TV UK, 13 October

i>The Fifty Greatest Documentaries. Oh yeah?

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

One does not expect a great deal of ‘list programmes’, but Channel 4’s Fifty Greatest Documentaries last Sunday night was surely more promising than most, especially coming the night before the launch of the new digital channel More4, which is to feature lots of documentaries as part of a commitment to ‘adult entertainment’.

Frustratingly, the main thing I took from the programme was a sense of confusion and arbitrariness. There seems to be little consensus about what a documentary is, much less a shared public culture expressed in the films. I can’t find a list on the Channel 4 website, suggesting that the producers are reluctant to be held accountable for their choice. The selection was not so much a canon defining a culture as a random selection off the top of someone’s head, with the only apparent rule being no foreign rubbish. (Forget Marcel Ophüls’ magisterial Le chagrin et la pitié, about French resistance and collaboration during the war, there was not even a place for Etre et avoir, the cutesy recent hit about a rural French school.)

From memory, then, the documentaries were a combination of recent cinematic hits such as Supersize Me and the Touching the Void (as well as the inevitable Michael Moore blockbusters), classic British series like The Ascent of Man and The World at War, and more recent programmes like Driving School or Faking It. This last category, of course, did raise questions about what counts as a documentary.

The TV psychologist Oliver James popped up to complain that the word documentary should not be used to describe a film about anything that would not be happening if not for the film itself. This rule has a certain literal appeal, but non-fiction film can do so much more than ‘document’ events that it seems unduly restrictive. What about science programmes carrying out experiments of their own in order to reveal something about nature? The same principle applies to social science, broadly speaking. While Faking It tacks heavily in the direction of entertainment – subjects are asked to pass themselves off as completely different sorts of people: a classical musician becomes a dj, a rural toff becomes a bouncer, and so on – a case might be made that it tells us something about social class, cultural values and how we conceive personhood (as opposed to ‘documenting’ the entirely artificial travails of the individuals involved).

In a similar vein, I would have liked to see someone make a case for Big Brother as documentary, if only to have it ruled out once and for all. But these issues were thrown up only to be cast aside amid the deluge of arbitary picks. Television does have the potential to help shape a genuinely public culture that we all share, but that requires at least that we discuss how the form operates, so that we can better appreciate the content.

It is unfortunate that Channel 4’s commitment to grown-up television is being farmed out to yet another digital channel, as that surely makes it even less likely that its documentaries will contribute to a public conversation. One doesn’t have to think that we should all be forced to watch Shoah every night to see the value of common, popular engagement with serious and even not-so-serious programming.

Read on:

Channel 4: grow up, by Neil Davenport

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Topics Culture


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