Real people, together… works every time

In your FACE

The BBC has been running the Listening Project on Radio 4.  It’s a lovely initiative – in partnership with the British Library (where I am often to be found researching) – in which pairs of friends and family members are recorded talking to each other.  I heard one this morning in which a sister talks to a brother who had spent time in prison. She explained how upset she felt to have lost him for that period, and he asked why she hadn’t contacted him while he was locked up.  I’d heard it a few weeks ago, and it was as good second time round.  It was beautiful because of the love they feel between each other, and because of the unscripted and natural ways they expressed themselves.

It reminded me of three of my favourite things – two TV programmes, and one theatrical production.

The Fallen showed family members talking about loved ones who had been killed serving in the British Army in Afghanistan.  The most striking was a teenage girl, beside herself with grief, but able to explain that she missed her brother so much because he would have been able to talk with her as she went through life’s struggles.  We could see her struggling to speak, and understand what her older brother meant to her.

The Fallen: Television at its best



And there’s London Road, the transcendent ‘musical’ recently at the National Theatre. It was based on recordings of interviews conducted by the writer Alecky Blythe in Ipswich, among residents of a street affected by the murders of five women who had been working as prostitutes in 2006.  The tunes were based on the way people really speak – someone listing some flowers:  ‘Begonias, petunias, um, impatiens and.. things‘ was turned a beautiful song with the ‘um’ included.   It’s so brilliant – I’m seeing it for a third time next week –  and so unusual.   Yes it’s edited, and the tunes are lovely, but the truth is there in the original comment.

London Road: Sublime theatre, based on real people and the poetry of natural speech

But TV does this all the time.  It takes what people say and shares them with the world.

Five years ago an episode of Channel 4’s Dispatches covered the nightmare of Chinese Children being kidnapped.  A chronic problem – 70,000 children stolen each year – was made real by the testimony of one mother talking about the loss of her missing son (8 minutes, 46 seconds in): – When it’s raining, I wonder if he’s getting wet, When it’s cold, I wonder if he is shivering…’  

It is one of the most powerful things you will ever see

China’s Stolen Children: The power comes from the voices of the parents

Powerful stories aren’t always on television, but their power is magnified when they are.

Television is different in two ways:

First it’s a question of scale – it is seen by millions of people, and all at once. At the BBC we used to talk about how news, at its best takes the smallest detail, to tell the widest truth.  The voices mentioned above tell us more about grief, loss and feelings than any statistics, but TV gives them the widest possible platform.

And second, how it is consumed and what we do with it.  We see the faces of the people talking, and then we talk about it ourselves, face-to-face.    Someone on the radio this morning was talking about connected devices, and how it would change television. It’s become a really boring mantra.  Smarter people, such as Peter Sells, are expressing this differently:  When we think about TV as a social medium, ‘it’s NOT about people watching connected TV.  It’s about connected people watching TV’.  And that connection is usually with the person they are slumped next to on the sofa.

Humans are extraordinary people.  They aren’t always the most articulate, but regardless, TV is often best when it lets people (or those people with something to say… actually, that’s really important), express themselves without too much embroidery.

And for me, the real magic of TV isn’t only what happens on screen, it’s what happens in the room while the programme is on.    When we looked at elderly people on this site (here) we found that what set their viewing apart was that television was not an enhancement to their social life – it was a replacement for it.  The problem with being old isn’t only the lack of choice at two in the afternoon, but the lack of someone to sit with when Pointless is on, or to share ideas about Eastenders plot twists.  And, with the best will in the world, few of them are actually doing this on Twitter, or Zeebox.  They are turning to their sofa neighbour, and talking about it face-to-face.    A single voice on screen, converted instantly, by viewers feeling something and responding to people they love, and are sitting next to, in their individual, sometimes assertive, sometimes halting, often funny, occasionally serious, but always personal way.

One man and his dog, Lovely Stuff
TV programme unknown.
(‘The Patron’, by Ashley Bickerton)







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