Friday, March 5, 2010...8:30 am

Dumbed-down documentaries

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Though it’s sad to see a likely closure verdict handed down to the excellent BBC 6 Music station, I was at least relieved that BBC 4 survived Auntie’s cull.

Because I’m a documentary kind of guy. Sad, highbrow and worthy, that’s me.

So why, oh why, oh why, BBC, do you insist on dumbing down your documentaries? Are you embarrassed to be thought (whisper) elitist? Or are you trying to prove that BBC 4’s tiny 0.5% audience share isn’t worth the £71 million it costs to run?

Whatever it is, I hate the result.

Take Matthew Collings’ December 2009 BBC2 documentary What Is Beauty?.

It aimed to define what makes beauty in art. So why did it feel the need to provide a relentless background of noise?

On top of that, the background music chosen was sometimes so banal as to be insulting. Like Procul Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale to illustrate Collings’ point that modern art galleries tend to be painted, er, white.

And the contrast between prehistoric cave painting and the tranquility of a 17th century landscape was enhanced by some percussion-heavy, effects-laden instrumental that distracted from not only the narrative, but also the sentiments it was trying to convey.

The soundtrack got more and more intrusive as the programme went on – to the point that it became difficult to hear the voiceover. Or perhaps under, in this case.

This is sloppy, sloppy film-making. But worse that this, it is insulting film-making. It insults the viewer – who is assumed to be an attention-deficient moron. And it insults the subject of the documentary.

Because what the film-makers are saying, in effect, is that the topic of the documentary – art, science, history, whatever – is simply not interesting enough to stand up by itself. They don’t believe that just looking at a piece of art is enough to hold our attention.

But for god’s sake, that’s what art is for.

Next thing you know, we’ll be listening to piped muzak in the Tate Modern. In case the art is, you know, not interesting enough. (It happens in commerce, too. I have this in my local branch of HSBC. They’ve got rid of all the bank tellers, installed lots of automated paying-in machines and other gadgets, and play HSBC radio (god, whose idea was that?) too loud over a speaker system. Great for the brand guys. Really.)

The BBC’s Horizon series is especially guilty. Chunks of a Horizon doc on gravity a couple of years ago were rendered almost unwatchable by the insistence of the director and editor of showing repeated slow-motion bouncing apples instead of letting chirpy physicist and ex-D-Ream keyboard player Brian Cox present simply to camera.

No subject is immune. A 2006 history doc about post-Roman barbarians? According to the BBC press office,“Terry Jones’s Barbarians takes a completely fresh approach to Roman history”.

That’s “completely fresh” in the sense of “trying to make it look as unlike history as possible”.

Terry Jones actually writes approachable and provocative history. But it still generally looks like real history.

Barbarians, on the other hand, pulled all the tricks of modern TV to make it look anything but. We had the obligatory shaky-cam, handheld filming technique – complete with random quick zoom – that is the staple of modern film-making. Which looked a bit weird when the screen was showing two middle-aged academics looking at some pottery.

Worst of all were the relentless cutaways to a group of dejected looking extras representing the downtrodden peasantry. For some reason they were shot in what looked like a public toilet, complete with grimy, once-white tiled walls and a bare light bulb swinging somewhere off-camera to create sinister, wildly oscillating shadows. Now that’s what I call atmosphere.

Am I just being an old curmudgeon? Someone who can’t deal with new ways of telling stories and conveying information? Sure, there’s probably something of that going on here.

But actually I think there’s a deeper, cultural problem. For all our bleating about the problems we face in our schools, we are simply uncomfortable with education in its own right – especially when it involves concentration and focus. And we believe that making education interesting must involve turning it into entertainment, or else no one will pay attention.

But this it utterly wrong. Because this kind of hyperactive nonsense is actually more difficult to take in than a carefully constructed narrative, told sensibly.


  • Great rant.
    Think your last few pars ID the problem. Concentration is something increasing numbers of Brits can’t do.
    Round about 1990, schools gave up trying to enforce what you and I would recognise as an appropriate atmosphere for study and learning.
    When it became impossible for teachers to impose that atmosphere by fiat, they were reduced to the status of all the other things competing for a child’s attention: video games, computers, sweets, TV etc etc.
    The result: A generation of kids (now adults) dependent upon all the crap you describe. It’s the only way they can do ‘real’ topics of learning…

  • You both sound like old fogies with your conservative ‘it was better in the good ol’ days’ outlook.
    The truth is the “generation of kids (now adults)” you are depicting would probably not be interested in a documentary on art. They would rather be playing video games or whatever.
    So it was probably just awful film making from people who don’t know their audience, and an audience who seek to blame the easy target for just some poor choices in instrumental.

  • Actually, I suspect you’re right – in that documentaries may be now being made by people who aren’t interested in the subject of the film. Maybe because they’re the wrong demographic (too young, perhaps), or because they don’t have knowledge of the subject matter – and so can’t see how others might be interested in it. Or possibly because the programme maker is targeting a demographic that they believe wouldn’t be interested in the subject unless it was sexed up…

  • I don’t mind a bit of dumbing down of docs. There are times when only an hour in the company of Britain’s Fattest Teenagers will do.
    What does annoy me about a certain kind of documentary is how the producers only think that the argument can only be presented by a celebrity – Nicola from Girls Aloud on tanning, Calum Best on being the child of an alcoholic, Stan Boardman on climate change etc. Inevitably they come across as having only a tangential grasp of the issues and they’re basically doing somebody else out of a gig.
    The other thing that grinds my gears is when you have the story summed up every 10 minutes where the ad breaks are going to go when it’s sold overseas. Why can’t they do an adfree Brit cut?

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