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Channel 4 Documentary

The fourth channel's distinctive take on non-fiction television

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There was a time when, if someone started talking enthusiastically about television documentary, one knew more or less what they meant: they meant Denis Mitchell's Morning in the Streets (BBC, tx. 25/3/1959) and Kenneth Clark's Great Temples of the World (ITV, 1964-66), BBC2's The Great War (1964), Mike Grigsby's Deckie Learner (ITV, tx. 16/6/1965), Jeremy Isaacs' The World at War (ITV, 1973-74) and so on.

Not any more though: from 1982, with the birth of Channel 4, the last 25 years of the British TV documentary has been so rigorously re-shaped, re-formed, re-constituted and generally re-charged that if one is going to talk about documentaries in the Grierson sense of the term one has to start with "By documentary, of course, I don't mean..."

While Channel 4 has engaged in some lamentable instances of what one probably doesn't mean, it has fully acknowledged its remit to appeal to tastes and interests not generally catered for by ITV - and, to be fair, laid its cards out in good faith from the beginning, arranging them (for the most part) into three general categories. These have ranged from historical documentaries (such as Trevor Phillips' examination of the origins of Britain's Slave Trade, 1999) to the cultural documentary (Peter Greenaway's observations on 4 American Composers, 1984) to, quite simply, the offbeat (the ephemeral depression of Caspar Berry's An A-Z of the End of the World, 1999).

The advantage of television history usually lies in its immediacy, though it often runs the risk of over-simplification. Channel 4, conscious of such pitfalls, has presented some exceptionally fine historical studies that, in their various and distinctive ways, could rival Jeremy Isaacs' 1973 classic: Vietnam (1983), lambasting colonialism despite being a joint English, French and American production; The Spanish Civil War (1983-84), keeping the perspective honestly and rigorously Spanish; The Boer War (1999), an unhurried and astonishingly earthy treatment; and, inevitably, The Falklands War (1992), an anniversary item (subtitled 'The Unnecessary War') recounting the South Atlantic political anomaly. Whether concentrating on individuals, such as the down-to-earth biography of the theatrical General Douglas MacArthur, American Caesar (1984), or presenting expansive overviews, with Professor Niall Ferguson's six-hour triumphalist view of Britain's imperialist adventures, Empire (2003), Channel 4's historical treatments have often made for compelling as well as educative viewing.

Alternatively, if one considers that the 'documentary' is after all more of a state of mind than a form, Four has always excelled in offering insights into the most fascinating and obscure aspects of the arts. A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995) followed the filmmaker's self-examination as a director, using aspects of Hollywood history to relate to his own personal expression. John Peel's Sound of the Suburbs (1999) focused on what was at times a rather self-indulgent hypothesis that real modern pop emerged from urban decline. Andy Warhol (2002) was presented to commemorate the 15th anniversary of his death, and the Tate Modern's biggest exhibition of the artist's work.

The absurd and the offbeat documentary (with its agenda of sensationalism playing on morbid curiosity or petty titillation) was pretty much a home-grown Channel 4 sub-genre, and all too often appeared to be a reckless celebration of its licence to provide an 'alternative' aspect. Among these desperately unconventional forms have been such works as Embarrassing Illnesses (1999), taking TV voyeurism to almost distasteful lengths in the smug concept that TV viewers prefer watching other people's problems rather than dealing with their own; A Brief History of the F Word (2000), a comprehensive, if over-long, study of a word that was afraid of being used in the programme's title but had its etymology analysed from its medieval origins to its socially common usage today; Sex On TV (2002), as much about social attitudes as it was about television, was a well-worn chronicle of the rise and rise of sex and sexuality; and the peculiar science-musical combination, Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation (2005), an absurdly funny song-and-dance presentation by evolutionary biologist Dr. Olivia Judson as Dr. Tatiana in a playful compendium of animal sexual behaviour in the form of an agony column.

Social relevance, needless to say, has never been allowed to stray far from Four's schedules, and among the more perceptive insights have been Roger Graef's Race Against Crime (tx. 7/11/1999), observing the Met's Racial and Violent Crime Task Force as they try to improve the way race-motivated crimes are handled by the police; The Trust (2002), a quietly devastating five-part observation and, ultimately, damning indictment of the under-invested NHS; and the ugly Thatcher v Scargill showdown, The Battle of Orgreave (tx. 20/10/2002), Mike Figgis's drama-doc re-enactment of one of the most powerful images of the 1984-85 dispute.

While Four's Afro-Asian current affairs magazine The Bandung File (1985-89) acquired the 'face' of ethnic affairs during the 1980s, its 1991-97 investigative series The Black Bag, highlighting sensitive issues usually avoided by television, became the multicultural 'personality' of the 1990s.

Interestingly, the tenacious current affairs strands Diverse Reports (1984-87) and Dispatches (1987- ) may have been pleased to see their influences progress to the persistent (though undisciplined) accounts of Nick Broomfield's 'The Leader, his Driver and the Driver's Wife' (tx. 4/4/1991), with the filmmaker pursuing the evasive AWB chief Eugene Terre'Blanche all over Natal (resulting in a libel suit against Channel 4), and 'Tracking Down Maggie' (tx. 19/5/1994), where he chased the inaccessible Lady Thatcher across two continents while she was on a book-signing tour. Both programmes were shown as a part of the documentary strand True Stories (1987- ), which later - in a darker turn from Broomfield's amusing escapade with white supremacist Terre'Blanche - presented the bleak '100% White' (tx. 17/7/2000), photographer-producer Leo Regan's award-winning update report on three of the subjects of his 1993 photo-book about neo-Nazi skinheads.

After Fragile Earth (1982-93) first drew attention to the dangers of deforestation in changing world climate, and Equinox (1986- ), in a rather perverse 1990 edition ('The Greenhouse Conspiracy'), attempted to reassure us that global warming was simply a myth, it seemed somehow characteristic of Channel Four's almost mischievous spirit that producer Martin Durkin's polemical The Great Global Warming Swindle (tx. 8/3/2007) should bring things up to date with the provocative claim that increasing world-wide environmental concern has itself bred a multi-million dollar scientific industry.

Tise Vahimagi

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