Paul Watson: 'The press told me I was finished'

After the furore over 'Malcolm and Barbara', Paul Watson's career seemed to be over. But now he's bouncing back with a vengeance, says John Mair
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A month ago Paul Watson's career looked to be over. An ITV legal inquiry had ruled against him on the publicity claims made for his film Malcolm and Barbara: Love's Farewell, which suggested he had filmed a man as he died. Watson was an apparent victim of British television's summer of scandal.

But while the industry as a whole is still in the doldrums, Watson is on the crest of a wave. He has won three major prizes in three weeks for his last BBC film, Rain In My Heart, and on Friday, at the prestigious Grierson Awards, he is in line for a Lifetime Achievement award. Watson has been nominated for eight Baftas in the past, but has never won. "I am the dog with the wrong smell," is the film-maker's explanation. "You don't make documentaries to make friends." Now, it seems, his luck has changed.

Rain In My Heart, a 100-minute film about alcoholism, won a Mental Health Media award last month in London, in spite of being a hard watch with no frills. "I created a new language: no cutaways in the entire film. All as told. No whimsical pictures," says Watson. Then at the Prix Europa Awards in Berlin, he won the prize for best television documentary. "This empathetic film is an account about alcoholism with four characters that accepted the camera into the most intimate and desperate parts of their lives, and deaths. The filmmaker gets thoroughly involved in his compassionate relationship with his protagonists, chronicling their journey through hell," said the judges.

As Watson took to the stage to accept "the first piece of metal I have ever won in my life" he used the opportunity to rant about the state of the BBC. A week later he was back in Germany to collect the Best Humanitarian Film award at the Leipzig Film Festival. Some comeback.

"I was told by the press that I was finished," remembers Watson, whose place in the firmament of British TV documentary was secured by his pioneering fly-on-the-wall film The Family back in 1974. Nevertheless, he is a prophet largely without honour in his own land.

During the Malcolm and Barbara inquiry by ITV, Watson sought solace in his first love, art. He is a Royal College of Art-trained painter, with at least one early work bought for the National Collection. Today he makes tapestries at home in Kent. "I have just finished one after five years," he says.

At 66, he has reinvented himself by writing plays for Radio Four. One is finished and two others have been commissioned. As always with Watson, there are twists in the tale. "It's set in 1768 and I am in it," he says. "Why make documentaries in the present? Why not in the past in the present tense? I am the wedding guest at the court of the Ancient Mariner. I ask questions some say are cheeky, rude and improper."

Critics might say Watson is safer in fiction after recent events. In July, he toured radio studios to publicise Malcolm and Barbara: Love's Farewell, allowing the impression that he had filmed the moment of death to take root. In fact, Watson stopped filming three days before, when Malcolm Pointon slipped into a fatal coma, as Pointon's brother, Graham, the former Head of the BBC Pronunciation Unit, publicly pointed out.

Watson was left to salvage a 40-year reputation. He had some help. "Barbara Pointon supported me all summer as a member of her family. I don't know anybody in TV. But I knew who my friends were this summer."

He hired solicitors to fight his corner against the might of ITV. It was strange (and expensive) territory for a man more used to getting down on video with the dispossessed. "Nobody asked me in the cutting room whether it was the death. No suits came into cutting room. I was let down by the apparatchiks."

Watson was subject to a four-hour grilling, accompanied only by his wife, another Barbara, who took notes. The enquiry found, by and large, against Watson, while saying he had not "deliberately" misled the broadcaster. ITV was slightly contrite, with chairman Michael Grade declaring that they might work with Watson again. Not if Watson has his way. "ITV say they want to make another film with me. It's very unlikely. Nobody in ITV has spoken to me since August," he bellows.

During the "Deathgate" row, Watson's many enemies in television had a field day. He is nothing if not outspoken. "The position of being honest is the best position," is his self analysis. "I am intemperately clever... a bugger... and a softie." In recent years, the "father of fly-on-the-wall" has laid into landmark shows such as Big Brother and Wife Swap. They were firmly not his progeny. Even today he says: "They are not a marker for history. I don't put a repertory company together. I don't cast. I make films that represent people. I don't make films which repress people."

However you cut it, Watson is a one-off. Three and more decades ago Paul turned the Wilkins family of Reading into the first factual TV soap superstars. They are still friends. "Margaret Wilkins said to me, 'All my life I have been waiting for you to come along Paul'." Millions tuned in week after week.

Watson has followed that project with an unparalleled canon of work from The Fishing Party in 1985, which blew Thatcherism apart on screen, and Sarajevo in 1992, which showed a city and country in conflict.

What is being celebrated next Friday is a career which began when Watson was a researcher on Whicker's World 40 years ago. He learned to take risks there. "We worked even harder for Alan. He could write us out of trouble. There's nothing wrong with trouble." A mantra he has maintained throughout his career.