Friday, 1 April 2011

The visual and narrative conventions of documentary television. (BSDA #1)

[So I'm attempting BSDA, my own acronym for Blog Some Days in April, a kinda cop-out version of the internet tradition. Two reasons why I can't do every day - I'm away from the 18th to the 22nd, and, well, I have a life. Not to mention revision. My challenge is therefore to do 20 blogs this month. I hope you'll join me in my quest. If you want to, please follow. Now - on with the rant.]

I really hate watching Andrew Marr walk around shopping centres. By this, I don't mean that I occasionally see him perusing the shelves at Topman or whatever, because I don't go to those kind of places. And I'm sure he doesn't either. What I'm talking about is documentaries. It seems that today it is absolutely essential for every director on the BBC to fill at least 40 minutes of their hour-long shows with fatuous nonsense, moody music and presenters walking around NOT SAYING ANYTHING.

Yesterday I watched a programme about the census with Marr and one about employment practices through the last half-century with Kirsty Young. They were an hour long each. I managed to watch them both in 37 minutes. Why was this? Simply, I fast-forwarded through any pointless scene-setting or conclusive narration (the BBC seems to take the philosophy of "tell them what you're going to say, tell them, then tell them what you've said" to ridiculous levels by giving each the same amount of time), transitional shots of the presenters a) walking through busy streets b) waiting for trains or c) driving massive cars through the countryside (green credentials writ large), and any attempts by the presenter to talk to a non-expert in the middle of the street, or, worse, their cosy suburban households. I simply hate listening to people tell me about their own life as if that somehow illuminates a wider social change (because very often this leaves gaping holes in the argument as the presenter searches desperately for some way to qualify a personal anecdote as though it were an established social trend). All these things are, it seems, held to be necessary for people to remain interested in a programme for a whole hour, a timespan so immense in the days of 24/7 television that it's necessary for newsreaders to tell us the time four times in every broadcast, as though we were fruitflies and might die, unfulfilled, before the next announcement.

Another tremendously irritating convention is to send your superstar presenter all around the world to film tiny little segments of to-camera work in front of as many different examples of "nature" as possible. The rockstar-turned-physicist Brian Cox has fallen victim to this, with his latest series Wonders Of The Universe featuring him making sandcastles and smiling inanely into camera in the Namibian desert. Not Brighton, not Blackpool, not even a freaking studio but a country thousands of miles away whose only connection to a spiel about entropy seems to be its larger collection of sand. Despite that, he still used a regular bucket.

I like TV documentaries. I like their capacity to inspire, educate and entertain, in the great Reithian tradition on which public service television was founded. So it really hurts me to see directors waste their presenters' talents by filming them silently reading train timetables or standing in front of Patagonian glaciers as though that in itself were somehow information. This madness has got to stop.

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