to do a turn? Some writers who were approached for their comments talked happily. Others, suspecting that only their most trivial, crass or embarrassing contributions would be broadcast, refused to play ball. Attenders of the morning conference wished the cameras would go away. Fear of the intruding eye gradually gave way to fear of the editing suite. Would the chief sub-editor's remarks about his lunchtime ham roll be cut and spliced until it sounded like an attack on the management?

As day followed mundane day, and the working procedures of the newspaper were revealed to be as boring as those of any other business, a kind of mutual disaffection set in. The camera crew wished something more exciting would happen. The staff began to suspect they were being stitched up by a camera team in search of trouble.

Because trouble is the stock-in-trade, one might almost say the whole raison d'etre of the fly-on-the-wall. It was ever thus. From Paul Watson's first excursion into verite documentary, watching the working-class Wilkins family of Reading making an exhibition of themselves over several months for The Family (1974), to Watson's other don't-mind-me-I'm-just-making- a-film intrusions like The Fishing Party and The Dinner Party, people have recoiled from seeing ghastly travesties of their true selves distorted by the wicked lens and the selective editing process. Poor Noelene Danaher of Sydney was so appalled to see how she came across in Sylvania Waters, she tried to kill herself. The right-wing participants in The Dinner Party later complained that they'd been stitched up, to which Mr Watson replied, with admirable candour: "I don't understand the concept of balance. I think it is artificial. I want to send people to bed arguing." Argument is, indeed, one of the few things that survive a fly-on-the wall. All Dylan fans remember of the documentary of the singer's 1966 London visit, Don't Look Back, are the rows. All I recall of the Graham Taylor documentary is the swearing. And as for Driving School ...

When the Cutting Edge camera crew were unceremoniously told to leave, halfway through their filming schedule, by the new management at The Independent, you could feel the tension evaporate. The fly-on-the-wall documentary is an unhappy experience all round. It's based on, and justified by, a single simple proposition - that is you train a camera for long enough on an institution, its constituent members will begin to go mad, will direct the camera's gaze, unwittingly, on to their worst faults and shortcomings, just as the crew will encourage the dramatising of the worst behaviour and the editing-out of the most normal, and the whole enterprise will naturally tend towards destruction, entropy, the disintegration of a class, a family, a newspaper, a life.

It is without doubt the least attractive incarnation of supposedly concerned human enquiry into the way we behave - the way we "really" are. Which is precisely why you'll be watching it tomorrow night, and so, shamefacedly, will I.

`Independent Rosie' is on Channel 4 at 9pm tomorrow