Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
'Fly on the Wall' TV

Revealing observational documentary

Main image of 'Fly on the Wall' TV

The 'fly-on-the-wall' documentary is a catchy but catch-all term used to describe a variety of observational documentary forms. In essence, the FoW documentary is a study of individuals or institutions, characterised by close and detailed observation and the quasi-invisibility of the recording team. First applied in the 1960s to documentaries produced for the cinema, the label is nowadays largely the preserve of television documentary. Certainly, FoW's intimate portraits of sensitive or 'taboo' subjects (e.g. 100% White) seem better suited to the small screen's more human scale, while the unravelling of a complex social or cultural institution (e.g. Police, The Ark), often requires the luxury of a series that only television can afford.

The FoW documentary comes in myriad forms. Roger Graef's Police (BBC, 1982) is a rigorous sociological study of the modern British bobby. Formally, the series adheres to the principles of Direct Cinema, the American movement which created a blueprint for the FoW documentary by championing the 'invisibility' of the film crew. In contrast, Leo Regan's 100% White (Channel 4, tx. 17/7/2000), a study of neo-Nazis, echoes the concerns of the French cinéma-verité movement by foregrounding the filmmaker's effect on his subjects. The tabloid media frenzy that accompanied Paul Watson's The Family (BBC, 1974) was probably more responsible than anything for the popularisation of the term 'fly-on-the-wall'. This groundbreaking series has also been described as the first 'docusoap'.

In Think of England (BBC, tx. 27/4/1999), acclaimed Magnum photographer Martin Parr uses a FoW camcorder aesthetic to construct a highly authored film essay. The Ark (BBC, 1993) is Molly Dineen's quintessential FoW anatomy of an institution, in this case London Zoo, while in Tracking Down Maggie (Channel 4, tx. 19/5/1994) Nick Broomfield dissects the public image of a former prime minister. Each of these examples is marked by the distinctive style of its author/s, but they all share a common sense of purpose that distinguishes the best practitioners of the 'fly-on-the-wall' documentary, a desire to lift the lid on British society, to expose its iniquities and illuminate its truths.

Joe Sieder

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of 100% White (2000)

100% White (2000)

Brave documentary following a group of semi-reformed neo-Nazis

Thumbnail image of Ark, The (1993)

Ark, The (1993)

Four-part documentary series about London Zoo

Thumbnail image of Family, The (1974)

Family, The (1974)

Pioneering 'fly on the wall' series about a working-class family from Reading

Thumbnail image of Office, The (2001-03)

Office, The (2001-03)

Fly-on-the-wall sitcom about life in a Slough paper merchants

Thumbnail image of Police (1982)

Police (1982)

Influential 'fly on the wall' documentary series about Thames Valley police

Thumbnail image of Think of England (1999)

Think of England (1999)

Documentary examining modern attitudes towards 'Englishness'

Thumbnail image of Tracking Down Maggie (1994)

Tracking Down Maggie (1994)

Hilarious account of Nick Broomfield's attempts to interview the former PM

Related Collections

Related People and Organisations