Ian Burrell: Idealism still exists in public service broadcasting – as the career of the brilliant film-maker Ken Burns demonstrates

The Media Column

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The Independent Online

Ken Burns has dedicated his life to documenting the American story through television and is – in many people’s estimation – one of the finest producers of factual programming in the world.

His masterpiece The Civil War, a nine-part epic of more than 11 hours watched by 40 million people in 1990, has left a lasting impression on the national psyche. In minute detail, he has explored defining moments in the evolution of the United States in works such as Prohibition (more than five hours) and The Dust Bowl (four hours on the environmental disaster of the Great Depression). He has made biographies of American heroes such as Mark Twain and Thomas Jefferson, and lionised architectural icons in Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty.

But he is more than a historian. Series such as Baseball (18.5 hours long and made in 1994) and Jazz (10 episodes, each of two hours, made in 2000) help Americans to understand the role of sport and music in their national culture.

And he has done all this on American public television, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), a platform that does not enjoy the international reputation of the BBC and is backed by a far more fragile funding model.

Burns is both a symbol of the essential value of non-commercial television and an example of what can be achieved in terms of quality and ambition. For all the BBC’s great roster of factual specialists, from Sir David Attenborough to Brian Cox and, lately, the historian Clare Jackson, watching the oeuvre of this great American documentary maker does raise the question: “Where is our Ken Burns?”

Clearly, he occupies a special position in the US. He tells me that his “incredibly enriching” but “complex life” amounts to “the best job in the country”. From a village base in New Hampshire, with “very low overheads”, he oversees a team of freelancers that can swell to 40 when work is at a peak.

It surely is now. Burns, 61, currently has five major series in production: a 10-parter on the Vietnam War that is in the edit stage, a 14-hour tribute to country music called I Can’t Stop Loving You, biographies of Ernest Hemingway and African-American baseball great Jackie Robinson, and a six-hour treatment of Indian-American physician Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Pulitzer prize-winning book on the story of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies.

At the same time, Burns is promoting his latest work, The Roosevelts, An Intimate History, which will have its premiere on PBS America in the UK (Sky 534, Virgin Media 243) this Friday. The same channel is this week showing The War, Burns’s 2007 series on the American experience of the Second World War.

Burns is hopeful that his new series will find an enthusiastic audience in the UK, citing as “Anglophiles” Franklin D Roosevelt, the 32nd US president, and his wife, Eleanor (who is voiced by Meryl Streep – although Burns never uses actors visually). The Roosevelt home, Springwood, in Hyde Park, New York, was modelled on the “manors of their old-money friends in England”.

He wishes to raise the profile in the UK of Theodore “TR” Roosevelt, the 26th president (1901-1909), and fifth cousin of FDR. “I know that in Britain TR doesn’t figure as large, he seems to be a minor player, but he’s not,” he says. “Theodore remains arguably the most popular president we have ever had – that is to say, popular when he was president.” By contrast, FDR, revered in Britain for his role in the war, is blamed in the US for his support of “big government”, the film-maker says.

That same mentality means that a BBC funding model could never prevail in America, Burns believes. “It would never happen in the United States, just because of the way we are. You don’t have the same gun culture that we do, I’m happy to say. Your health system is not a point of contention – Maggie Thatcher was as proud of the health system as any Labour Party prime minister.”

And so he has to fund his great work with a begging bowl. “We are in public broadcasting, which means I have to go out and raise all the money not from investors but from contributors.” Around a quarter of his money – and about 15 per cent of PBS’s total budget – comes from federal funding. “I end up on Capitol Hill, pleading for our existence.”

Burns reminds America’s politicians that programmes such as The Civil War could be made only by PBS. The big networks doubt the commercial viability of his work, despite its obvious popularity. “The presumption is that this stuff is still too much [like] eating your veggies,” he complains.

In fact, changes in media technology demonstrate the need for high-quality content. Bingeing on epic series allows the consumer “a little bit of control, to keep the rising tide of undifferentiated information from drowning us”. He hopes his long-form style (mocked by jealous rivals as “slow Burns”) can counter trends towards short attention spans. “I don’t think we should all be ADHD, nobody wants that.”

The internet has been a “boon” for finding archive photographs, while his panning and zooming camera technique of bringing old pictures “to life” is built into Apple software and labelled the “Ken Burns effect”.

He has his own dream that the family of Martin Luther King will one day allow him free editorial control to make a biography of “one of the most important human beings in American history”.

But, whichever way Thursday’s Scottish referendum goes, he won’t be making a film tribute to Robert Burns, to whom – genealogists recently confirmed – he is directly related. He is too close to the subject, he says, quoting his ancestor’s lines in “To a Louse”: “O wad some Power the giftie gie us to see oursels as ithers see us!”

In terms of how he’s seen by his own peers, the film-maker can rest assured. If only we had his like.