You don't have to look like Ulrika Jonsson to get on the television. `Video Nation' invited LOUISE FRANCE to star in the series that gives everyone a voice
People say the television camera makes you look half-a-stone heavier. They should also add that it makes you look a good deal shinier too. I know this because I've just watched myself on screen as part of a training session for Video Nation, the BBC series which gives people the chance to make programmes about their lives. It was surreal to watch, but there I was - plump and shiny. Welcome to the glamorous world of television, I thought.

There can be few people who haven't happened across a Video Nation short but it tends to be by accident. There you are, preparing to nod off in front of Newsnight, when up pops the VN logo and you have no idea what might happen in the next two minutes. It could be the story of a little boy going to a new school for the first time. Or a Scottish clan chief worried about having his castle re-roofed. Or a waitress in a Chinese take-away complaining about her rude and drunk customers.

Intense, human, unpredictable - and shorter than a commercial break. You wonder afterwards whether you imagined it or not. Yet every so often a character will stick in your mind for weeks.

The series celebrates its fifth birthday this month. Since 1994, over 250 people in Britain have been handed a camera and asked to take part in the series. Some keep theirs, and contribute, for years. The mini-films make Video Nation an award-winning series and also one of the most unique mass observation projects undertaken (all the tapes - 10,000 hours worth so far - are stored for posterity at the British Film Institute archives.) By co-incidence, the training session I attended happened in the same week that The Vanessa Show was lambasted for allowing models to pose as guests. The contrast could not have been more striking.

Video Nation is People's Television, as New Labour would have it. It celebrates ordinary people. The participants don't need a scandalous story to get on air. They don't need to conform to a researcher's stereotype. They can be themselves, with all their contradictions and foibles. The programmes have a quiet dignity which comes from the fact that people are being honest.

As long-term contributor Nicola Fyfe, 37, says, "It moves you when someone is being genuine. You feel linked to that person. Even the most fabulous big budget movies don't always do that. But Video Nation manages it."

There are 16 people on the weekend course at the BBC's White City building in west London: Chad, a teenager from Manchester; Kate, a professional cook; Spiro, whose sight was permanently damaged after a car accident in 1981 and Jeff, a local mayor. We're a disparate lot. Our paths would never have crossed if it hadn't been for the project. Some people are confident. This is a chance to speak out. Others - like me - are apprehensive about revealing ourselves.

The production team find respondents by placing adverts in newspapers and making trips to areas where the response is low. Media students and wannabe Chris Evans are weeded out early on. The aim is a cross section, not the audience of Top of the Pops. For example, 20 per cent of correspondents are over 60 - a figure which matches national demographics but is rarely represented on television.

Most of the trainees - myself included - are as likely to make a television programme as Eddie Izzard is to work at Barclays. The equipment is intimidating. The television techniques which we've seen on the news but never appreciated are like a foreign language. We listen carefully, like children with good intentions on the first day of a new school term.

Co-producers Mandy Rose and Chris Mohr, who've worked on the project since the beginning, explain everything patiently. Don't drop the camera (although each one is insured and we can have it biked to London for repairs). For God's sake keep one eye open when you're on the move. Take care walking backwards.

We're asked to complete an exercise: describe something we value. I choose my asthma inhaler. My fear is that I'll sound like a dreadful combination of Alan Partridge and Sue Lawley. Concentrate, I tell myself (while also keeping one eye open and not walking backwards. Bloody hell, is the lens cap on?)

To begin with I'm tongue-tied. At this rate even my mother will be changing channel. But before long I'm saying whatever pops into my brain, like stream of consciousness. The slate grey camcorder takes on the cuddly presence of Claire Rayner. Because it can't speak I feel compelled to fill in the gaps. I cannot shut up.

Ian MacKinnon, 41, a fisherman who lives in a remote part of west Scotland, had a similar response. He's been doing Video Nation for four years. At sea for 10 hours at a time, "the camera becomes a great listener. It's become a friend almost. A friend who doesn't answer back." It's so cathartic, he thinks they should be given out on the NHS - "Free therapy."

One of the longest serving contributors is Conrad Gorner, 38, a big, bluff Lancashire man, ex-miner turned HGV driver. Video Nation has invited him to the training day to tell us what it's like to be one of the participants. What do his family think? His wife Karen doesn't always appreciate the intrusion - "You've got to pick your moments with Karen," he says, deadpan. "But when you've been married for 18 years you usually know what you can get away with." His eldest son, Phillip, 16, on the other hand, runs a mile before his dad can even say "Action". Family issues aside, for Conrad, taking part in Video Nation "is one of the greatest achievements of my life.

"I had a hard upbringing," he says. "My parents forced me to give up school at 16. I had no qualifications, not one. Doing Video Nation has given me a massive lift. The BBC actually listens to me, Conrad Gorner."

The greatest surprise is the fact that within a couple of hours I can use the equipment fairly proficiently. I'm the kind of photographer who cuts peoples' heads off in holiday snaps - but it is possible to get results. Although, of course, half the magic of Video Nation is in the editing. "Every tape is a surprise," says Mandy. "They're full of peculiarly intimate detail, often over-flowing with extraordinary tenderness." Once they've been edited the results are returned. Unlike most television, if there is anything the contributor doesn't like, it's taken out.

Two weeks later the camcorder sits in its bag in a corner of the living room. I feel a burden of responsibility. It's already caused one row with my boyfriend. I thought he'd broken it. It turned out he hadn't. But I also feel privileged to be taking part. Guilty too - I haven't done much filming while others, like Spiro, the partially blind man, tells me he's filled three tapes.

I've resolved to do some filming this weekend. You never know, if I make the effort I might be on the television. You won't be able to miss me. I'll be the overweight, shiny one who doesn't shut up.

CANDID CAMERA

A young couple sit on a couch watching television. We can hear the soundtrack of a football match. She turns to the camera.

"So this is it, the World Cup."

He imitates the roar of a football crowd.

"Endless watching football."

He roars.

"Endless talking about football."

He roars.

"Endless listening to boring wafflings-on about football."

He roars.

"It's boring." "It's bliss."

"Boring." "Bliss."

"Boring." "Bliss."

"He's consumed by it. He eats it and breathes it and sleeps it. He doesn't talk to me about anything else. He's watched every match that's been televised."

"Except last night when I got in the bath with you." She looks horrified.

They giggle. She thumps him.

Fade to black.

Extract from Video Nation, BBC

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