Archive for the ‘documentary’ Category

History Boy

the dawn of time universe sun big bang

I’ve been coming to DocFest (formerly the Sheffield International Documentary Festival) since the dawn of time. I’m sitting cross-legged on the hill of Howard Street, on a black marble seaty-thing, as I write this, buddha-like. The hill runs up from the station towards the city centre and is one of the best bits of urban regeneration I’ve seen in this country. Overlooking this spot is an Andrew Motion poem written on the side of a Sheffield Hallam University tower block addressing travellers arriving in the city (Andrew Motion in part inspired Simple Pleasures part 4). After my many years coming to the festival I came up with a good strategy involving this hill yesterday. Instead of relentless regular blocks of formalised meetings crowding out the day I arranged no meetings – just sat on one of these black marble blocks and waited for people I knew and wanted to see pass by me. It worked very well – I got to chat with more people and the chats were the lengths they needed to be.

howard street sheffield docfest 2014

I am now on the train pulling out of Sheffield. I leave behind a very satisfying couple of days’ experience. It began as I got off the other train the other way on Sunday evening. I dumped my stuff at the hotel and went out for dinner just out of town with Colm O’Callaghan, a colleague from RTE in Dublin. We chatted about all manner of stuff, centred on Ireland and music, and most excitingly discussed the possibility of doing a collaborative historical project next year. We headed back to town to meet  at a bar the speakers in the session I was to chair the next day. We did a judicious amount of preparation (mainly a quick chat to reassure them we’d be talking about stuff they know well and don’t have to think much about and ascertaining what video material they’d brought with) then oiled the getting-to-know-you wheels with alcohol.

robert capa d-day landings

The session the next morning entitled ‘Interacting with the Past’ focused on interactive and multiplatform TV in the History genre. Joe Myerscough, Producer/Director from the excellent Windfall Films, represented the superb D-Day: As It Happens project from Channel 4 in 2013. The delightful Elizabeth Klinck, a super-expert Canadian visual/archive researcher, added an interesting perspective. And my Channel 4 colleague, Online Producer Marie James, focused on The Mill, a historically accurate drama set in 1831. We managed to range across a lot of territory around what interactivity brings to History TV and from a lot of perspectives (indy producer, broadcaster, support services, commissioner), driven by questions from the audience, so it felt free-flowing, flexible and practically useful. Went down well, felt good.

Andre Singer

Andre Singer

At the other end of the day I went to see a new history documentary, Night Will Fall, directed by Andre Singer. I can’t write about it yet beyond what’s already in the public domain but suffice it to say it’s a very impactful film about the filming of the Holocaust. It will be showing on Channel 4 in January coming. One unexpected aspect of the story is that Alfred Hitchcock was involved in this filmic recording of the Holocaust by Allied troops. I chatted with Andre and his wife Lynette, who wrote the commentary for the film, on the way out. Also the producer Sally Angel, who I first met last year through an online project via my friend Steve Moore. We had a lively discussion about what age is best to first introduce young people to the imagery of the Holocaust. I believe it should be 16+. The person from the BFI thought younger was OK on the basis that kids get to see horror films (not an argument I buy – the documentary footage in Night Will Fall is another world from scripted drama).  I first crossed paths with Andre and Lynette when I was starting out on my career and they ran an outfit in Covent Garden called Cafe Productions (that name’s just come back to me after all these years). I went on a bus ride with Andre last May (2013) to Yad Vashem when he first told me about the film. It’s been nestling in the back of my mind since then.

So a day steeped in History.

Brilliant creatures rebels of oz documentary howard jacobson germaine greer

And today started out in similar vein. I went to see Brilliant Creatures: Rebels of Oz, a 2-part BBC/ABC documentary about 4 Australians who made good in London in the 60s, bringing a fresh perspective to a country only just emerging from the War. The Creatures in question are Germaine Greer, writer Clive James, art critic Robert Hughes and comedian Barry Humphreys. Jacobson considers Germaine Greer the most rebellious and radical of these. It’s a fabulous story – woven together by novelist Howard Jacobson (who himself wrote startlingly about the Holocaust in the brilliant Kalooki Nights, which sits on my Shelf of Honour).  I had a brief chat with him after, mainly congratulating him on pulling together such an illuminating story. He said he was in search of the secret to the Oz “zest for life”.

Howard Jacobson, Greg Sanderson (BBC), Germaine Greer

Howard Jacobson, Greg Sanderson (BBC), Germaine Greer

I got close to having a chat with Germaine Greer but it didn’t quite happen. I wanted to talk Frank Zappa with her as the BBC recently released a wonderful radio documentary she made about him. There was a great clip in the film of her hanging with Robert Plant and Led Zep.

germaine_greer 60s

Over breakfast this morning I had a great plan-hatching session with a couple of documentary makers (one from Leipzig where my dad was born) which was also a kick.

So it’s been a couple of days with a heartbeat of History. I had to give it up as a subject in formal education after O Level (apart from a small burst of it as part of my German/Modern Languages degree) but at heart I’m still a History Boy.

evolution denied ape to man

 

Marley’s Ghost

My favourite picture of Bob

I was lucky enough to get a last-minute ticket from Kevin Macdonald this week for his new documentary on Bob Marley. It was a coming home for me of sorts as it was playing at The Tricycle in Kilburn, whose cinema entrance is on Buckley Road where my other half used to live (No. 16) in the wake of a string of Irish sisters in exile. London was the place Bob headed for in the wake of an attempt on his life in December 1976 when he made the mistake of getting too mixed up in Jamaican politics – it was a place he had some special affinity with and  where he recorded some of his best work. I’ve written about the making of Exodus in punk London in 1977 here. There’s a good story in the film about how he and the Wailers crossed the Thames to Battersea Park on a regular basis to indulge his love of soccer, on occasion taking on a National Front team and whupping their arses at the beautiful English game. Questions of racial identity and Tough Gong’s status as a mixed race boy is brought to the fore in ‘Marley’, highlighting his rejection by black and white alike. One of the most moving moments of the film is when the song Cornerstone is played to two same-generation relatives on his despicable white father’s side, each listening intently on their ipods.

The stone that the builder refuse
Will always be the head cornerstone
(Sing it brother)
The stone that the builder refuse
Will always be the head cornerstone.

You’re a builder, baby
Here I am, a stone.
Don’t you pick and refuse me,
‘Cause the things people refuse
Are the things they should use.
Do you hear me? Hear what I say!

Don’t refuse me, don’t you refuse…

We hear how he went to visit his father’s brother, a prosperous white builder on the island, and, well aware of who he was, he refused to see him. The fecker only got in touch again years later when Bob was famous and playing a US stadium. Bob knew he was destined to be the Marley who would be remembered – the Cornerstone of the family. Macdonald attributes the rejection from both sides as a major driver for a singer who of course drew together back and white. Ironically for a fair while his US audiences were white dominated. That’s why he took a gig supporting The Commodores. His management told The Commodores’ people that the group should have been opening for Bob but Bob took the gig because he wanted to tap into their black soul audience. Coming on after Bob Marley – gotta be the toughest support act to follow – ever.

The amount of music contained in the story is very well judged – in no way a concert film, it gives insight into the music (especially live) but sends you off in search of more. The documentary captures a number of moments when Bob is clearly immersed in his music to a transcendental degree. At the Smile Jamaica concert, designed to reunite a politically riven country, just two days after the shooting (and the very reason for the assassination attempt), he shows up, a few hours late, the track of a bullet across his arm and chest, shows off his bandages and then launches into song oblivious of the hurt. We see this again as he performs Exodus at the famous Lyceum concert which sealed his reputation. And most notably at the gig he did on Zimbabwean Independence Day (April 1980, part of his homecoming to Mother Africa) when a tear gas canister clears the stage and much of the auditorium, people weeping and a’wailing, but he is left alone singing away, away, beyond the power of the throat burning eye stinging fumes. His power is again evident in the way he, towered above by the opposing politicians, evidently not a tall man, brings about the handshake between Prime Minister Michael Manley (People’s National Party) and opposition leader Edward Seaga (Jamaican Labour Party) at the One Love peace concert in Kingston in April 1978 after the year of exile in West London (not a million miles from Buckley Road).

The way he tours the States and beyond with cancer secretly worming its way through every part of his body is testament to his amazing energy. Those moments when he loses himself in the music and reaches a place beyond the trials and tribulations of the every day, beyond the petty rude boy politics, the heartless rejection, the shadowy disease, the loneliness, the black and the white are the high points of ‘Marley’ – naturally mystical moments where we see him coming home to peace, love and oneness.

It’s a film made with love and patience and is best enjoyed in that spirit, settle back in front of a big, loud screen for a carefully paced circular journey from his birthplace in the hills of Nine Mile, Saint Ann to a mausoleum just a stone’s throw from his childhood home there.

Here I am, a stone.

Stoned immaculate: a unique energy


Ones Born at Christmas

One Born at Christmas goes out live tonight at 8pm and punctuates the Big Day tomorrow from noon

Here’s a little something commissioned for the website to get you in the mood for Christmas babies…

And here’s its baby brother – Christmas cracker birth factoids…

Seven Days in the press

Here’s a couple of articles about Seven Days from this week – one from Broadcast, the other from New Media Age…

C4 to use ‘Chat Nav’ on Seven Days doc {courtesy of Broadcast}

9 September, 2010 | By Robin Parker

Channel 4 is to launch a ‘ChatNav’ website for upcoming documentary series Seven Days, which will collate social media conversations about the show and help determine which of the on-screen characters the producers prioritise.

The initiative aims to influence the show, which is filmed in Notting Hill in the week prior to transmission, by illustrating which of its characters the viewers are engaging with. The site will represent this by giving the people who generate the most buzz the biggest image.

Contributors, who remain under wraps until its launch on 22 September, could be scaled back or even dropped during the series’ eight-week run if audiences do not seem to be engaging with them.

As well as feeding in comments from Twitter and Facebook, the site will encourage users to help the characters make personal, social and work decisions, with their involvement ranging from yes/no answers to direct advice.

C4 new media factual commissioning editor Adam Gee said that rather than applying a ruthless “Truman Show approach”, the aim was to establish a “collective wisdom”.

“For the first time, it will enable the audience to have an influence in a documentary context, not by giving them editorial control, but by establishing a constructive exchange with contributors,” he said.

Viewers will also be able to ask a team of reporters based in Notting Hill to go deeper into stories.

The show’s site will also offer unedited rushes and cut sequences. Digital agency Holler is producing the web content with series producer Studio Lambert.

* * *

Mock-up of ChatNav screen

Mock-up of Seven Days ChatNav screen

Channel 4 gives viewers a say in how new reality show develops {courtesy of New Media Age}

Wed, 8 Sep 2010 | By Jessica Davies

Channel 4 is launching a major cross-platform initiative for new reality show Seven Days, with the storyline influenced by its online audience.

The show will follow the lives of around two dozen people living in Notting Hill, and will be shot and edited in the week of transmission.

Adam Gee, commissioning editor of cross-platform at Channel 4, said the show’s format indicates the kind of projects Channel 4 is likely to develop post-Big Brother, and represents a new approach for documentary and reality programming.

“That gap left by Big Brother gives Channel 4 the opportunity to rethink its whole approach and try out new things,” he said, adding that the show is “in the spirit of experimentation”.

The show’s format supports the broadcaster’s strategy of rewarding its audience for engaging.

“As a broadcaster, one of the main things you can give your audience as a payoff that no one else can is an impact on editorial,” said Gee.

A site, channel4.com/sevendays, will go live on 22 September to coincide with the TV broadcast. It will feature a function called Seven Days ChatNav, which lets viewers interact directly with the cast members, giving them advice and answering questions posed by the latter.

Channel 4 will monitor which characters prompt the most interest and discussion online, and this will influence which stories will be focused on in the subsequent episode.

People can use the site to catch up with what’s happening with the characters who aren’t featured in the TV show, along with videos of the show’s rushes. The site will also include full scenes which may have been dropped from the linear broadcast at the last minute.

A team of three called Eyes on the Ground will be on site and will post videos and blogs. Gee said, “They’re available for the online audience, who can ask them to fill in the gaps between shows, following up storylines that aren’t covered on TV.”

He also said the show and site have been designed for sponsorship, and Channel 4 is in advanced talks with brands over sponsorship tie-ups.

It worked with agency Holler on the cross-platform format, and Studio Lambert on the TV production.

Dreaming the Dream

the dream by jaume plensa

The Dream Realised (courtesy of me)

Some great news just in at Channel 4 HQ – the Big 4 sculpture on the doorstep of the Richard Rogers designed home of C4 has been given an extension of 5 years by the planning department of Westminster City Council.

The public artwork – a 50-foot-high metal ‘4’ – was originally constructed in 2007 to celebrate both the Channel’s 25th anniversary year and the launch of the Big Art Project and was granted planning permission for one year, during which 4 artists were to decorate it. The installation is based on the Channel’s on-air identity, with metal bars forming the logo only when viewed from a particular angle and distance. It is basically a framework over which to date photographer Nick Knight, Turner Prize nominee Mark Titchner, Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui and recent art graduate Stephanie Imbeau have added a skin.

Nick Knight, known for his work with Kate Moss and Bjork among many others in the realm of fashion & music, covered it with bare chest skin of various hues, adding the sound of a beating heart at its core. I recently did an Amazonimpulse and bought Knight’s new book, imaginatively entitled ‘Nick Knight’ – at £32.50 one of the most expensive tomes I’ve ever shelled out on. From an Allen Jones-like Suede album cover to exquisite nude shots of Kate Moss, it’s a lively spectacle.

Mark Titchner skinned the Big 4 with panels inspired by trade union banners and advertising, the slogans questioning the on-going role of television: Find Your World in Ours, Find Our World in Yours. He came in one lunch time to talk to C4folk about his work, shades of The Waterboys’ Mike Scott about him. My second encounter with him was a great rum cocktail-fueled chat with at the Tate Summer Party this year. Guardian photographer Vicki Couchman took a top class photo of me in front of Mark’s Big 4 for a Guardian piece on the inaugural Media Guardian Innovation Awards in 2007 (which Big Art Mob won).

El Anatsui paneled the 4 with metallic newspaper colour printing plates. What I remember most about when El (as he’s known to his friends) came in to chat about his career in The Drum, the basement space beneath the Big 4, was his generous championing of young, emerging artistic talent from Africa like Nnenne Okore.

Stephanie Imbeau won a competition to provide what was to have been the final iteration. Her Shelter saw the Big 4 fleshed out with umbrellas of a myriad colours. This is the version currently in place – it’s best viewed at night when it is illuminated from within [see below]. The umbrellas all come from London Transport Lost Property Office so no pissing away of public money there then.

The Big Art Project from which the Big 4 sprang started life as a regular, if very ambitious, TV documentary series. In the original visually rich proposal for the project from Carbon Media a space was left for the cross-platform treatment. Into that space went the Big Art Mob and a bunch of interactive ideas I put together inspired by the wonderful public art works that punctuated the proposal. The Big Art Mob was born of my messing about for 18 months with Moblog‘s mobile picture blogging software after an initial encounter with Alfie Dennen in the basement of Zero-One in Soho. I was on the look-out for the right project to which to apply Moblog and Paint Britain which evolved into the Big Art Project proved the one – the first use of moblogging by a broadcaster and one of the first uses of Creative Commons licensing by a UK broadcaster (the first use was PixNMix, a VJ project I commissioned in 2004).

Besides the TV, web and mobile stuff, at the core of the Big Art Project was the creation of six actual works of public art, seed funded by Channel 4 and the partners we gathered. One of these was Dream by renowned Catalan artist Jaume Plensa, located high up on the site of the old Sutton Manor colliery overlooking St Helens, a 20-metre-high north-western rival to Gormley’s Angel on the opposite side of the country. It is the head of a nine year old Catalan girl with her eyes closed (I found that out by asking Plensa directly at the capping off ceremony, he was very cagey about who she was and reluctant to reveal much in that particular respect). Dream was Plensa’s response to a brief developed through conversations with ex-miners and other members of the local community. Initially he came up with a huge miner’s lamp but the miners themselves pushed him out of his comfort zone or at least nearer his true self

Dream most deservedly has recently picked up a couple of major prizes. Last month it won the prestigious annual Marsh Award for Public Sculpture which is given to a work of permanent public sculpture erected in the UK or Ireland. The definition of public sculpture is loose, but the location must be openly visible to the public without having to enter a building or gain prior permission. The award was presented at the Whitechapel Art Gallery.

Plensa also picked up the British Creativity in Concrete Award for 2009 for Dream at a special ceremony at Southwark Cathedral. This award is presented each year to an architect, designer or artist in recognition of a particular achievement for the creative use of precast concrete. It’s difficult to convey the photograph-like subtlety of the face, no more than a pale reflection in photos like above.

The moment I walked round the corner of a forest path and first saw Dream in April was one of the high points of this year and indeed of my career at Channel 4, and made every second spent on the Big Art Project over the 5 year lead up worth it. It was a moment shared with my former colleague Jan Younghusband (ex-Commissioning Editor of Arts at C4, now Head of Music at BBC) who proved so open to the multiplatform dimension. It was indeed a dream come true.

stephanie imbeau

Night Shelter (courtesy of Tom Powell)

More on Big Art:

The launch

The mobile dimension

Mark Titchner’s iteration

It’s not (only) TV – Italian Documentary Screenings cross-platform workshop

The Medicine Men (and friend) on Channel 4

The Medicine Men (and friend) on Channel 4

Here are the references for the Cross-platform workshop at Trento:

My Commissions:

Osama Loves – a participative journey
Embarrassing Bodies – a popular health show
Empire’s Children – capturing people’s stories of the end of empire
Big Art Mob – documenting public art across the UK and beyond
Surgery Live – using Twitter to enhance live TV
Alone In The Wild – another experiment in using Twitter with TV
Landshare – linking people who want to grow their own food with space to grow it (derived from a factual format – River Cottage)
Sexperience – sex education through people’s first-hand experience
Adoption Experience – all about adoption from people’s direct experience
Picture This – a friendly place to improve your photography, integrated with an arts series
Medicine Chest – capturing people’s stories about traditional approaches to health

Other Channel 4 Commissions:

Bow Street Runner – a history game about the founding of the British police force
1066 – another history game about the Norman Conquest

The skinny on Skinny-dipping

Rupert Brooke in Granchester (with soft collar)

Rupert Brooke in Granchester (with soft collar)

On Thursday evening I joined Channel 4 colleagues at The Courthouse Hotel [formerly the Marylebone Magistrates Court, was glad to see cells have been imaginatively retained] opposite Carnaby Street (a resonant area for me as just round the corner from my very first workplace, Solus in Marshall Street, Soho, whose attic contained hidden gems like footage of Jimi Hendrix at the Isle of Wight and James Baldwin in Paris) to view as it was broadcast a programme I had (deliberately) only seen as raw footage – Alone in the Wild. Since the beginning of July we have been publishing online the rushes of the show as they came out of the wilderness of the Yukon, where cameraman/film-maker Ed Wardle was living and recording his experiences himself, completely alone in the wild. My part of the cross-platform commission also involved publishing daily out-going only short messages from the wild via Twitter, which were subsequently used to punctuate the three films in the series. [Next one is this Thursday at 9pm on C4]

One scene in Episode 1 saw Ed delighting in a skinny-dip in the lake where he had made camp, frolicking like a child, immersing himself with joy in the place he shared with a stately moose and grayling destined for his frying pan.

I’ve been equally struck recently by accounts of poet Rupert Brooke’s skinny-dipping activities in Granchester, a place made magical for me after a lone moonlit cycle-ride to there in the middle of one Romantic night. In particular, accounts of ‘The Midnight Swim’ when this proto-hippy young poet shared the waters of Byron’s Pool with the unstable, radical woman of letters Virginia Stephens, later Woolf, who finished her life alone in the underwater wild of a Sussex river.

It was 1911. They were both single. Rupert was 24, Virginia was 29. It was the year Poems 1911 was published (clue in the title), Brooke’s one and only volume of poems to appear during his actual lifetime. (Woolf’s first novel appeared four years later.)

Christopher Hassall describes the incident in his biography of Brooke (Rupert Brooke: a Biography 1964):

“It was the end of August. Virginia Stephen arrived at the Old Vicarage and occupied Ka’s bed on the other side of the house. The garden room was strewn with scraps of Strindberg, pages of Bland Vassen and fragments of verse. Probably the guest had brought with her an early chapter of The Voyage Out to revise while Brooke was reading or writing stretched out on the grass. One warm night there was a clear sky and a moon and they walked out to the shadowy waters of Byron’s Pool. “Let’s go swimming, quite naked,” Brooke said, and they did.”

Brooke mentions in his well known poem The Old Vicarage, Granchester this pool where his poetic forebear Byron swam when no-one was about:

Still in the dawn waters cool
His ghostly Lordship swims his pool

The painter Augustus John, who lived nearby with a caravan load of hot women and brown children, was also a naked frequenter of the pool, as was the philosopher Wittgenstein.

The Midnight Swim is also fictionalised and extrapolated upon in Jill Dawson’s recent novel The Great Lover which I read on holiday this August (exactly 98 years after the skinny-dip in question), kindly given to me by Aysha Rafaele (a fellow C4 Commissioning Editor from Documentaries) who spotted it in the Richard & Judy Book Club pile.

So any action between the two of them, both swingers-both-ways? Rupert, I get the impression, was more inclined to the hetero. Virginia must be well documented but I’m not sure exactly how her bi was balanced. Lytton Strachey had proposed to her two years earlier but they both realised, in the cool light of day the next morning, it wouldn’t work out. I don’t think any one knows or ever said quite what occurred, which leaves it as a lovely little mystery…

The Midnight Swim wasn’t their first watery encounter. In April 1899 (Rupert was 11, Virginia was 17) the Brookes went to St. Ives on holiday, where Leslie Stephen was also vacationing with his family. The two of them played together by the sea.

Yeats called Brooke “the handsomest young man in England”. By the year of The Midnight Swim, Brooke was secretly engaged or attached in some fashion to Noel Olivier, a fascinating character in her own right (Rupert was 24, Noel was 19) here’s her Wikipedia entry.

I had a go recently at drafting a Wikipedia entry for her sister Brynhild who seemed a promising character, the most beautiful of the Olivier sisters, but there’s very little to go on. This is what I have so far:

”’Brynhild Olivier”’ (1886 – 13th January 1935) was a member of [[Rupert Brooke]]‘s circle before the First World War and associated with the [[Bloomsbury Group]]. She was the fourth daughter of [[Sydney Haldane Olivier]], 1st Baron Olivier, and Margaret Cox; she was sister of Margery, Daphne and [[Noel Olivier|Noel]].

She married art historian [[A. E. Popham]] (Arthur Ewart Hugh Popham, known as Hugh) in 1912 (becoming Brynhild Popham). Hugh Popham was a friend of Rupert Brooke. They were divorced in 1924. She married [[F. R. N. Sherrard]] in 1924 (becoming Brynhild Sherrard).

She was the mother of [[Anne Olivier Popham]], who became the wife of art historian and writer [[Quentin Bell]]. She was also the mother of the poet, translator and theologian [[Philip Sherrard|Philip Owen Arnould Sherrard]] (born 23 September 1922, Oxford).

Brynhild was the first of the four Olivier sisters the poet Rupert Brooke met. Although she was reputedly the most beautiful, it was her sister Noel Olivier for whom Brooke fell.

She was first cousin of the actor [[Laurence Olivier]].

If there’s anyone out there in internetland who knows anything more about Brynhild (Bryn) Olivier, please do let me know via comments or however so I can get enough substance in the article to make it acceptable for Wikipedia – i.e. more information on what she achieved in her adult life.

Rupert and Noel met in 1908 when he was 20 and she a 15-year-old schoolgirl at the then fashionable, progressive Bedales in Petersfield. Noel’s father was Lord Sydney Olivier (uncle of dear, dear Larry), a prominent Fabian and high-ranking civil servant, serving in his time as Governor of Jamaica and Secretary of State for India.

Bedales was something of a centre for getting your kit off. Various members of Brooke’s circle had been there, the first co-ed public school, which encouraged a passion for the open air and healthy outdoor games. Nude swimming and sunbathing (segregated) made it on to the curriculum (hoorah!). The Sun Bathing Society’s Annual Summer Conference was held there in 1931 and naturists used the Bedales grounds out of term in the wake of their starting to organise in Britain during the previous decade.

Noel went on to have a long and interesting career as a doctor, politically active in a way reflecting her Fabian roots. Rupert had a short one as an early crash-and-burn teen hero, paving the way for everyone from James Dean to (fellow Cantabrian) Nick Drake to River (appropriately enough) Phoenix. He didn’t quite make 28. He cast himself as a Neo-Pagan (becoming a central figure of an eponymous group of writers and artists) and Virginia confirmed this: “He was consciously and definitely pagan.” They were the original Teddy Boys, the reckless youth of the Edwardian era, rebelling against the constraints of stiff-collared Victorian ways.

Embodying the Neo-Pagan ideals of youth, comradeship and the Simple Life, Brooke revelled in going barefoot and skinny-dipping: “Two miles from Cambridge up the river I wander about barefoot and almost naked. I live on honey, eggs and milk.” (letter to Noel Olivier, summer 1909). A bit of Romantic exaggeration of course, but Rupert certainly enjoyed casting off a few layers.

This summer I had the Simple Pleasure of bathing in Lough Hyne, just outside of Baltimore (the one in West Cork as opposed to The Wire one). It is pretty much unique as a salt-water lake, quite the place to go if you want to hang with a goby, shanny, blenny, three-spined stickleback or clingfish. Its salty water reminded me of another top bathing experience – the Blue Hole, East of Port Antonio, Jamaica (aka the Blue Lagoon since Brooke Shields skinny-dipped there in 1980, directed by Randal Kleiser, who I had a ridiculous phonecall with when I was working at Solus – for some unaccountable reason I turned momentarily into The Player, luckily old Randy couldn’t see the tenderfoot at the other end of the transatlantic line). The Blue Hole is a mixed salt and fresh water lagoon, fed by cold underground springs. When you swim you have the unique experience of one stroke warm, next stroke cool, warm, cool, warm, cool, warm, cool. Divers and scientists say it has a depth of about 180 feet. Local islanders say it is bottomless and a monsterous creature lives down below. The mixture of intense physical pleasure and underlying anxiety of the sheer extent and unknowableness of Nature is an experience common to skinny-dippers the world wide.

The-Blue-Lagoon

Channel 4 and Digital Participation

One of my current projects is Alone in the Wild. Cameraman Ed Wardle has gone into the wilderness of the Yukon to film himself and how he copes with 12 weeks of total isolation. Each morning, as part of the safety protocol, he has to send an “I’m OK” message. He does this by sending, from a semi-disabled sat phone (can do outgoing SMSs only), a short message which is posted on Twitter www.twitter.com/aloneinthewild . He’s just started his third week out there – you can see some of the early rushes here and here, more to follow tomorrow [he leaves off his tapes in a dead letter box-type drop-off from where they are later collected by helicopter or float-plane once Ed has moved on, so no human contact] – and already after this opening period, it is clear that Alone in the Wild is bringing new people to Twitter/microblogging as these screenshots illustrate:

Alone in the Wild Twitter screenshot 1Alone in the Wild Twitter screenshot 2Alone in the Wild Twitter screenshot 3Alone in the Wild Twitter screenshot 4Aitw TwitterAlone in the Wild twitterAlone in the Wild Twitter screenshot 5This is a good, clear illustration of how Channel 4 inspires Digital Participation aka Digital Media Literacy aka Being Digital [Digital Britain report] by providing a purpose or mission or story. “Inspires” is the key word – it is what is sometimes lacking from social networks and platforms, and it is what Channel 4 consistently offers – Inspiration is a rare commodity. Even Twitter is basically a tool in need of a task or purpose, it is only as good as the things people find to do with it. Alone in the Wild provides clear guidance on how to join in the conversation on Twitter, part of Channel 4’s commitment to helping drive Digital Participation. But Ed’s “awesome adventure”, his inspiring story of courage and endurance and an unquenchable desire to do the extraordinary (he has been up Everest twice, been to the North Pole, every year he tries to do a new extraordinary thing, but never has he done one in isolation like this, a whole new challenge, as much psychological as physical) his inspiring story is the real energy which is motivating people to have a first go at digital social media.

How to find God

Jon and John Lennon

Jon and John Lennon

We had a little lunchtime sesh for staff at C4 HQ with Jon Ronson talking about his latest film (REVELATIONS: HOW TO FIND GOD) which transmits this Sunday at 7pm on Channel 4. It’s all about the Alpha Course, but not ripping into it or taking the piss, a gentle generous film matched by Jon’s gentle Cardiffian voice-over. None the less insightful for that – just not taking the obvious route, and in that respect very C4. It was commissioned by Aaqil Ahmed, outgoing Commissioning Editor for Religion, who I worked with on Osama Loves last summer and who is heading off for the Beeb, great fodder for the BBC anti-Christian plot conspiracy theorists. Conspiracy theories are of course very much the territory of Jon Ronson (e.g. The Men Who Stare at Goats) – he summed up the theme of his career in journalism, writing and telly as exploring “bubbles of irrationality”. Reminds me of a protest outside C4 HQ by the Moonies last year – after running the gauntlet through said Moonpeople a colleague of mine gave his definition of a religion – “a cult that got lucky”.

Jon and Che

Jon and Che

So Jon’s latest film is a look at the Alpha Course, the Evangelical Christian phenomenon that has been attended by an estimated 2 million people in the UK, and 13 million worldwide. The film has unique access to the course as it follows a small group of agnostics as they undergo the ten evening sessions and weekend away. For Ronson, it is the second time he has done the Alpha Course – the first was for a Guardian article eight years ago. Here, he reflects on his experiences with Alpha. He reveals how he was nearly won round, what he does and doesn’t like about the beliefs involved, and why he thinks the course has enjoyed such a phenomenal level of success.

Why did you want to make a film about the Alpha Course in the first place?

JR: The main reason was that I wrote a piece about the Alpha Course eight years ago, and I was really struck by how dramatic and powerful the Alpha small group thing is. That’s the masterstroke of Nicky Gumbel, who created Alpha – his use of the small group. Really dramatic things happen in small groups – like they do in Alcoholics Anonymous. I thought if we could get a camera into an Alpha small group and make people somehow feel unselfconscious, there would be a great film. That was my main reason for wanting to do the film. But also I knew that the weekend away, where people are asked to speak in tongues, is another really dramatic thing to capture, because some people are just horrified by the idea of speaking in tongues, while for other people it’s the moment when they dive into Christianity. It’s a moment of drama that I knew we’d capture and would be fascinating. And finally, I thought the idea of people becoming Christians might seem like a boring subject for people to watch, but I sort of knew that within the context of Alpha you could make a really interesting, dramatic film about becoming a Christian. If we could capture the moment an agnostic becomes a Christian, it would be jaw-dropping.

It’s watching someone’s life change completely in an instant, isn’t it?

Exactly. I think capturing that, and making it something you couldn’t take your eyes off, was something I wanted to achieve. And I think we have achieved it. I think it’s a really dramatic film. As you say, the structure of the course is key to its success.

How does it work? What happens on an Alpha Course?

Basically you turn up, you’re an agnostic, and the reason why you’ve been convinced to go is because you work in a bar and the person working with you is a Christian, and you have big fights about it late into the night, and finally they say “Well, if you’re so interested, come and do an Alpha Course.” So you turn up and it all seems very nice, and there are pretty girls at the door offering you Hobnobs, and then there’s a talk from the vicar, which is a talk that’s been written by Nicky Gumbel. And then you split off into small groups to discuss the meaning of life. And you do this once a week for ten weeks, and towards the end of that time you go off on a weekend away, where you don’t realise until you get there that they’re going to ask you to try and speak in tongues. And within that framework, salvation occurs, with extraordinary frequency.

What sort of frequency? What proportion of people on the course are converted?

Well, it’s difficult to come up with an exact figure, mainly because some people who do the Alpha Course are Christians anyway, so that kind of skews the figures. But from my own personal experience of having done Alpha twice and talking to a lot of people, the figure I came up with was about one-in-eight.

You’ve done Alpha twice? For research purposes?

Yeah. Although the first time it nearly worked for me. I got all swept up. It didn’t happen for me this time, because when you’re making a film you’ve got so many things to think about you don’t get into the sort of hypnotic bubble. But the first time, yeah, we’d just had a kid, and we’d had trouble conceiving him, and I just felt like Nicky Gumbel was kind of talking to me in strange ways. It’s all in the article I wrote at the time. It’s weird, it was such a personal thing that even though I wrote about it all in the article, I feel a bit uncomfortable talking about it. [In the article, Jon recounts how he was thinking about his son, Joel, being a gift from God. Just at that moment, Nicky started reading from The Book of Joel. Jon writes: “In the middle of the night it becomes clear to me that I almost certainly had a message from God, that God had spoken to me through Nicky Gumbel.”]

What kind of people do you get signing up for Alpha? Do they all have certain characteristics in common? Did they strike you as being lost souls?

Well, I think pretty much everybody in the world is a lost soul. There were one or two people in our group who were a bit Richard Dawkins-y, and really just wanted to have a bit of a scrap. I liked them very much as people, but I didn’t really put them in the film, because that’s not really what it’s about. And then there were one or two people who were more lost soul-ish than the others. But as I said, we’re all lost souls in a way, so you can’t really judge people on that. I don’t think you can really generalise about people’s reasons for doing the Alpha Course. I think that makes it very interesting. They all had a genuine reason for doing Alpha, but they were all very different reasons.

You found it quite hard to get a church to agree to filming this documentary, didn’t you?

Yes. We went to see Nicky Gumbel, who liked the original piece I wrote, except for a line about him equating being gay with being a paedophile, which he says I quoted wildly out of context, and to which I say I quoted it entirely within context. But it caused him no end of trouble, as you can imagine. However, other than that, I think he really liked the article. I think he liked me, and I like him, actually. So I went to see him last December, and said I wanted to make a film about Alpha, and could I film a small group at his church. And he said no. He said he felt that a camera would be like a brick wall between an agnostic and God. Not only would it dissuade people from doing Alpha, having a camera there, but the people who did do Alpha wouldn’t do it properly. So I said to him “What if I find a church doing Alpha who let me film?” And he said “Well, if they phone me, I’ll advise them not to do it for the reasons I’ve just outlined.” And I said “What if they want to do it anyway?” And he said “Well, I can’t stop you.” So we went to lots of churches, and they all said no. Whether they said no because they phoned Nicky I don’t know. But then this fantastic church in Oxford agreed to it. The rector, Charlie Cleverly, phoned Nicky, or one of Nicky’s people, and decided he wanted to do it anyway, because he felt that the presence of a camera might actually encourage people to come. And I got the feeling, from speaking to Charlie, that ultimately Nicky wasn’t that down on the idea.

You seemed to like the people you featured in the film, both those doing the course and those running it. Would that be accurate?

Yeah, I do and I did. And that goes all the way to Nicky Gumbel. However, from a sceptical agnostic point of view, I think that the sort of Evangelical zeal where turning the agnostics to God is the all-important thing, and matters more than anything else, I don’t personally like. So I don’t really like the Evangelical zeal of Alpha. But, then again, they would say that that’s what they believe, that if you don’t find God you don’t get salvation, and it’s crucial. So I see that as a fault, but they don’t. But I wanted to make a film that didn’t focus too much on the negatives. I wanted to make a film that was enquiring and gentle and human. I saw it as a film about people.

The Alpha Course, and therefore the film itself, both take a major, dramatic turn on the weekend away. It comes a little bit out of the blue.

Yeah, that was deliberate on my part. I was worried that, in order to sell the film to the audience, we’d need to put something about that at the top of the film, and I was so glad when it turned out that we didn’t have to. I did it that way because that’s the structure of Alpha – they underplay the weekend away in the first few weeks of the course. So people on the course don’t really know what to expect when they turn up for the weekend. I didn’t want the viewers to know any more than the agnostics we’re following would know.

When the moment arrives where people are asked to speak in tongues, it’s a very polarising experience, isn’t it?

Yeah, it is. And exactly the same thing happened last time I did Alpha. Some people stormed out in disgust, and said “I thought these people were nice, with their biscuits. I didn’t realise they were like some sort of weird cult.” Which I don’t think they are, because a cult is something much more restrictive. If you leave Alpha, no-one’s going to try and press gang you into coming back. But then, for other people, the speaking in tongues is ‘the moment’ – it unlocks something in their hearts. So it’s incredibly polarising, and that’s fascinating. Especially because the rest of Alpha is so un-polarising.

Do you think, then, that it’s a mistake to include speaking in tongues in the course?

It’s really interesting, isn’t it? Nicky would say “I didn’t make the rules, God makes the rules.” But I think, in a way, Nicky does make the rules. Maybe he just thought at some point that you need to draw a line in the sand, otherwise it’s too wishy-washy. But it’s an extraordinary out-of-the-blue structural thing. Maybe it’s not a mistake. To a lot of Christians it is a mistake, and it’s the thing they don’t like about Alpha. And some Alpha Courses have done away with the weekend away – I think much to Nicky’s annoyance. The weekend away happens three-quarters of the way through the course, but it marks the end of the film.

Why is that?

It’s just a natural climax to the story – and it’s a natural climax to the course too, really. The last few weeks are sort of a bit underwhelming.

You have a Jewish background. Was that an issue at all?

No, not at all. My agnosticism was more of an issue. They kept on getting me up onstage in front of the local congregation, to ask me whether my agnosticism remained intact, and always got really pissed off when I told them that it did! But besides the Evangelical zeal, which I find distasteful, I really liked the people. I think they’re good people, nice, funny, intelligent people who are just doing what they think is best. I certainly don’t look down my nose at them.

When you’re making a film like this, which is very observational, is it difficult to know when to ask questions and when to remain silent?

I think it’s sort of intuitive. I have made mistakes, and I kick myself afterwards, when I’m watching the rushes back and I think “Why did I stupidly say something then? They were about to say something amazing.” But the older I get, the better I am at that. It’s probably the most important part of film making, and in the end it has to be sort of intuitive. You learn from experience. When in doubt, shut up. If you ask someone a question – this is the sort of dark art of interviewing – and then they answer it and you don’t say anything, they’ll feel compelled to fill the silence by saying something else, and the other thing they say might be fantastic. So definitely, when in doubt don’t say anything.

Why do you think the Alpha Course is so successful?

I think it’s so successful because of a mix of two things. Firstly because of the invisible structure – everything from the pretty women serving you food through to the structure of when each thing is revealed every week. And then that dramatic lurch at the weekend away, when it all gets turned on its head. Some people might see it as a mistake, others think it’s the coup de grace. I’m kind of torn between the two.

A lot of people will tune in expecting a polemic, or a knocking film. It’s not, is it?

JR: I could make a knocking film. There are certain things I don’t like. But that’s not so much about the course as about Christianity. But we didn’t want to do that. I really wanted to make a film that was about the human dramas that went on within Alpha. To learn about these peoples’ lives as we went on was just fascinating. We didn’t have a clue about any of them when we started filming – it wasn’t like Big Brother where the producers know everything about the housemates when they choose them. It was so interesting finding out about the people in this film. If you want to make a knocking film, then you lose that human element in it, and we wanted to make a film about people.

Jon and Wookie

Jon and Wookie

AG: For me, that’s the difference between journalism and film-making. A journalist knows broadly what he wants to say and goes out to illustrate it with interviews and other footage. A film-maker knows what he wants to explore and goes out to see what he can find…

Twitter experiment with live TV

Next up from these quarters is a microblogging/Twitter experiment with live TV. From Monday at 10.25pm on Channel 4 you’ll be able to watch surgery – live. Open heart surgery, awake brain surgery (i.e. patient awake as well as surgeon and us the trusty viewers), keyhole surgery, tumour removal – alive&direct thanks to Windfall Films in collaboration with the Wellcome Trust. Wild enough in itself I hear you say but that is not all, oh no, that is not all…

We will not hold up the cup and the milk and the cake and the fish on a rake, but as the Cat in the Hat said, we know some new tricks and your mother will not mind (unless she’s etherised upon a table, as that other cat-lover said). The plan is to tip our hat (red and white striped topper or whatever) to that increasingly common behaviour of Twittering whilst watching TV and encourage people to tweet away during the live operations, sharing their thoughts and asking questions. The big difference here is that this is live TV and you can make an impact with your tweet on the TV editorial. The best questions tweeted will be fed through to the presenter, arch-Twitterer Krishnan Guru-Murthy of Channel 4 News, who will swiftly pose them to the surgeon at work. So a matter of seconds between tweet and the question being uttered on live TV.

There have been some pioneering experiments in this area by the likes of The Bad Movie Club (established by Graham Linehan, writer of Channel 4’s Father Ted and The IT Crowd, spotted recently on stage at the TV BAFTAS) and Channel 4 News but I think this may be some kind of first in the telly realm. Now of course there are echoes of phone-ins and combining TV with forums/chatrooms the best part of a decade ago (by Danny Baker on Channel 4) but what this new generation of social media brings is a networked conversation which is global, searchable, tagable and open.

I think it is important to consider carefully what kind of broadcast material to combine microblogging with. I personally tend to indulge in the practice while watching undemanding TV like Jonathan Ross on Friday night. Bad Movie Club has the right idea – the clue is in the word Bad, stuff you may well have watched before and is crap in a good way. There was a little unofficial attempt at it at the BBC but it was allied to radio, and egg-heady radio at that – the broadcast material was too complex and demanded too much attention to allow for multitasking. What I’m expecting with Surgery Live is that once you get into the flow of the programme you don’t need to give it your undivided attention to be able to follow the action. I, of course, will be watching over the rim of my specs to take the edge off it all, being of a squeamish disposition and never cut out to be the doctor my parents wanted me to be. I’m a Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Cutlers, the City livery company associated with the crafting of swords and surgical instruments, which is ironic given my phobia of all sharp edges (other than the cutting edge of interactive media ;-)  ).

Surgery Live is the second of three Twitter experiments on my radar. The first was Osama Loves which used Twitter, early last summer, to enable our two intrepid adventurers in search of 500 Osamas in 50 days right across the Islamic world to update sharers in their journey from areas where they couldn’t get online or didn’t have sufficient bandwidth and were forced to rely on mobile. The third is the forthcoming Alone in the Wild (watch this space).

I’ll report back here on whatever interesting comes of it but in the meantime, please do join us for The Operation: Surgery Live on Channel 4 on Monday at 10.25pm (then Tuesday through Friday at 10.30/11.00, varies) to watch an illuminating show and discuss it there & then.

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