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.

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