The truth about `The Truth About'

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The Independent Online
The `pop doc' director David Green, pulling in audiences of 8 million with `The Truth About Women', is ITV's flavour of the month, writes Rob Brown.

If the traditional documentary community in this country could nominate its very own Neighbour from Hell, there is a good chance it would be David Green. It's an even safer bet that the man who gave us Hollywood Men, Hollywood Women, Hollywood Lovers, Hollywood Sex, Hollywood Kids and Hollywood Pets will never be elected honorary president of the Campaign for Quality Television.

Not that he's bothered. When the aforementioned pressure group was lambasting ITV last week for a lack of commitment to "serious documentaries" and its chairman Ray Fitzwalter was fulminating about the proliferation of "pop docs", Green was merrily receiving the news that the opening episode of his latest ITV documentary strand, The Truth About Women, had attracted more than 8 million viewers.

This can only mean one thing. We'll soon be getting The Truth About Men and in time, no doubt, The Truth About Lovers, The Truth About Sex, The Truth About Kids and, who knows, perhaps even The Truth About Pets.

Self-appointed guardians of "serious documentaries" might strike a chord with ITV's stuffy regulators - the Independent Television Commission unctuously branded Hollywood Women "glib and superficial" - but David Green has evidently got his finger on the pulse of the Great British populace.

His independent production company September Films has proved that it can deliver the demographics that Britain's biggest commercial channel is desperate to offer up to advertisers: The Truth About Women grabbed a 48 per cent share of the highly elusive16-34 audience.

So, Green's outfit can bank upon a steady stream of further commissions from ITV, whose new programme chief, David Liddiment, is preparing to deploy factual entertainment as a prime weapon in his determined bid to revive its prime-time ratings performance.

"What David Liddiment has been saying recently is music to my ears," says Green. "ITV has been our main outlet for factual entertainment for the last seven years. We're talking to them about a whole raft of new series for the next two years."

But it isn't just ITV's eagerness to revive ratings which is proving a boon for populist producers, in his view. It's the whole New Labour, New Britain Zeitgeist. "A fresh young government more in tune with the nation is forcing television commissioners to embrace the same spirit," enthuses Green. "The fuss which surrounded Hollywood Women five years ago just wouldn't happen today. This is a much more relaxed and self-confident country than it has been for many years.

"In Blair's New Britain women feel much more comfortable. They see Parliament packed with women MPs and a Prime Minister who treats his female colleagues as equals. The Truth About Women captures the new mood of the nation."

Green is also greatly encouraged by the sudden rebirth of the British film industry, the stagnation of which made it all too easy for him to head off to Hollywood in 1990 after directing Buster, one of the few British box office successes of the late 1980s - that took five years to get off the ground.

Green spent three years in southern California, during which he directed the action adventure movie Wings of the Apache for Disney and learnt the art of making movies for TV - a kill he is set to transplant to these shores. September Films has struck a deal with Pearson Television International to develop nine TV movies in batches of three. The first three, all thrillers, will have the style and pace of American TV movies but will be shot in Britain with British stories.

September Films also last year produced an acclaimed arthouse movie, House of America, which was screened at the Sundance Festival. Indeed, his critics in the Campaign for Quality Television might care to note that the list of "serious documentaries" ITV did screen last year included two produced by September Films for the Network First strand.

"I've made a lot of serious documentaries in the course of my career and there are a lot of serious themes in both the Hollywood and Truth series. They are wrapped around an entertainment core to ensure that you get 8 million viewers and not just 800,000."

Warming to this unashamedly populist theme, he continues: "I want to create talking point television, or what the Americans call watercooler TV - programmes people gather round in their workplaces the next morning to eagerly discuss." The Truth About Women was actually hailed by Hello! magazine as "the sort of show people will be talking about the following day". Given the range of UK celebrities providing talking heads for the series - including model Melinda Messenger, singer Toyah Wilcox and novelist Dame Barbara Cartland - it was bound to impress that magazine. But Green emphasises that only 20 per cent of the participants fall into the rich- and-famous category.

His decision to return to Britain in 1993 stemmed from domestic rather than career considerations. "I enjoyed living and working in LA, but I didn't want my children to become Hollywood kids," he says. "It's a very unreal world for children to be brought up in. They get too much too soon."

Although Belsize Park in London might get less sun than Bel Air, David Green and his wife Jane are delighted to see their three children Jessica (14), Samuel (12) and Jacob (8) not simply playing computer games all day but also reading books.

Green got his first big break while at Trinity College, Oxford, when he persuaded Colin Welland, already an established television writer, that an uppity undergraduate could, and should, direct his first stage play. He obviously didn't mess it up, because he was soon inundated with offers from rival TV stations.

He plumped for Yorkshire TV, where he rose rapidly from general researcher to direct some of the early episodes of Emmerdale Farm at the absurdly young age of 23.

Between 1973 and 1981 Green directed more than 100 network dramas and documentaries. One of his most satisfying tasks during that period was to direct Whicker's World, which really ignited his passion for factual entertainment. "Alan Whicker became a national institution not just because of his unique attributes as a broadcaster, but because there were far fewer channels in his heyday," observes Green. "No front man today, not even Chris Evans, can ever hope to pull in 20 million viewers."

Still, while recognising that the media marketplace is fragmenting, Green refuses to reconcile himself to narrowcasting.

"I think the majority of the British public in five years' time will be still watching six channels - the existing five terrestrial ones plus Sky One."

BSkyB's mainstream entertainment channel has just commissioned September Films to supply it with a new 13-part British lifestyle series. Green has been greatly impressed by Liz Murdoch (Rupert's daughter), especially her declared commitment to produce more indigenous British productions. "Terrestrial broadcasters will ignore her growing presence at their peril," he warns. "She and Dawn Airey are both formidable television executives, both young and immensely passionate about the medium."

Dawn Airey is head of programmes at Channel 5, for which September Films produces a lifestyles of the rich and famous series called Fame and Fortune. She disclosed to the trade journal Broadcast that Green once pitched to her in "a bloody swimming pool".

September Films also produced The Investigator - a 90-minute drama which conscripted Helen Baxendale in the role of a lesbian in the armed forces - for Channel 4 and is currently developing a family saga set in the legal profession for BBC1, called Mayfield and Mayfield.

Green, who recently turned 49, is "very ambitious for September Films" and has devised a 10-year plan for turning it into a formidable force in both big and small screen productions. His approach to achieving this dual objective is probably explained by a quote which he cut out from a magazine and has pinned up on the wall of his Soho office: "In business you don't get what you deserve, but what you negotiate."

It sits alongside a photocopied sheet, which reads: "The TV business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs ... But it also has a negative side."

Rather a different message from the "Desiderata", but following this tongue-in-cheek philosophy plainly hasn't done David Green any harm.