The man transforming the BBC's film-making

Future documentaries will have the appeal of hit films, Alan Hayling tells Meg Carter
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The Independent Online

Four months into the job as head of the BBC's documentary department and Alan Hayling has already transformed the place. He has persuaded BBC1 to show an unprecedented pre-lunchtime documentary series, called All in a Day, telling life-changing stories that happen in the space of 24 hours. He has begun production of The Regiment (detailing the experiences of a British army unit on a tour of duty in Basra) and - in a co-production with the American broadcaster HBO - he plans to tell the story of the Beslan massacre.

Four months into the job as head of the BBC's documentary department and Alan Hayling has already transformed the place. He has persuaded BBC1 to show an unprecedented pre-lunchtime documentary series, called All in a Day, telling life-changing stories that happen in the space of 24 hours. He has begun production of The Regiment (detailing the experiences of a British army unit on a tour of duty in Basra) and - in a co-production with the American broadcaster HBO - he plans to tell the story of the Beslan massacre.

This - on top of a commitment to Hayling from the BBC 2 controller Roly Keating to show 16 90-minute narrative documentaries in weekday 9pm slots from next summer - is important and heartwarming news for programme makers who had started to despair of the BBC's attitude towards the genre.

Hayling, who arrived at the BBC from the independent production company Mentorn Barraclough Carey and spent a decade working at Channel 4, pulls a sheet of A4 from the bottom draw of the desk in his office in White City. This was the hit list he drew up just after starting his new role.

"I want to raise the profile of the documentaries department to give it a sense of itself - because for two or three years before my arrival there was no departmental head, and no clear leadership or vision - to expand its output across all channels," he explains. "I want to champion the single documentary; to develop more documentary drama by fostering a higher production value sensibility within factual programme-making; to do more international co-production; to encourage more innovative pre-watershed documentaries; to do more biography; and to encourage more authored documentaries by securing the best talent from within and outside this department and allowing it to grow and develop a voice."

For Hayling, authorship is a particular passion. "Although the essence of documentary-making remains the same, television audiences seem to be developing attention deficit syndrome en masse, which means we have to try harder to ensure that what we do really stands out," he says. "For a while, documentary-making at the BBC had no clear sense of direction or leadership. At the same time, Channel 4 moved decisively into 'soft documentary' formats such as Faking It and Wife Swap. BBC 2 wasn't a particularly friendly place for documentaries at the time. And so documentary-makers lost both their voice and confidence."

Roly Keating's switch from BBC 4 to BBC 2 shortly after Hayling's arrival marked a turning point. Keating's record proved his commitment to single documentaries. Meanwhile, channel heads and commissioners were waking up to the audience pulling power of documentaries on television and at the cinema following the success of Touching the Void, Fahrenheit 9/11, and Bowling for Columbine. Hayling is well-positioned to exploit this. He started out as a BBC trainee, spent 10 years at Channel 4, latterly as editor of nations and regions, and more recently worked at Mentorn, where he was development director.

He believes the current popularity for feature-length documentaries - on television, where a growing number of broadcasters are committing budgets of more than £1m to "super documentaries" such as Channel 4's forthcoming drama documentaries about Krakatoa and the Blitz, and at the cinema - can only work to his advantage.

"I can now say to film-makers: 'OK, you're making this for BBC 1 at 9pm but imagine it's for the cinema and you have to persuade someone out of their home on a wet February night to pay £8 for a ticket and at the beginning of the film everyone will see the word 'A film by... So, how would you approach this differently?' That's the kind of film-making I want to foster here - not documentaries with niche appeal, but films able to attract and maintain a big audience."

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