overthinking the idiot box

June 27, 2005

Bonafide British Person C.J. Quinn covers the strange intersections between British television and American television in

London Calling
TV Documentaries: Reality Done Right
by C.J. Quinn

As my daily grind... makes me quantifiably more stupid all the time, I can feel my brain turning to cream cheese — intelligent TV, therefore, has become a commodity I seek out more and more, hoping desperately to cultivate some new neural connections.
As London swelters in the grip of a heatwave (no, really: the other day, it was hotter than Miami Beach!), there hasn't been time for much TV lately — it's all about seeking out pubs with shady beer gardens at Pimms o'clock. We all know summer will only last two more weeks max here, after all; best to make the most of it. One thing I have been making time for, though, has been that staple of quality British programming — the documentary. As my daily grind interacting with clueless kids makes me quantifiably more stupid all the time, I can feel my brain turning to cream cheese — intelligent TV, therefore, has become a commodity I seek out more and more, hoping desperately to cultivate some new neural connections.

The schedules may be rammed with reality TV, property porn, and imported US hits nowadays, but one thing you can still count on (at least on the BBC and Channel 4) is a commitment to excellence when it comes to documentary making, and to showing the best clever factual TV at times when people might actually be watching. I know this is true, because Jerry Springer told me so. The excellence of factual programming in Britain, and the difficulties of comparing the situation to that in the US, are probably in large part due to the fact that "television" in this country for a long time simply meant the BBC, which has always had a public service remit. In the last fifteen years or so, with the explosion in the number of channels available, this has changed, but the BBC still sets a high benchmark (as does Channel 4, which has a remit to feature new and innovative programming).

Good documentaries are the water-cooler shows of the self-consciously bourgeois intelligentsia — talking about them at work lets you pick out the fellow Serious People from among the ranks of the non-ironic Celebrity Love Island fans. Some documentaries have become minor TV events, the kind of programme everyone, but everyone, has an opinion on and wants you to know they watched. These documentaries, such as Adam Curtis' provocative "The Power of Nightmares" (screened at Cannes this year) and the remarkable film "The Boy Whose Skin Fell Off", remain rare pearls among the oyster-grit, but there is plenty of solid, stimulating fare to help pass the intervals between the masterpieces.

Themed strands or seasons of documentaries remain popular, and Channel 4 has been making a bold effort to sell serious documentary work as the stuff of primetime lately, with its "Only Human" season, airing at 9pm on Thursdays. The title of this week's offering initially put me off ("The Strangest Village In Britain"), but the trailers — which showed clips of two men conversing in what seemed to be an entirely private language, only vaguely akin to English, and a man earnestly relating the story of how he was born under a gooseberry bush on Platform 9 at King's Cross Station — intrigued me. I was glad that I watched; although the experience was strangely draining, it was (time for the cheese) also strangely uplifting.

Landmark Film had obtained permission to film over three months in the village of Botton, a crazy-beautiful experimental enclave in the Yorkshire Dales. Botton, a Camphill community, was Britain's first residential village for adults with special needs and learning difficulties. Everyone in Botton lives in huge, warm, slightly chaotic houses, with "villagers" living side-by-side with the "co-workers." Co-workers are volunteers, usually Christians and avid followers of Rudolf Steiner, who come from around the world with their families to live and work side by side with the villagers of Botton. In the film, thirteen people - villagers, co-workers and their children - were living in one house, presided over by a seraphically calm "house-mother," Valeska, who explained her conviction that growing up in this situation was good for her own children as well as for the villagers, as they learnt that family life was not about competing for attention, but about loving and caring for each person according to their needs. Currently, around 134 villagers live in Botton, alongside 200 coworkers and their children.

Everyone in Botton has a job: the villagers work in the fields, and in the craft shops. The film opened by showing Katie and her housemate John, a middle-aged man with Down's Syndrome, going off on their daily walk across the fields to work. It transpired that Katie, who had a high-pitched, piping child's voice very much at odds with her appearance, also had a mortal fear of slipping.

"I'm just a worrier, I'm afraid. Some people are," Katie explained, immediately and with astonishing clarity showing her obsessive, crippling terror to be just another point along a continuum on which 'normal' anxiety also lies. The long-suffering John had to shuffle the entire way with her clutching his arm, narrating every step of the journey ("Careful now, John, you have to hold me tightly. I'm going to slip, I know I am. Now look, there's some frost, there's some ice there that the sun hasn't melted. Don't slip, John, don't slip!"). If it was tiring to watch in brief clip form, it must have been exhausting to put up with every single day, but John patiently shuffled along, walking Katie to the door of her workshop, kissing her affectionately on the cheeks, and promising to return at 5pm to collect her for the walk home.

Alas, John, who is unable to remember too many things at once, forgot to come back, and Katie, peering out into the dark of a northern winter evening, grew ever more fretful, until she suddenly grasped the bull by the horns and decided to emerge, shrilling frantically at the unseen watcher behind the camera, "You'll have to hold me! You mustn't let me slip!" From the right-hand side of the frame, an arm extended itself — a boom mic could just be glimpsed, cradled in the crook of the other arm. Thus anchored, Katie set off tremulously into the night, and the film cut to its first commercial break. I sat back, emotionally exhausted, but also incredibly moved by this sudden reminder that behind the camera stand human beings, who sometimes can't help but be touched by and drawn into the stories they seek to show.

In a gentle but wonderful comic coda, after the break, an anxious Katie waited at home for John to return. When he eventually came in, lugging his groceries, she launched herself at him. In a master-stroke of crisis diplomacy, John diverted her attention by revealing that he himself had slipped on the way home. Katie, seized with remorse and concern, fretted over her friend and whether he had hurt himself at length, until, clearly tiring of the fuss, John flummoxed her by asking for her hand in marriage. "Well, I don't know what to say about that, John," she said, clearly thrown and trying to cover for it by briskly shaking his hand, "but I'm very glad you're not hurt, and it's all all right." As she bustled off, a quiet voice from behind the camera said, "You forgot her, didn't you, John?" Yes, he had. "Did you really slip, John?" John glanced up at the camera, eyes twinkling. "No, I didn't slip."

Brilliantly, the makers of "The Strangest Village..." also took the decision to invite a villager behind the lens. They settled on Owen, a young autistic man with a slightly fey, clipped voice and a nice line in woolly hat. Owen, it was explained, communicates largely via an endless barrage of questions, but after this brief bit of exposition, his sequences were left to speak for themselves, intercut without comment with the work of the pros:

"Hello, how are you? Do you like mosaics? You don't, no. Have you ever had long hair? No? Have you ever had a quiff? Is happiness a warm feeling or a cold feeling, when you're happy? Do you like Edam cheese? Do you like hares and rabbits? They tend to have long pointed ears like donkeys, hares."

In Botton, everyone Owen turned his camera and his questions on reacted patiently and calmly to his interrogations — even the villagers who had difficulty speaking due to their disabilities did their best to respond, smiling apologetically and letting the mad kinetic rush of Owen's questions carry the conversation along.
The stream of surreal questions spoke powerfully of Owen's desire to make the world make sense on his own terms, and underlined how supportive a setting like Botton was for a person like him. In Botton, everyone Owen turned his camera and his questions on reacted patiently and calmly to his interrogations — even the villagers who had difficulty speaking due to their disabilities did their best to respond, smiling apologetically and letting the mad kinetic rush of Owen's questions carry the conversation along. In turn, when he came across one villager who either could not, or would not, respond to any of Owen's insistent stream of questions, Owen clearly felt that his social obligation to the other villager outweighed his desire to speak purely in questions, and his simple, "I like your hat," spoke volumes.

Long-term residential settings like Botton are out of favour in Britain today; they're seen as isolating and institutionalising for people with disabilities. Residents can and do leave Botton, it should be said — one of the more enigmatic figures in the film was Barry, an elderly but spry man whose hunched walk, wiry limbs and extravagantly bushy white beard and hair gave him the air of an aged sprite, much given to vague, mysterious pronouncements. After many years in Botton, Barry had decided that the time had come to move on, and was being helped to find a bed-sit in the nearby town of Whitby.

The transition was not easy by any means — on their second visit, the crew found him locked in his bed-sit, refusing to open the door and insisting that they go away, despite their pleas that they were worried about him. He was baffled by the cooker in the communal kitchen, convinced that it was gas and wouldn't light, despite the sound recordist pointing out that it was an electric hob. Barry is now doing well, but one was left with the memory of him on the train back to Botton after first exploring Whitby, his mad crown of hair backlit by the late afternoon sun, meditating on the future: "Take control of your own life — that's not such an easy thing. What lies ahead... apprehensions. I could get into a terrible mess."

This was, for me, part of the power of "The Strangest Village..." It reminded you at one turn that those who live with learning disabilities are very like the rest of us, just struggling day to day with the business and anxieties of being human, and then at the next moment reminded you that such people are also profoundly different. The film didn't shy away from showing the sad and ugly aspects of such differences — the titanic, occasionally violent and childlike fits of temper over the tiniest things, the immense difficulties in performing even basic tasks such as cooking a tin of baked beans — but it also quietly celebrated it: putting Owen's shaky camerawork but lucidly questioning mind on an equal footing with the professional filming work; letting Katie explain her terror of slipping as best she could in her calmer moments; patiently waiting while Barry spiraled off down another of his meandering, earnest spoken meditations on everything from fear of the future to his eccentric, skewed walk ("It's the new fashion").

In my own family life, and in my working life with children, my reality has intersected many times with this slightly off-set but equally convincing reality of the learning disabled — I found "The Strangest Village..." very hard to watch, and also very hard to look away from, because it made this frequently marginalised and misunderstood semi-private world so immediate and so urgent. Apparently the Botton community was disappointed with the film, feeling that it focused too much on the tensions within the village; it's true that much was made of the bad feeling and arguments created by Pamela, a dominating, desperate woman in the wood-shop. That, and the poor choice of title, aside, though, I felt the documentary was a positive piece of television — what could so easily have been a slightly distasteful parade of 'freaks' instead gave a sensitive account of life with disabilities, without sugar-coating and sentimentalising the disabled.

This is what good documentary making is, I suppose — the craft of taking that which goes unseen, whether it's the life of the man in the bed-sit downstairs or the life of a treehouse-dwelling cannibal in Papua New Guinea (on last week's excellent BBC2 Tribe series), and making it present and visible, always by showing rather than telling. The artifice and scripting of 'reality' TV, deliciously trashy though it can be, pales into insignificance when set beside such quiet but exquisite slices of real real life.

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Return to Vol. 1, Episode 7.