In a magnificent jeremiad last October, Tony Robinson tore into an audience of media grandees. Public service broadcasting was on its knees, he cried. “We’ve lost those bits of television that are difficult to make. The whole culture of risk-taking which has driven every new step forward in British television is now almost a dead duck.”
You are not meant to talk that way in broadcasting, and Mark Thompson, the director-general of the BBC, quickly restored order. The BBC, ITV and Channel 4 were a “family” of public service broadcasters, he told the meeting, dedicated to the noble mission of giving the audience what it needs to know.
A glance at Robinson’s own genre of factual programmes shows why the old actor was right and the director-general years behind the times. Britain has developed three styles of documentary making. At first, channel controllers allowed acknowledged authorities – Kenneth Clark, David Attenborough – to use the tricks of television to educate the public. You can still see the old style in Simon Schama’s and Niall Ferguson’s documentaries, although, tellingly, modern producers now require their experts to jump about like twitchy teenagers and gibber like Oprah. The second wave saw producers bring in Robinson, Michael Palin and other celebrities to front their shows. The star vehicles were not always crass. Robinson’s Time Team, for example, is a thoughtful series that persuasively conveys the work of archaeologists to a wider public.
The third and latest style is narcissist television, about which I can find nothing good to say. The documentary presenter is neither a celebrity, who might be expensive, nor an authority, who might be boring, but an egomaniac: one of the worrying new breed of journalists who report on their emotions and, by extension, the emotions of the self-obsessed viewers at home. If Mark Thompson wants to understand why he has no right to be complacent, he should take a long, cool look at the work of Bruce Parry.
Although Brian Appleyard of the Sunday Times described Parry as “wiry and objectionable”, television executives and audiences think highly of the former Royal Marine. The BBC has released a DVD of his latest series, a journey down the Amazon, and given it an almost instant, prime time repeat on BBC2.
His visit to the Amazonian Achuar people, explains why his success is ominous. It encapsulates everything that is wrong with the narcissist genre.
Inevitably, Parry sees the Achuar as Rousseauian noble savages, whose holistic lives are threatened by the exploitation of nearby oil reserves. He heads upriver in a small powerboat to meet them, like an environmentally-friendly conquistador looking for a green El Dorado. “I’m soooo lucky to be allowed to come in here,” he sighs. “There are no roads, no towns, no real infrastructure other than what the tribal people have traditionally had. As we move slowly upstream I begin to get the sense that we are going somewhere strange and special.”
The Achuar territory sounds like a life-affirming, earth-loving paradise, but Parry faces a problem. Thirty seconds’ research on Google taught me that the Achuar, like Presbyterian ministers and the old English aristocracy, regard displays of emotion in front of strangers as poor form.
Parry does not seem to know this and spends most of the documentary trying to persuade the Achuar to chill out and accept that BBC journalists are pretty straight guys. Ever since Franz Boas, anthropologists have agreed that they cannot interfere with the cultures they are studying or they will destroy what they are meant to record. No such scruples restrain Parry as he embarks on a mission to be loved.He stays in an old man’s house, but the patriarch’s daughters throw him out. He gathers roots and goes on fishing trips. The Achuar politely ignore him. With a haunted expression, he turns to the camera and says, “It’s still weird. I still don’t feel I’ve really broken into the community or the family. But I’m hoping that just by chipping away and being here and always being helpful and smiling they will realise that I’m not all that bad and lighten up a bit.”
He finally breaks down their reserve when he joins a root beer party, in which tradition requires participants to drink until they projectile vomit. Raddled, dazed and one gag away from puking, Parry is picked up by Mantou, an Achuar elder, who lays him on a hammock, and washes his feet. Through the pain, Parry issues a sickly smile of vindication. “That one single act is the most wonderful thing that’s happened to me since I’ve been here,” he sighs. “Sooo lovely! Mantou, who is sooo stoical and rarely smiles and has just been a wonderful host, but always just a liddle bit separate, has just looked after me at this moment when I really needed him sooo nicely. Just washing my feet! Imagine!”
Shockingly, all around Parry is a story screaming to be investigated. The Achuar are not Rousseauian innocents. They wear modern clothes and have an accurately marked football pitch. Meanwhile, a part of the tribe has done a deal with the oil companies and moved from huts into houses with electricity and running water.
Parry does not find them and ask if wealth has brought better health and longer lives, or alcoholism and decadence. Nor does he notice that women are second-class citizens in the tribal village, and ask if the freedoms modernity brings are breaking the power of misogyny for those who escape traditional culture. If we are to credit his account, the BBC documentary is a “last chance to see” a doomed society. But instead of recording a vanishing culture for posterity, Parry merely tells us that New Age Englishmen can be wetter than the Amazon rain forest, and I knew that already.
The channel controllers treat Tony Robinson as an eccentric. He is an old leftist and stalwart of the actors’ union and they can dismiss his complaints as luvvyish excess. But the latest style of documentaries shows that if Robinson is guilty of anything it is of underestimating the journalistic crisis in television.