Those of us who work in television docs sometimes feel like the poor relations of the writers and directors and producers of the cinema documentary industry. Theatrical-release productions tend to have more money and more glamour and more longevity.
But while TV shows may now always be as polished or as slick as cinema fare, the sheer quantity of output means that there is a wealth of shows that offer something quirky or distinctive – be it an off-beat story or a bizarre moment of actuality.
Going to documentary festivals, I’m sometimes struck by how favourably the workaday docs of the TV world compare with long-in-gestation independent features.
With this in mind, I have taken a moment to jot down an idiosyncratic and entirely off-the-top-of-my-head list of some TV documentaries of unusual power or strangeness – docs that I stumbled upon watching TV or had recommended to me over the years or that friends made, but which, for various reasons, have stayed with me since I first saw them.
My criterion for choosing the list below has been simple: Can I imagine pressing a copy of a DVD into someone’s hand and saying: You must watch this!
Looking over the selections, I’m surprised by the degree of thematic consistency. All the docs are about sex, crime, religious strangeness, and mental illness. These happen to be themes I often explore in my own series. Are these subjects intrinsically more interesting? Or must more interesting to me? I don’t know.
I have put no special emphasis on originality of form or approach. Some of the shows below show great finesse in the editing and the structure. In others there is nothing very special in the way the piece is put together. But these more prosaic offerings all have moments of raw make-your-mouth-gape reality which, for me, justifies their presence here.
I’d love to hear feedback from any of you, especially if you have your own thoughts on TV documentaries that you think are worthy of inclusion.
I suppose, as a practitioner of television myself, I speak with a certain bias, but I do feel TV-makers – like the medieval craftsmen who carved gargoyles on the facades of cathedrals – suffer occasionally from a lack of recognition, that their hard-fought efforts get forgotten and their names lost to history. This list is also a small attempt to rectify that.
And so, in no particular order:
Madness in the Fast Lane
An extraordinary story following a pair of young Swedish twins who, for no discernible reason in 2008, ran onto the M6 and into the path of oncoming traffic. A BBC crew happened to be nearby and filmed the incident. This doc uses that footage and recounts the aftermath, which was almost as bizarre. It was directed by Jim Nally. More info here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ursula_and_Sabina_Eriksson
The Hunt for Britain’s Paedophiles
A BBC team spent a year or more embedded with Scotland Yard’s Paedophile Unit, riding along for their raids on some of Britain’s most notorious sex offenders. This was a three-parter, that unfolded at length, giving room to some astonishing actuality. A scene that stays with me showed an accused offender who decided to mount a quixotic counter-protest while he was being filmed. The whole thing is available here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vq8zqDPmQxE
Philip and his Seven Wives
Directed by Marc Isaacs, I think this is my favourite of his. Normally he excels at evoking the atmosphere of an overlooked place, but this is a character study of an eccentric religious leader, filmed with uncommon poetry and compassion. A little clip of it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jmdC7O_zZw8
The Man with a Seven Second Memory
Aged 46, Clive Wearing suffered a serious brain injury. From that moment forward he couldn’t acquire new memories and couldn’t remember more than seven seconds back. The original documentary on his case was an Equinox (“Prisoner of Consciousness”). I saw it in the eighties and found it fascinating. Jane Treays made this amazing follow-up.
Hundred Percent White
Directed by Leo Regan, this follows a group of English skinheads as they grow older, with exemplary sensitivity and compassion. Leo also directed the brilliant Battle Centre about life among the ranks of the two-fisted evangelicals of the Jesus Army.
The Ice Age
Bit of a wild card this: an embedded doc about life among Australia’s meth heads. Some of the actuality defies belief. The openness the director Matthew Carney coaxes out of his contributors is jaw-dropping and the sequences of the meth heads tweaking – having hallucinations, rooting through dumpsters – are unreal. It will put you off meth for life. Easy to find on the web (the doc, not Meth, though that may be too). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yxKst8BaPbc
Franc Roddam, director of Quadrophenia and devisor of the Masterchef format, directed the original documentary: an affectionate look at a charming child arsonist. Then Philippa Walker made a follow-up. Both are quite hard to find but heart-breaking and powerful.
This look at the porn industry was especially interesting for me as I’d made a TV programme with similar themes around the same time. There is even some overlap in the characters – a performer I knew as “Dick Nasty” turns up here as a “porn agent”. Directed by Stephen Walker, it has one of the most shocking sequences of any documentary about adult films in which extreme pornographer Max Hardcore tries to coax a newbie performer into doing a scene, alternately flattering her and showering her with abuse.
Blast! is a London production company that specializes in documentaries about the underground – and also, oddly enough, the Underground (the one with trains). They’ve covered British porn and dodgy get-rich-quick mavens and questionable New Age gurus. King con was inside look at a direct mail fraudster (or should I say “alleged fraudster”?), directed by Alastair Cook and Rob Davis.
Between Life and Death
A shattering depiction of the twilight world of a brain injury clinic. Small moments of recovery and decline have massive resonance throughtthe beauty of the filmmaking and the sensitivity of the approach. Directed by Nick Holt.
Stalking Pete Doherty
I recommend this film at every opportunity. It follows Pete Doherty-obsessive Max Carlish as he follows Pete Doherty, but it becomes clear that Max – with his unpredictable bi-polar symptoms and cringe-making over-the-top enthusiasm for his subject – is at least as interesting as the Babyshambles front-man himself.
Secret Rulers of the World: David Icke
I had to have something from the wonderful Jon Ronson. It could have been the Jonathan King documentary (as good an expose of the wiles of organized paedophiles as I’ve ever seen). But this is also excellent, documenting the scourge of lizardmen – and former Coventry goalkeeper – as he tours Canada and weathers accusations of anti-Semitism.
Saving Africa’s Witch Children
This was a Dispatches on Channel 4 and looks at the baffling phenomenon of Nigerian children accused – very often by their own families – of witchcraft. In life we hear a lot about “a mother’s love”. This film is a salutary reminder of how cruel parents often are to their children. Watch it and have every comforting prejudice about family bonds exploded in the most gruesome way. Directed by Mags Gavan and Joost van der Valk