Before sitting down to write, I decided to cast an eye over this week’s television schedule, alighting almost immediately on two examples of a genre which has long confounded and intrigued me: the celebrity documentary. By this I do not mean biographical investigations of the rich and/or famous, but rather documentaries presented by people whose primary qualification for the job is the familiarity of their face, rather than any expertise in or direct association with the subject under investigation. For example, later today husband and wife thespians Timothy West and Prunella Scales are joined by sons Sam and Joe for their continuing Great Canal Journeys (Channel 4), while on Friday Martin Clunes once again takes pride in his passion for wildlife with Martin Clunes & a Lion Called Mugie (ITV). Where once the television documentary was the reserve of actual experts in their field, as typified by art historian Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation (BBC, 1969), today such efforts are increasingly remote islands in an unending sea of celebridocs. Later this month, Easter weekend’s Pasqua with Joe Pasquale (ITV) sees the shrill comedian examining the celebration of religious festivals abroad, while the BBC’s WWI centenary season continues with Pam Ayres’ investigation into the life of poet Wilfrid Owen.
OK, I made those last two up, but they’re the kind of thing that just might get commissioned in a world where Caroline Quentin’s secondary school project on India apparently made her the only sane choice for the imaginatively-titled A Passage through… (ITV, 2011). Shows such as this and Clunes’ long-running animal-related endeavours (inspired by the fact that the first film he ever saw was Born Free(1966)), while allowing the celebrity in question to indulge a long-held passion/interest, also raise questions with regard to the nature of the modern television documentary, not least of which is: are we watching due to a genuine interest in the subject matter, or because of our familiarity with/liking for the presenter?
Sometimes there is a clear overlap. The BBC’s occasional strand My Hero (2013) has seen Miranda Hart and Ben Miller presenting documentaries on, respectively, comedy greats Eric Morecambe and Tony Hancock. There would seem to be a certain logic to modern day comics paying tribute to their forbears, yet while in Hart’s case her extensive awareness of Morecambe’s life and work bordered on the charmingly obsessive, Miller’s documentary seemed largely designed to fill in the gaps in his knowledge, his input limited to naming favourite moments from Hancock’s shows, and at one point evincing a sense of awe at the chance to don the famous astrakhan coat. In such works, the focus seems as much on the presenter as the subject; an easy ‘in’ for modern audiences, who are perhaps less familiar with the latter than the former. It is interesting to consider that, had the convention of celebrity presenters been in vogue in Morecambe or Hancock’s heyday, they might well have devoted attention to performers who held little immediate interest for their own contemporary fans, such as (in Morecambe’s case) US comic Jack Benny, or Hancock’s hero, British variety star Sid Field.
However, in the majority of cases, no identifiable causal link seems to exist – initially, at least – between the choice of presenter and the subject on which they are to hold forth. It is possible that this in fact provides a certain advantage, the host starting from a point of ignorance which perhaps encourages identification on the part of equally ill-informed viewer. Together they can grow and learn from the real experts, who appear as interviewees or talking heads, and for added entertainment value, there will be a few amusing mishaps thrown in along the way. Stephen Fry would probably not count the broken arm which marred his adventures …in America (BBC, 2008) among the latter, but it certainly added a little drama. And what exactly was he doing in Brazil in the first place? The premise for this particular series was that Fry was ‘almost born’ in the US; scarcely as strong a starting point even as Quentin’s school project. On the other hand, it might be argued that the always eloquent Fry has as much right to present on this topic as he does on technological innovation (the first series of Gadget Man (Channel 4, 2012)), or what it means to be gay in different parts of the world (Out There (BBC, 2013)). Well, perhaps; but using that logic, doesn’t everyone? If so, why am I not being given the chance to present a series on changes in acting style for British television (my special subject, on which I might hopefully be regarded as possessing a level of expertise), the music of the Kinks (my hobby, on which I have acquired extensive information), or pizza (my favourite food, yet about which I remain lamentably ignorant)?
Because I lack the profile necessary to generate audience interest; in short, no-one would watch.
Which is a shame, because watching me struggle to master the skills of a pizzaiolo (pizza chef) would be good TV on anyone’s terms. Starting from ground zero in terms of subject awareness can in fact be the USP on which an entire career is predicated. Louis Theroux has made it the raison d’etre of his various television adventures, from Weird Weekends (BBC, 1998-2000) onwards, though his faux naiveté is perhaps serving him less well in his current strand, LA Stories (2014). The focus in last weekend’s ‘Edge of Life’ on the treatment of the terminally ill and cases with (seemingly) no hope of recovery, while compelling, at times sat uneasily alongside Theroux’s patented wide-eyed wonder. Theroux, however, is a professional journalist, and while his television appearances have successfully developed a naïf screen persona, his true gift lies in making audiences forget that he is performing a job as an expert investigator who has actually done his research, rather than merely dipping his toe in the waters of an alternate occupation.
Elsewhere, a performer’s secondary career in documentary-making can form such strong associations that it eventually eclipses the original. Monty Python retrospectives aside, Michael Palin’s name has become so firmly linked with the travelogue (incredibly, stemming from a simple one-off programme, Confessions of a Trainspotter (BBC), way back in 1980) that it was something of a jolt to actually see him acting again in The Wipers Times (BBC, 2013) last year. Later this week he will be appearing as subject rather than presenter in a documentary on Ripping Yarns (BBC), hosted by Alexander Armstrong. Who else?
It would seem, therefore, that a degree of authority can be acquired by experience – or at least repeated exposure. However, it is notable that in the majority of these celebrity productions the branding device of the presenter’s name, proudly trumpeted with a possessive apostrophe ahead of the programme title, indicates that form remains more important than content as a means of encouraging audience engagement.
There are exceptions, of course. While Dr George McGavin has become a familiar face through his One Show (BBC, 2006- ) appearances, he is a fully qualified entomologist and Honorary Research Associate at the Oxford Museum of Natural History. His Monkey Planet (BBC, 2014) can therefore be seen as continuing in the noble tradition of David Attenborough, while developmental psychologist Professor Uta Frith’s Horizon (BBC, 1964- ) entry on ‘Living with Autism’ this week proved more engaging (for me, at least) than the various celebrity documentaries listed above combined. Such programmes perhaps indicate that a hierarchy of documentary genres exists, whereby certain topics, such as natural history and science, still require the presence of a genuine expert in order to make them both palatable and comprehensible to the public.
Its currency as an entertainment format, rather than one primarily of information or education, makes the celebrity documentary problematic to assess in evaluative terms. However, the notable increase in the number of examples over recent years means that it is difficult to ignore as a programming phenomenon.
Perhaps someone will even present a documentary on the subject? If so, I hope they get an expert in.
Dr Richard Hewett teaches television and film at Royal Holloway, the University of London. He has contributed to The Journal of British Cinema and Television and The Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television