Filmmaker Roger Graef sets out his 12 point manifesto for filmmakers and commissioners.
Recorded at BAFTA 195 Piccadilly on Monday 12 May 2014.
John Willis: Thank you for the applause. I’m John Willis, I’m the Chairman of BAFTA and I’m absolutely delighted to welcome you all here this evening. Apparently there were so many people wanting to come we’ve had to have an overspill outside. That hasn’t happened since Dustin Hoffman, so thank you Roger for filling up the red seats. For 50 years, Roger Graef has been in the forefront of British documentary making. Passionate, committed, an innovator, a risk-taker and a teacher. We’re marking and celebrating those 50 remarkable years with this special BAFTA tribute.
In his 160 documentaries Roger has unflinchingly examined British institutional life using a pioneering fly on the wall technique to penetrate prisons and police forces, hospitals and boardrooms. He’s one of the few documentary makers to have clearly shaped public policy, particularly in criminal justice. But more than that, more than telling hidden stories, Roger has actively used the power of his documentaries to engage in a wider debate, a national conversation. He’s truly given something back, not just to our industry, but to society at large.
This evening following a brief address from Roger, he’ll reflect on his work in conversation with Charlotte Moore, the Controller of BBC One. As you can see, we’re filming tonight’s event for our websites. BAFTA aims to inspire the next generation of talent through the reflections and achievements of great practitioners like Roger on our learning site BAFTA Guru. Here on Thursday, BAFTA hosts the second of our documentary double-header by celebrating 25 years on Channel 4 of Cutting Edge with a great panel of Brian Hill, Peter Moore and Emma Cooper. But now, without further ado, here’s our special guest Roger Graef.
Roger Graef: This is a huge honour and I’m very, very touched by it, but I will try not to cry. But this is BAFTA so I have to start with thanks and obviously thanks to John for the very effusive and kind words that you’ve just said, the TV Committee for putting on this event, and the wonderful Kam and Julia from BAFTA who actually organised it, and the astonishing Alice Allen who produced the event. And it’s rather like being at your own memorial service without actually dying which is very nice. This is the better side of all that.
Now, what I want to talk about was prompted partly by last week a report from BBC Trust that was blaming Panorama for not having enough viewers or making enough impact. And I respectfully disagree. And then I saw a recent report by Ofcom that warned Channel 4 to improve its ratings or face a threat to its rules and its remit. But as one of the founding members of the Channel 4 board I can say, and I’ve checked the more recent Broadcasting Act, the channel’s remit is not about ratings.
So tonight I want to set out a manifesto for the future and I hope it will help filmmakers and commissioners build on the current success of documentaries. And I want to dedicate this talk to Panorama under Tom Giles, with whom we’ve made many challenging and impactful documentaries that have had substantial audiences. And Dispatches, that has also backed major documentaries like Syria: Across The Lines, and blurring the line between current affairs and documentaries helps to bring the human face to stories that are only summarised by the news.
Now the basis of this manifesto is that well-made documentaries are islands of evidence and tools for changes in a sea of noise. And we need good documentaries more than ever. The experience they provide is far deeper and more memorable than soundbites or rolling and internet news. They now sit at the centre of television culture and they need to be recognised and protected as such. They’re more like books and plays and works of art than just tomorrow’s fish and chips.
Now the world in which we make and broadcast our work has changed dramatically. Global communications bombard us 24/7 on what are many platforms. And what passes for information too often is biased, or worse, it's driven by governments, media moguls, or just fanatics with their own religious and political agendas.
So, item one on this manifesto is time. Time is a key to protecting our work. We need time to resist that bias. We need time to check our sources.
And this traditional journalistic rule has been swamped by the pressure of deadlines, by the need to be first online, on air or on Twitter. And people are now obliged to file at least six stories a day, or fill 24 hours of airtime. So they turn increasingly to pre-packaged press releases or video, as the Media Standards Trust site churnalism.com will show you. Now they use Wikipedia as a primary source. Right that's just wrong, and it gives the illusion of information.
And let me give you a recent example. The 'Bring Back Our Girls' Twitter campaign is a huge success, everybody knows about it worldwide, and it used images of African schoolgirls. Can I just ask, how many of you have seen those images on Bring Back Our Girls? Quite a few, okay. Now there's only one snag. Those girls are not Nigerian; they were not kidnapped or sexually assaulted. They are happily going to school every day in Guinea-Bissau. That’s a thousand miles from Nigeria. And their images were taken from the foundation website who had hired the photographer, and went worldwide on trusted networks including the BBC.
And when the photographer realised and found out he called the BBC and asked that they be taken down. The corporation resisted on the grounds, and I quote him: “that the images are already out there.” Now, the BBC finally did take them down, but the singer Chris Morris who’s one of the big backers of the campaign refused and is still using them. And the impact on those girls and their families of this unwelcome and wildly inaccurate publicity would actually be a good subject for a documentary. But, in today’s climate, because it’s a foreign story, not about a war or a natural disaster, it would be very hard to get it commissioned.
So, that brings me to the next point, point two; we need more foreign stories in documentaries, not just about countries in extremis. And in the past there were many programme strands that specialised in foreign coverage like Europa, Under The Sun, Disappearing World and Correspondent. The success of the Correspondent, the BBC’s This World had many more slots, I loved working for it and I loved watching it. But now it’s got to fight for its space in primetime and the very good Unreported World on commercial, on Channel 4, is only half a commercial hour. And BBC Four which had lots of foreign documentaries no longer has the money for them.
Now there’s an editorial problem too; the resistance to stories, to foreign stories, even from Northern Ireland and Europe as well as further afield leaves huge holes in our knowledge of the world. It feeds the ignorance of diplomats and politicians and journalists about countries like Iraq, Ukraine and Afghanistan with what we all know are disastrous consequences.
And right now with Ukraine it’s interesting. If you contrast the radically different versions of news about Ukraine on American television, Russian television and Ukrainian television and their websites, you would hardly think they were talking about the same event. One person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist, and so on. And they really are reviving the Cold War because that’s the kind of default mode of understanding the scenario, rather than the complexity of history and shared values and all sorts of other things, and the threat posed by NATO.
Now closer to home we have the so-called debate about Europe in the run-up to the elections. And if you don’t have reliable sources like documentaries, you believe what you see really from UKIP, or else the other people who are equally nuanced in their coverage. And you fill in the gaps with your own prejudices; there’s nothing else to reference.
Now Panorama does… Sorry, number three is that commissioners need the time and the freedom to take more risks. And Panorama does take risks contrary to the BBC Trust report. It invests the necessary time to get the evidence as seen in both its recent special and its care home, sorry, special hospital and care home specials. I hope you saw them, the last one was on just a week ago and they’re really powerful and very important pieces of social intervention by the programme. So too has Channel 4’s Dispatches, which the Trust rightly praises.
But documentary makers and commissioners are constricted by something which those of you who are not broadcasters or involved in it will not know called the ed spec, editorial specification, that obliges us to predict our film’s content in detail before we even start shooting. Now, for unstaged access observational films this is especially pointless, because nobody involved, even they don’t know what is going to happen. So the ed spec becomes a kind of fiction really, just you know at best a kind of best guess made far too early.
And for example, I don’t know, lots of you I think did see our series on Iceland, the supermarket, and we had no idea the horse meat scandal was going to break in the middle of filming it. It became a very important theme which we could not have predicted, and every observational filmmaker in the room will have similar stories.
Now, four; that also involves loosening control of commissioning from the top. And the reason that both Panorama and Dispatches succeed so often is that they are programme strands, and the strand editors can back their hunches and filmmakers’ hunches as Nick Fraser does at Storyville. We need to bring back more strands like Modern Times and Cutting Edge, which John told you will be celebrated here on Thursday night. And controllers need to give strand editors the freedom and the resources to take risks that may not always pan out on air.
Now that, really important that, because for example, the Panorama special on Winterbourne View, which you again may or will remember how shocking that was. But it took well over a year and visits and researching undercover in various special hospitals. When they finally showed it, it became a national scandal and led to changes across the care sector. And last week’s shocking care home film looks like doing the same thing. This is public service broadcasting at its best, but you can’t predict it, you can’t say it will last this long, and you can’t say this is what we’re going to find. It’s called research.
Now the Dispatches, Syria: Across The Lines was a huge gamble. I don’t know, how many of you have seen Syria: Across The Lines? Not enough. Look it up. It’s an absolutely brilliant film and it’s won rightly awards across the board from various places. It was made by a filmmaker, Olly Lambert, who managed with the time and backing of Dispatches to win the confidence of a village that was split by a river, in which one side was backing the government, and the other side was the rebels. And he went to one side, won their confidence, and then was sent back and won the other side’s. So it’s an astonishing film in which you come closer to the story of why Syria’s so intractable than really almost all of the journalism that I’ve read. It’s incredible. And the same long-term support was involved in the hugely influential film which I hope you’ll remember called The Secret Policeman which exposed casual racism in the police. That’s another BBC doc that brought about social change.
Now the reason for this dates back to the time when I first started at the BBC in the early seventies when the structure that shifted power upwards was created. And I was told that the BBC had hired McKinsey, the consultants, to show the then government that they were good value for the license fee. And McKinsey’s standard answer to such problems was to pay the key decision-makers properly. But the problem was the key decision-makers were us, producers, and there were 200 of us, so the BBC didn’t really like that idea. And they also couldn’t tell the government they’d wasted what in those days was a fortune, 750grand I was told, so they created the pyramid structure of group heads above department heads, and then they had reference upwards in order to give the group heads something to do. They had reference upwards whenever there was a problem, and the stuff that we would deal with on the ground suddenly became other people’s business. And then some years later that led to the abolition of the strands that were there at the time Inside Story and Modern Times and 40 Minutes and all of that, and that put the money and the editorial control in the hands of the controllers of the channel. Right, and now there’s this thing called the double tick system where commissioners need the controllers to double tick it, which is a huge constraint on its own as everybody tries to double guess the controller’s taste. You can see what the problem with that is. And meanwhile the controllers have their own political problems, with you know trying to position their channel viz-a-vis everything else in television. So if we want more innovation, bring back strands. More strands.
Now, five; let subjects speak for themselves. Don’t tell viewers what to think. And what makes that Syria: Across The Lines work so well, and many other films like Ben Anthony’s 7/7, Our War, NHS In A Day, Educating Yorkshire, and the wonderful series in the Maudsley, Bedlam, is that you hear the largely unmediated voices of the people in the films. Commentary, if used at all, is used sparingly merely to set the scene. And this is in marked contrast to what used to be called the ‘Voice of God’ narration that featured so heavily in traditional documentaries, telling viewers exactly what to think.
Now, number six is to find characters that viewers will care about. And documentaries are not fact-driven, even though they’re factual. They are story and character driven, and we need to mind about what happens to the characters in our films. They don’t need to be celebrities, and they don’t need to be in extreme situations like the jungle. They can be, and this is interesting, ordinary people like Maureen in Driving School. How many people remember her? Right, lots. She was a lavatory cleaner in a Liverpool police station, and she became a national figure as well over ten million people, well over ten million, I think it reached 14 at one point, million people followed her efforts to do what? Not climb a mountain, not to do you know something absurd, something extreme, to pass her driving test. Now, do you think if I pitched that today would I get a commission? I doubt it.
But it takes time to find good characters and then win their confidence and cooperation. Marilyn Gaunt who may be here, Marilyn are you here? It took seven months didn’t it to find Kelly and her Sisters, which was an absolutely wonderful programme, magical girls. But it took, because I also knew the person who was researching for you, you know they were touring the country to find these fantastic girls. So, it’s unwise and unproductive to force early casting decisions on unstaged documentaries.
And another thing that’s required of us now a great deal is taster tapes, which are samples of these characters. But if you do it too early in the process, it’s just again rather pointless because you just reach for what’s available, you haven’t got to know the people yourselves yet, and so they may either be too stiff and not be showing their best qualities. And it’s misleading and you miss an opportunity to really do what the best filmmakers do which is watch and learn, and get to know in situations they don’t know all about, who the best people are and to watch them in action, and to then come back and say this is what the film’s going to be. So my mantra on that point is trust the filmmakers to find good people as they immerse themselves in the story. That’s our job, it’s what we all want to do, and it’s worked time and time again in our films, but not at the early stage in development or even when we start filming. Sometimes the best material has happened way down the line.
Now, that leads me to number seven, which is another prediction problem. Don’t try and predict the ratings. The reason for taster tapes and ed specs is to help commissioners justify their decisions to their bosses who run the channels, and to the schedulers who are key players in all of this. All of them are under increasing pressure to boost ratings, as both the BBC Trust and Ofcom have both demanded. Yet, this is the paradox, they also want originality, distinctiveness, surprise and impact, right, which the best documentaries provide. But pre-determining a surprise is a contradiction in terms. Demanding the proof before the films are commissioned and made risks defeating those very goals.
Now for ITV, which depends wholly on advertising, the pressure to put bums on seats is quite understandable. Though, advertisers increasingly want light viewers in higher income brackets, who are drawn by high-quality programmes, especially documentaries. And I’m very proud of the films I’ve made for ITV which did take risks, and in which the last one was called, no it wasn’t the very last film we made, but we made a film called September Mourning about 9/11. We followed four families after the 9/11 happened who were bereaved, and the really interesting thing is that Lucy Fyson who was the director with me said at 63 minutes with no commentary and no music, we can’t cut it down to a 48-minute with two commercial breaks and narration. So I said, come on this is ITV, and I took it to then Diane Nelmes and David Liddiment who was running the channel, and said look, what do we do? And they to their great credit said, you’re right, and they showed 63 minutes, no commercial break, no commentary and no music. And David said it was the best film that he had anything to do with at ITV.
So when you take that kind of risk, the reward is more than just how many viewers you’ve sold, your ads you’ve sold and how many viewers. It is in the very work itself and the cultural experience of that kind of depth. Now, for public service channels there’s less of an excuse. The remit of Channel 4 makes no mention of ratings, and it does call for diversity of content and audience, and for original and distinctive programming. For the BBC, the need to please a broad spectrum of license payers should not be confused with simply the total number of viewers. Moreover, the iPlayer catch-up numbers have yet to be added in, which I found really interesting.
So, what we’re looking at here, even with a complaint about Panorama numbers dropping, is that the average Panorama which is 2.3/2.4million, that equals all the broadsheets put together and more. And we had two films, Films of Record had a film called Kids In Care which had 3.8million people watching it, and the recent Don’t Cap Our Benefits had a similar number. But none of us could have predicted that in advance.
And I must be clear, you know, we celebrate the BBC as an institution. I think it is so precious, it’s one of the reasons I’ve stayed in Britain really. And with the license fee renewal looming, we all have to make sure that it’s protected and not you know cut to some kind of modest version of itself, because then it wouldn’t work in the function that it performs. And we celebrate ratings success. We’re in show business, and you know with challenging films like the two I mentioned it means we’re reaching people in large numbers, but it’s simply counter-productive to try so hard to predict those numbers in advance.
Now, this is an even tougher one, number eight; make room for failure. Lip service is often paid for the room to fail. But in practice the pressure on the ratings, the fight to get commissions in a very crowded market, it makes for caution at every stage. It’s a regression to the mean instead of adventures to the end or the edges of our excitement, our curiosity. Channels need to be seen to support bolder commissions.
Now, there have been some fantastic examples like Morgan Matthews who made a wonderfully moving film called The Fallen about people who died in Afghanistan or Iraq. Angus Macqueen made Gulag. Both of them were three hours long and shown on a single night each, separately of course, on BBC2. And John Willis was involved in one of my very favourite examples, which was a collaboration, you won’t believe this if you’re too young to remember it, between ITV and Channel 4 to back a commission by an unknown Latvian filmmaker, at that point unknown here called Yuri Podnieks, to document the, what was happening, the fall of the Iron Curtain in Latvia. Four hours long, it was called Hello, Do You Hear Me?, and it was launched on ITV and then the other three hours were shown on Channel 4. Now, can you imagine that happening now about Russia and Ukraine? But it was a piece of real social history, and if you can ever find those films, watch them, they’re magic.
But those gambles turned out brilliantly, all of them did. But often the best ideas emerge from dead ends or wrong turnings or failed efforts, but we’re like drug companies burying bad news and repeating the same trials over and over again. We don’t learn from our failures because we do our best to avoid them. I remember the most famous example of learning from failure is the commission for Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? It took five years and many failed attempts. Hollywood says nobody knows anything; it could apply to us as well.
Now for some thoughts for filmmakers. Think about what you’re doing and keep track. Because when we shot on film every roll, ten minutes, cost £140 to process in the labs and synch up with the sound, so it made you think about what you were going to shoot, when and why. Now that was true even in unstaged films, and my collaborators, many of whom are in the room, but most particularly Charles Stewart had the great gift of listening while filming. And so both he and I…., and I gave him the freedom if you like and the responsibility of deciding quite a lot of the time, we were editing in our heads. But now with digital you can shoot as much as you like, it doesn’t cost anything at least at that point, and so editors get drowned in material. And directors often have too little time to view all their rushes, and this is a terrible waste of potential gold.
I think one of the quick stories that, when I made a film with Brian Lapping and Norma Percy, Inside the EU, at the time of the last referendum. Norma said, “there’s a key scene which we haven’t used,” and it was actually inaudible. I was physically present there but I couldn’t hear it. So I said to her, “look, it’s got to be audible for us to use it,” and after we’d edited the film we had the time and made the effort to track down a machine that we could hear it on, and she was absolutely right. It was a key scene in which Stanley Johnson, the Germans, the Danes and the French ended up double-crossing the Dutch. And it was a really important scene, but I’d even been there and I didn’t know it was there. And so because we had enough time, thanks to Granada, we actually found this piece of pure gold and put it in the film.
Now, the lesson of that is number ten; trust your material. You still have to shoot long enough to get good material and find good characters. But once you’ve found them, there’s no need to play around with them in the edit. And you have to resist being formulaic with cutting out of sequence or adding jokey commentary just for effect. And there are many more telly-literate viewers and they don’t like manipulation.
But really the important point is the promises you made to the contributors when you started filming. And they are very sensitive to the fact that too often promises like that are not kept and the footage ends up looking very different or only partially used in some way that doesn’t reflect what the promises reflected. And I would offer you my experience of saying if you want a long career in documentaries keep your promises, because it means that the next person you’re approaching can check with the last person that you filmed. And you don’t want them to say; well they keep most of their promises, with their fingers crossed behind their back. Trust is the currency, from the subjects right through to the commissioners, publicists and channel controllers, And that’s what, you can recognise that quality in the best films that I was already referring to.
Now all the above needs time. It needs time to think, to reflect, to change your mind, to research, go back again, and to film only when ready, and film again if needed. Two of my films we scrapped completely all the work we had done and got extra footage on the very last day of shooting, and one of them won the RTS Award. Just because we found the story had suddenly deepened in such a way that it was clearer and more important than everything else we’d shot. Now, you also have to make sure the edit uses the best material and does justice to it. And that means again, enough time not just to finish the film, but to reflect on it.
Now number 11 is to try new talent, both in front of the camera and behind it. The huge pressure on commissioners and producers to predict ratings and play safe works against giving opportunities to new people, and that’s everyone’s loss. It’s especially true for young, ethnic minority filmmakers as Lenny Henry eloquently said on this stage last month.
And finally, you’ll be glad to know, number 12 is trust the viewers. We know both from research and the ratings that they value high-quality programmes and want more of them. That’s in the BBC Trust by the way, the report, I commend that to you. And they’ll come out in their millions for important films on important subjects. But in this new, noisy environment, ratings will drop inevitably as viewing habits change and people turn to their laptops and even their phones to watch telly.
Now, in order to make sure that these numbers work you have to make sure the viewers know about good documentaries before they’re on the air. And my colleague Neil Grant’s recent Panorama on Tower Hamlets which you may have read about for the wrong reasons after it was on, it would have made news and made waves for all the right reasons if it had been properly promoted. But there were no trails, no previews for critics, not even in the listings. So if the Trust wants to complain about the lack of impact, it needs to change the cautious policy at the BBC of only promoting a small number of programmes that ironically in most cases would attract viewers anyway. So a wider selection of films to be promoted would also tell license fee payers what the BBC is doing with their money.
So, there it is. Abandon the attempt to predict ratings and content in advance and you will all be pleasantly surprised. Promote the hell out of your films on all platforms, not just on television, to reach people, especially young people, who don’t watch TV. And try to include subjects, countries and people who are not already familiar to us. Worry about standards, not only about ratings. Make time and room to trust your instincts. Don’t play safe. Documentaries are alive and well. Long live documentaries. Thank you for listening.