As pathetic as any TV dinner

What a sad business. Tonight on Channel 4, `The Dinner Party', sensation of the season, a flyweight replacement for documentaries that are really worth watching. By John Lyttle

Paul Watson's Cutting Edge film "The Dinner Party" goes out on Channel 4 tonight. I won't be tuning in. I've had my reluctant fill of documentaries featuring tiddly middle-class types at table supposedly "exposing" themselves (and, of course, the state of the nation) while we, the superior and exquisitely flattered viewers, cluck over loose talk debasing blacks, gays, street crime and the shiftless poor, muttering "How could they?" and "Don't they realise there's a camera running?" as if our lapping up the sight didn't also say something nasty about where we are now. Our response is smug cliche, and that's fitting because so is the film's over-determined fly-in-the-soup viewpoint.

Off the top of my head: BBC2's Modern Times on Tesco and mangetout, with sundry Hampstead/Islington/Whatever types around the table, wittering back and forth about Third World exploitation over the freshly brewed coffee. Again: Cutting Edge's "Paradise Island", with the easily alarmed literally out to lunch, wanting to get away from it all - blacks, gays, street crime, the shiftless poor - and to make their own little heaven on earth.

Surely the middle classes know by now that their own little heaven on earth is the bulk of documentary today. Here's Modern Times on those awful nannies, Cutting Edge on cowboy builders and vulgar vacuum machine salesmen, over to Modern Times for house husbands, before sunbathing down at the Lido, only watch for that nice Mrs Howard failing her driving test for the 42nd time ...

And why go on? No matter the undoubted merits of individual entries, as a genre we're talking about a stifling and ultimately complacent phenomenon, circling around and around its own tight little loop of reference. A tight little loop that Paul Watson assures us is"representative of the country", except that you'll see no blacks, gays, street criminals or shiftless poor knocking back the port at "The Dinner Party".

Perhaps their invitations were lost in the post. Or perhaps it was unconsciously understood that such voices, imparting their own opinions, would expose not the nation, but the arrangement that allows such timid exercises between, let us say, class mates, to pass as searing, campaigning and socially concerned, and to garner the sort of shock-horror headlines it used to take a Cathy Come Home or a Poor Cow or The Spongers or The War Game or, later, Roger Graef's Police series, to generate. Unsettling work that pushed, shoved, kicked and bashed - things "The Dinner Party", one suspects, will play at.

"Scratch society and it bleeds," wrote Paul Watson last Thursday in the London Evening Standard, and "scratch" is the word to watch. Basically, scratching is all that's permitted, although film-makers will give, and will be encouraged to give, by their counterparts in the media (whether pro or con), the impression of having inflicted wounds. It's all part of the same game - pretending that documentary is somehow still dangerous when we have to count ourselves lucky for even a pin-prick of purpose.

There are reasons why much of documentary is what it is at the moment. This not merely a question of subject matter, but of tone and technique, because occasionally, when the material would lead the unsuspecting to assume one thing, the treatment will deliver something else entirely. The recent series The System, for instance, nominally dealt with the Department of Social Security, and yet was oddly - but rightly -reviewed as "a thing of almost lyrical beauty ... this gave us every available fact but with an artist's eye ... it is difficult to praise the sensitive photography too highly". In other words, ugly life and uglier issues were aesthetically ... Contained? Neutered? Banished?

Whereas a programme such as "The Bed", a year in the life of a NHS bed, will besnubbed for its "desire to educate us directly about the state of the health service". This blunt focus on grim fact is described as "a failure of nerve", when it is just out of step, a troubling oddity in an era when "metaphor" is the rage, and literate audiences can occupy themselves with reading, and either agreeing or disagreeing with, the metaphor.

This clever "doing something" handily replaces that other, guilt-inducing "doing something" that "The Bed" pushily insists upon, though even "The Bed" is "a mobile metaphor". "The Dinner Party" is a metaphor also, just as we're reminded that Paul Watson's earlier "The Fishing Party" was a metaphor "about Thatcher's Britain". Last year's "The Museum", too, was "a metaphor for the country", as was "The House", "a sly metaphor", as was Molly Dineen's (superb) "The Ark", "a metaphor for modern beastliness". Ditto "Defence of the Realm", and ...

Why go on? Name any other institutional documentary you care to. They're all open to interpretation - a protection that direct address doesn't allow. Metaphor is many things, and a type of censorship can be among them.

Metaphor flourishes when direct address is curtailed. And, as any documentary- maker will tell you - off the record - the men at the top aren't keen on it. Over their cups, they'll evoke the watersheds of "Death on the Rock" and "Edge of the Union" and the dangers of dealing with overt politics. They will bemoan the demise of the investigative First Tuesday, Viewpoint 93 and This Week (nothing to do with "Death on the Rock", naturally) and tut-tut over World in Action and its weekly "gimmick" stories chosen and "spun" to hold the ratings, though it may mean going as far as entrapping punters into being dishonest.

But then stitching them up is part of the job nowadays. Never mind fly- on-the-wall, why did I think the hidden camera was so popular? The viewers love it. Some might ask if Granada's flagship "could not now perhaps address some genuine issues". but - much shaking of heads - that's not what the punters want.

They'll give it to you unvarnished: aren't all the films "about separating Siamese twins beginning to blur into one"? Ha ha ha. Out of tragedy, formula; but don't blame them, that's today's marketplace, where the investigative hangs on, but simply doesn't excite, or - wink, wink - lead to further commissions and bigger budgets. The days when Paul Watson could shoot "The Family" and it not be a metaphor are long gone, understand? No, the trick is to appear serious while delivering sensation. Who wants to know about repetitive RAF plane crashes when tracking lost children grabs the up-market column inches, or hadn't I noticed how the barriers between what constituted tabloid and broadsheet were dissolving too? Cosy.

And, sorry, but you've got to sell yourself. It's like this: you're only as good as your last hit. The pace was set by Michael Moore and Nick Broomfield, and Paul Watson too. They don't blame either him or Channel 4 for letting the press in early on "The Dinner Party", because didn't Watson do old people in The Home perfectly straight last year, and what for? Worthy lip service.

And what was his reward for "The Factory"? A pat on the back from Peter Moore, C4's head of documentary: "Paul has been more restrained and accurate in his juxtaposition of the managers and the workers. They are not crude, cut-out caricatures."

And none of this would matter, one could possibly even sympathise, if some documentary-makers still did not anoint themselves as lofty cultural and social commissars rather than, in the face of the aforementioned factors, unctuous entertainers - standing by and inviting us to seethe impotently, and self-importantly, about these terrible people and these terrible problems when once we would have been, at the very least, challenged. Action, never mind resolution, isn't expected or required, and the burden of challenge and change is increasingly dumped into despised drama-doc: "Shoot to Kill", "Hillsborough", "No Child of Mine".

In the end it's all chatter, chatter, chatter. That's the deal. Which doesn't stop the deluded from describing themselves in print as artists, painters, subversives, radicals, agents provocateurs. I wish. I really wish. But Paul Watson should know that when he boasts that "the people that watch my films sometimes want to kick in the TV", their rage might be for reasons other than he thinks.

Cutting Edge: `The Dinner Party' is on Channel 4 at 9pm tonight.

Life and Style
“What is it like being a girl?” was the question on the lips of one inquisitive Reddit user this week
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Life and Style
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
peopleMario Balotelli poses with 'shotgun' in controversial Instagram pic
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

(Junior) IT Systems Administrator / Infrastructure Analyst

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly ...

Sales Engineer - Cowes - £30K-£40K

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Sales Engineer - Cow...

Web / Digital Analyst - Google Analytics, Omniture

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client who are a leading publisher in...

Sales Perfomance Manager. Marylebone, London

£45-£57k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice