There is a scene in Eight Hours From Paris, a film to be shown this Sunday on BBC2, in which a social worker assesses a widower's eligibility for meals on wheels. The lighting is dull, the framing politely stiff, the dialogue utterly sapped of kinetic energy. No one takes a creative decision to make drama look so inherently undramatic, so it just has to be an observational documentary: only real life is this drably textured, this shapeless. "But it was absolutely constructed," says Philippa Lowthorpe, who wrote and directed the film. "All of it was set up for the camera, even to the point of my shooting all the angles of both characters. None of it is authentic."
The blurring of documentary and drama is as old as either genre. One offers factual narrative, the other fictional, and it's in the muddy waters between the two that Lowthorpe has toiled over the years to deliver a series of films as distinctive as they are undemonstrative. Not At Their Age, for Forty Minutes, diplomatically negotiated the grey area of sex among the elderly. Three Salons At The Seaside, for Picture This, eavesdropped on the exquisite witterings of flat-vowelled Blackpool crones in curlers at the hairdresser. These were both nominally documentaries, but derived their impact from the fact that the film's subjects turned in intensely theatrical performances for the camera.
"If you cast a documentary really well then you get amazing performances out of people," says Lowthorpe. "So I thought I'd take it one stage further and put ordinary people in a fictional context." Hence Eight Hours From Paris, which posits the novel theory that there is such a thing as drama in Crewe, starring marital drudgery, juvenile delinquency and all the usual suspects. Most television drama is set in either the broiling metropolis or the pastoral wilderness, but the busiest railway junction town in England is neither. There are no dysfunctional detectives hunting charismatic murderers here; no emergency service sagas or veterinary tear-jerkers. It is, in other words, the hinterland over which Lowthorpe, who was born 35 years ago "between Doncaster and Scunthorpe", has discreetly established territorial rights. "I wanted the film to be about a small town which really gets ignored," she says. "Crewe is literally ignored because everybody passes it by in trains. The feeling I wanted to get was that life goes on in these places. All our lives are like that: the opposite of the cop show."
Most of the really compelling performances in Eight Hours From Paris are given by the non-actors, who seem to have pretended that this wasn't drama at all but documentary, and recalibrated their relationship with the camera accordingly. A local councillor called Norman Jones takes a remarkably uncomplaining party of Germans from Crewe's twin town of Bischofsheim on a tour of the municipality; its train yards, its green-field sites, its lamppost feature in the high street. His commentary is magnificently dour, and (unintentionally) funnier than anything in Alan Partridge's paeans to Norwich. "You couldn't ever be as good as Norman if you were an actor," says Lowthorpe. "You couldn't write lines as good as that. He knew it was a performance but he just managed to be himself."
Much of the fascination from the film comes from trying to spot the join where reality has been soldered onto thespian artifice. Two of the German councillors are actors, while the other two "happened to turn up during filming and I thought why not throw them in as well?" But which is which? Lowthorpe admits that hers is a high-risk strategy. "I didn't know whether they would come up trumps or flop. I just had a hunch. I did no screen tests. I didn't even do any rehearsals, because I thought if I do it'll dry them up. I just cast them in the way that I would cast a documentary. I looked for really good characters and spent a lot of time making a relationship with them, so that when we came to do the filming they trusted me."
Trust is an indispensable tool in this sort of film-making, and Lowthrope's background in documentaries has honed that tool to perfection. In Enniskillen, which pooled the testimony of those who survived the Remembrance Day bombing, she displayed the fruits of the trust she earned among a devastated, media- shy community. "Nobody had ever made a film with the people who had lost relatives or the ones who had been involved and got ignored, and nobody wanted to talk to me. They didn't know who I was or that I was a nice person who would listen. But the daughter of one of the women who died agreed to see us and vetted me. Then suddenly the doors opened. We were staying in this hotel and you'd get a message saying, `Meet so and so at such and such at six o'clock.' Because it's such a little community, literally everybody started to talk."
The importance of trust extends not only to those who appear in Lowthorpe's films but also those who commission them. A Skirt Through History, a fascinating series about notable but forgotten women which she produced and part-directed, was commissioned by Peter Salmon, then of BBC Bristol, now controller of BBC1. "He didn't know what he was going to get. I didn't really tell him anything very much." So it was with the go-ahead for Eight Hours From Paris. Scriptwriters nowadays complain that securing a "yes" from George Faber of BBC Drama-works on the blood-from-stone principle, but Lowthorpe got the green light "without the usual process you have to go through. I didn't have to write a script first. I didn't even write a treatment. I just had a chat with him. He must have had a gut feeling for it."
Eight Hours From Paris could easily be the start of something. Filmed as a day in the life of dull Middle England, it lacks plot, but makes up for it in other subtle ways: there's a richness of character which may not be unconnected with the fact that the script Lowthorpe did eventually write was thrown away as filming began. "I thought that people could express better in their own words. I knew the beginning and the end of the scene that I wanted to get to. It was more like being the conductor of an orchestra than a writer."
Whether Lowthorpe can continue to work in this vein is uncertain. She spent the summer writing the first draft of a film script for Channel 4, who will not allow her simply to scrub out her own lines and commission the cast to replace them with theirs. But if Eight Hours From Paris has a lesson, it is that we are all too much in the thrall of performance. "I don't like acting when it looks like acting," says Lowthorpe. "When people say that was really good acting, that means you could tell that they were acting. If you make documentaries you become more impatient with that because you are so used to people expressing things in a natural way and being very moving and articulate. Acting sometimes seems a very heightened form of reality which I don't like very much. It's too theatrical."Reuse content