You couldn't make it up. But the TV producers did

Why let the facts get in the way of a good story? Paul McCann discovers how the truth isn't enough
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
LIFE is no longer exciting enough for television producers. Confessional chat shows, docu-soaps, and now, it seems, award-winning investigations are no longer factual programmes. Instead, our TV screens are proffering us real life - but with a twist. Non-fiction is served up, mixed with fiction. Or, as Alan Clark might put it, the people who make the shows have become "economical with the actualite".

The most shocking example of combining fiction with fact is the alleged decision by an award-winning Carlton documentary team to fake a programme about Colombian drug-smugglers. In recent months two other documentaries: The Driving School on BBC1 and Channel 4's Cutting Edge - Rogue Males, have been revealed to contain faked scenes. Those involved in such programmes are (perhaps not surprisingly) reluctant to talk on the record.

The BBC admitted that scenes in The Driving School, including one in which the infamous Maureen Rees wakes her husband up at 4am to test her on the Highway Code, were faked. It may, with a second's thought, seem blindingly obvious that a camera crew didn't hunker down in Maureen's bedroom every night waiting to catch the scene, but documentaries do claim to be real life. There was also a suggestion that some of her minor car crashes might have been pre-planned.

Channel 4 was even more embarrassed in February when a Cutting Edge documentary supposed to be about a group of "ducking and diving" cowboy builders was exposed as being largely a reconstruction of the men's claims. Some characters who appeared to be strangers actually knew each other. Three of the characters had been seen in a previous documentary: one who appeared was said to have "roped in a few mates" for the programme. Blushing Channel 4 could only say at the time: "There was an element of reconstructed truth of sorts, but there is not a documentary around which does not have an element of that in it."

It seems that in the case of The Connection, the soap-doc's casual attitude to the verite may have flowed from the popular fly-on-the-wall genre to the supposedly serious world of undercover investigations.

"There is a distinction between making use of the grammar of television and making things up," says the producer of one of TV's most successful soap-docs. "Undoubtedly if you film someone getting into a lift and then cut to a shot of the lift doors closing from the inside, you've intervened, in reality, to move the story along. It's also acceptable to re-shoot scenes because of technical problems.My personal benchmark is would this have happened anyway? If so we can re-shoot it."

In some soap-docs, characters will talk straight to camera to explain the context of scenes, sometimes a narrator will do it. In the more dramatic docs, a bit of exposition through faked dialogue is also used to move things along.

But it is not just the film-makers' tricks that viewers need to be wary of. Many producers talk about dull and listless members of the public coming to life when a camera appears. The most notorious example was the BBC's film about the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool. As one rival producer puts it: "Every time the film crew appeared in Hotel, someone got a bollocking."

The propensity of the public to act up for the cameras has been taken to its logical extreme in the studio confessional shows where professional guests are now a regular feature.

Dave Smith, a 39-year-old unemployed man from Colchester, admits to having appeared on more than 20 daytime chat shows, including Kilroy and The Time, The Place. Once he pretended to be a loan shark and on another occasion a man who fantasised about killing his wife. "I did it because I got a kick out of it and I wanted to break into TV," he explained. "I've got my mates doing it too now. We get put up in pounds 200-a-night hotels and once we ran up a pounds 400 bar bill."

Mr Smith believes that some TV researchers, who are desperate for dramatic guests, have suppressed their suspicions of him in order to get him on their show. However, after appearing at the Edinburgh Television Festival last year to explain his hoaxes, the Kilroy show now rings him at home if it suspects he might be on the guest list, using a pseudonym.

Kilroy has suffered other embarrassments: last year it was censured by the BBC after a hoaxer appeared on the show claiming to be a paedophile.

The standard explanation for television producers' deceptions is that the competitive pressure for ratings now means real life is not dramatic enough.

However, some think that in the case of The Connection, pressure to get ratings was combined with old-fashioned journalistic ego: One award-winning producer for Channel 4 said: "The programming heads only want sexy subjects like crime and drugs, so you can imagine the programme- makers pitching this great story to ITV and then discovering that their only contact was a Colombian waitress. Rather than go back and admit defeat, it looks like they just made it up."