Another way to documentary

By Alex Brisland General and Development Research Assistant to the Creative Director

Only 7 days have passed since a long university ‘career’ has ended. If I can, in fact, call it a ‘career.’ It was certainly not comparable to how I would imagine that word now. After all, it was often difficult to think beyond the next essay to a world (the ‘real’ world) where careers and council tax were important. University life, for all its wondrous plusses, was also an enormous bubble. And all bubbles burst...

But there was no sadness when I ceremonially laid my student card to rest in my drawer. And that was not because I was sad to leave university. Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien! I simply knew that a fork in the road had been reached. I had put a hesitant foot on a new ladder (and other generic analogies).

And here’s another analogy, know that feeling when you take off your sunglasses after a day in the sun, and suddenly your eyes adjust and re-interpret the world. Well that’s what finishing my MA, and starting work last week, felt like. The warm, cosy, rose-tinted lenses were smashed; and I was left blinking, baulking, and bewildered. In a good way, of course.

There I was, at 8.45 on Monday morning (early I might add), ringing the Icon doorbell. ‘Can I come in to work, please’ I asked rather pathetically; like Oliver Twist grovelling at the workhouse. The lift ascended: Ground floor. 1st floor. A quick last chance to check the comb-over, tie the laces, and un-crease the shirt. 2nd floor. 3rd floor. ‘Ping’.

Trepidation, anticipation, excitement, nervousness. So many inadequate synonyms could be used to describe that first bumbling introduction to new colleagues, and of course, Alfie (Icon’s canine contingent). Maybe it was just politeness to the new guy, maybe no-one felt they should highlight my egregious errors, and my flagrant faux-pas. But, I think the first week went off, not with a bang necessarily, but without too many hitches. It was the best I could hope for.  There was no jubilant clarion call to herald my glorious entry into the world of work.  But, I was handed a notebook, a lanyard, and a strong cup of coffee. I had made it. I had arrived!

What I was really asked to write about was how and why I ended up here. What made me think that a TV career was the right choice?

I always hugely enjoyed documentaries, and I rather fancied myself in this kind of job. I admit that I was daunted with the task of trying to secure it. I was frequently and quite aggressively assured by everyone (and I do mean almost everyone) that breaking into TV was harder than titanium. Harder than mounting an unaided frontal assault on Fort Knox, blindfolded.

And what did I actually know about TV anyway? For all I knew, on-line editing meant deleting my Google history. Surely ‘EP’ meant Extended Play? Maybe it was time to bring up my record-collecting knowledge, I thought.

So what drove me to do it?

Well, it was actually studying for a history master’s – completed within spitting distance of Icon’s offices – which gave me the urge and the interest to start down the TV path. I looked over my essay titles from my undergrad days, and realised they all shared a common theme. The topics were separated by period, and geography. But, they were all focussed on understanding how and why people gain their understanding of the past. This endeavour meant my type of history was part of what is called ‘cultural history,’ and meant I was interested in what is confusingly titled  ‘memory studies’ (although this is NOT really what it seems). I wanted to understand how everything from museums to radio shows, school syllabuses to newspaper articles informed how we, the British, understand our past. Academic history, with its journals and conferences, seemed to be a less significant factor that academics cared to admit. 100 people might read a journal article but how many watch historical TV documentaries? Millions perhaps.

My aim was never to criticise the role of TV documentaries and other exponents of ‘public history.’ If anything, my respect grew for what were often colossal and valuable achievements. Academics often seemed to associate commercial success with a loss of integrity. But, so what if TV documentaries were part of a business environment. And so what if TV was about entertaining as much as informing. I failed to see how these were mutually exclusive. Wasn’t it better anyway, I thought, that TV documentaries used the power of the visual medium to reach wider audiences?

So, as part of the History MA course I took a set of units called the ‘public history pathway.’ It was a refreshing break from sometimes overly terse and turgid academic history modules. One week we might learn about how museums operate from a theoretical perspective, and the next we would interrogate a museum director. One week we might discuss how heritage sites are managed, and the next we might speak to a manager of the National Trust. And crucially for this story, one week we discussed historical documentaries. And the next week we came to Icon.

So, I listened eagerly as Harry, Cris, and Dom told us about Icon’s approach. They told us about their idea of TV history: what it was for, and what made it watchable. It didn’t take long to realise that much of the theory I had learnt the week before was not only irrelevant, but wrong. It wasn’t quite a Road to Damascus moment (I had already been thinking such televisual thoughts for a little while), but it was certainly a motivation.

And so it came to pass…that I realised I actually wanted to try this documentary malarkey for myself (historical and other types of documentaries). I realised I wanted to be involved in the process of making them, not analysing them. Four years of intellectual chin-stroking was enough. Icon was perfect, I thought. Somewhere I could wedge my foot in the door.

(And perhaps, just perhaps…Starkey. Schama. A. J. P Taylor….Brisland? Could it be? Only kidding.)

Luckily, as one of the assessments for this ‘public history pathway’ unit, we were instructed to write up a TV documentary proposal. Harry would then look over it. So, I decided I should probably put some effort in. I think Harry kind of liked my idea. Or at least, that is what my tutor told me. So I emailed, and phoned, persisted a little, and maybe pestered.

And the rest they say is…errr….history?

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