It’s suddenly a good time for documentary. The annual Sheffield Festival is about to kick off; ITV shows the latest in the 7-Up series (56-Up… can it really be that long; can Michael Apted really be 71 years old?); and in China, the national broadcaster CCTV develops a documentary-themed Channel 9.

Apted’s producer Clare Lewis has really loosened up the 7-Up format this time round, by developing different ways of bringing together the various people who have lived their lives with the threat of ITV coming round yet again. Their partners and offspring seem to play a larger role as well. It’s more the portrait of a generation than of specific individuals; just like The Iron Lady was more a film about Alzheimer’s and a mother/daughter relationship rather than a history lesson. 56-Up has absorbed the lessons of recent documentary portraiture.

ITV starts each episode with a classy ‘Documentary on ITV’ string. Perhaps this is a new beginning from a channel now known more for its reality TV experiments. Or perhaps they don’t know the difference between documentary and reality TV anyway. The signs are hard to read: 56-Up is shown in the 9pm peak slot; but then there are only three episodes this time round. One good omen, one bad?

Meanwhile in China, some of the most vivid documentaries of recent times have been born from the stresses of the country’s breakneck social development. Most of them have been circulated outside the broadcasting system, and many, like the award-winning Last Train Home, have been completed with foreign finance. This is unsurprising in a country where ‘harmony’ is a major objective because social documentary doesn’t do harmony.

So what are we to make of the recent development of a documentary channel in the heart of CCTV, the broadcaster whose history is that of acting as “the mouth and throat of the party”? Meeting a documentary director working on a commission for CCTV Channel 9 recently was highly instructive. She is part of the team making a 100 part series (yes: one hundred) about the police. Footage of police raids on various miscreants can frequently be seen on TV in China, just like elsewhere. But this series is different. It concentrates on procedures and whole cases rather than the headline confrontations. And it is different in how it is produced. It harks back to an older style of documentary production in China, working through reconstructions rather than observation.

Each episode has two weeks research, two weeks shooting and two weeks editing. A script is written before the shoot and sent to the financiers. The police then ‘play themselves’ in reconstructions of their scripted actions. Any departure from the scripted dialogue requires further approval before the footage can be used. CCTV makes the series, but does not pay for it, hence the script approval by the financiers… who are the Ministry of the Interior.

So what does this indicate about CCTV’s documentary channel 9? The omens are as difficult to decipher as those of ITV. It could be an attempt to reassert the old controlled model of documentary against the new wave of spontaneous films and carefully observed real actions. Or could it be a concerted attempt to develop a large group of documentary filmmakers within CCTV, who will inevitably become more ambitious as the channel develops?


JOHN ELLIS is Professor of Media Arts at Royal Holloway University of London.  He is the author of Documentary: Witness and Self-revelation (Routledge 2011), TV FAQ (IB Tauris 2007), Seeing Things (IB Tauris 2000) and Visible Fictions (1984). Between 1982 and 1999 he was an independent producer of TV documentaries through Large Door Productions, working for Channel 4 and BBC. He is chair of the British Universities Film & Video Council and leads the Royal Holloway team working on EUscreen.  His publications can be found HERE.