Celebrating Channel 4’s new wave of observation

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The Hotel, The Fried Chicken Shop and the Educating series are all spearheading Channel 4’s new wave of social documentary gold.

Channel 4 celebrates its 30th birthday this year. It prides itself in striving to broadcast innovative, cutting edge and most importantly diverse television that would confront the conformity and pedestrian tendencies of its rivals at its infancy. With prolific factual producer Jeremy Isaacs at the helm, as founding Chief Executive of the channel back in the 1980s, the set-up had a vested interest, and a core of expertise, in the broadcast of quality documentary programming.

Channel 4’s new observational docs are devoid of offence and rich in the way of core social documentary ingredients

In recent years, there has been a profusion of ‘factual’ programmes from the channel – the strangely coined ‘reality TV’ often entangled within similar categorisation – and from these efforts have emerged an arguably mixed bag of productions. Yet a new wave of observational, fly-on-the-wall documentaries have floated atop a sea of prime time documentary programming. These are documentaries arguably devoid of offence and suffocating production embellishments, and rich in the way of the core ingredients in social documentary filmmaking.

The observational documentaries to be applauded in this article lack in journalism and the illumination of injustice that other Channel 4 documentaries like Dispatches and the indispensable Unreported World offer. These documentaries demand a differing filmmaking skill set from producers. The production approach results in shows that almost transcend the admirability of how they were actually made, and succeed in devoting all viewer attention to the very people and stories they present. And shouldn’t this be what observational documentary is all about, even if it may not adhere, unflinching, to the labyrinthine nature of the observationally purist cinéma vérité?

First in this trinity of shows is The Hotel, which provides an intimate insight into the inner-workings of two hotels, the latter series featuring struggling Torquay business The Grosvenor. At the epicentre of the hotel’s trials and tribulations was the remarkable Mark, a lifelong business man and fluctuating Bentley owner, wrestling with the management of The Grosvenor in an effort to regain his aptitude for money-making and propel the hotel into a viable, profitable business venture.

The Hotel was enriched with genuine belly laughs otherwise thought impossible at the hands of such a seemingly shit idea

On paper, The Hotel sounds a rather banal concept, but in practice it was anything but – chronicling the ebb and flow of the hotel, its staff and guests, and organically enriched with genuine belly laughs and lumps in the throat otherwise thought impossible at the hands of such a seemingly shit idea. The series is a nod to the fiction of Fawlty Towers, its comedy and Cleasian faux-pas reincarnate in the living, breathing Grosvenor. The programme excelled in not only documenting the glorious idiosyncrasies of Mark and his team, and their ‘this must have been scripted, it’s comic genius’ dialogue and infelicities, but also the hotel guests, showcasing their similar hilarity as well as revealing some heart-rending stories and circumstances surrounding their Torquay holidays.

The Fried Chicken Shop provided spectation of Clapham’s Roosters Spot, and all its unfolding feuds, romances, and breadth of meetings and conversation in between. With London’s glut of chicken shops, the realm of such a fast food joint is both commonplace and alien to many in the capital, yet the show illustrates just how blurred and inexact the categorisation of the typical chicken shop’s demographic is. The programme provides the chicken shop-accustomed the novelty of realising some of the ephemeral moments of a domain they are otherwise familiar with, and the alienated the opportunity to glare for a bit longer into that foreign realm of fabled fried chicken, that they must tolerate walking past en-route to Waitrose.

fried chicken shop 2

The Fried Chicken Shop showed Roosters Spot to be a hive of personalities and emotion, a backdrop of budget food before which to put the world to rights. Aside from some drunken mischief, it showed the fast food outlet to be a watering hole at which lions and zebras alike could rip into chicken carcasses harmoniously – the shared time and place of eating enough of a reason to strike up borderline existential dialogue. With such coverage of otherwise forgotten moments, it can remind us, as a disconnected audience, just how precious such moments can be, even if it wasn’t quite so acutely acknowledged by those in the heat of the moment on-screen.

The Fried Chicken Shop showed the fast food outlet as a place to eat chicken and strike up borderline existential dialogue

Educating Essex and Educating Yorkshire are the last in this trio of observational Channel 4 documentaries, especially worthy of mention. Broadcasting a window into the 21st century UK comprehensive, the series documents the daily life of an environment not overtly unfamiliar to the majority of its viewers – an environment as equally lamented by some as it is missed by others. The secondary school is an outright melting pot of characters, many of whom are engulfed with brand new, outlook-warping bodily chemicals. It’s a place where authority endeavours to prevail, and emanates from the very people from whom wisdom supposedly disseminates and qualification-determining knowledge is imparted.

It is arguably an environment nonpareil for its amalgamation of backgrounds, ethnicities, dreams and capabilities, a compound bound and further complicated by a sticky glue of hormonally-inflated insecurities, cliques and rebellious streaks. Partner this with the inspiring team of teachers both schools had to offer, and the sheer charisma of the school heads, and it is no wonder the observation of the schools’ happenings proved to be such satisfying viewing. The Educating series employs just the right balance of core, spontaneously-occurring footage and synthesized production embellishments; post-production that served only to invigorate moments as opposed to suffocating or trivialising them, something seemingly difficult to attain in mainstream documentary filmmaking.

educating yorkshire test 2

Are such series worthy of critical acclaim? They are not Theroux or Broomfield. They do not exhibit the cinematically artful intricacies of Herzog, emit the political charge of Michael Moore or Unreported World, nor do they revolve around narratives as memorable or meticulously pieced together as Searching for Sugar Man. What they do achieve, however, is affecting documenting of actualities to evoke emotion, without drastic potential to either cause outright offence, or appeal to the X Factor-emoted by saturating all footage in sickly, caricatured soundtracks and hollow, post-production artifice, just begging you to well up or punch the air and reach for high fives.

These shows are poignant, socially valuable material, bringing the camera to the common man and the commonplace

These shows are poignant, socially valuable material, in keeping with documentary pioneer John Grierson’s efforts to bring the camera to the common man and the commonplace, otherwise considered devout of any filmic worth. The people and proceedings of such shows succeed in transcending the act of being filmed. These are the documentaries that recognise selectivity as a tool, to utilise in placing the overlooked and perhaps otherwise unrealised under a microscope. They promote these moments and people – tears and euphoria – to the screen for an audience to harvest emotion and life-affirming moments from, without any acute sense of uneasy exploitation of real people and events.

This is life-affirming television not for its writing prowess or directing expertise first and foremost, but for the living, breathing people at the heart of its observed escapades. To capture moments too transient, in environments otherwise too familiar, is the real triumph of such programming. It is televisual gold, ripe for the taking.

 

All images: Channel 4

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