AWARD winning British documentary maker Simon W. Davis, the pioneer of reality television in the UK, is responsible for judging the documentary category at this week's MFA Planet Europe short film festival and, during a break from screenings yesterday, said that he is very surprised at the high quality of the short films which have been entered this year.
Simon is currently enjoying a sabbatical in Majorca with his wife and two children, but jumped at the invitation to sit on the grand jury for the festival. I hadn't planned on doing any work while I was here, but we are already in Majorca longer than expected and I just love film. He initially started writing and directing theatre but moved into the world of factual film in the early 90*s as part of a new wave of documentary directors shooting their own films on Hi-8 and then Digital.
His first films were about social and environmental issues in Britain including the road protest movement and the persecution of travellers and the rave culture by the government.
Davis also made undercover films about vivisection and the treatment of animals. By the late 1990*s he was working for the renowned Community Programme Unit at the BBC making films about subjects the mainstream media tended to avoid.
His latest production, Not Under My Room is currently showing on BBC3 and will move to BBC 2 this summer.
This is a series about adult children aged between 18 and 40 who are estranged from their parents or have a very poor or no relationship with them for various reasons. Over the six, 60 minute films, the idea was to get these people together with the parents going to live with their kids for a week and live their kids' lives - get to know their kids, Simon explains. It's something we can all relate to - what would it be like if your parents knew what you and your life, socially, sexually, was really like. It's like going for a job interview with your mum sitting next to you. So, that is currently showing but he produced and directed the second series multi-award winning Channel 4 reality Wife Swap as well as Living with the Enemy where he also dealt with real issues.
The idea of that series was to bring people of completely polar politics and opposing beliefs together, such as two feminists and a bunch of builders or the deputy chairman of the Cambridge University Young Conservatives and send him to live with a group of pro-cannabis, dope growing guys in a Luton squat, he says.
But, as one of the pioneers of reality TV, has the genre all gone too far? No, what we're making is now referred to as factual entertainment - but I find it difficult to make the distinction. I guess, for example, instead of making a documentary about a gay person coming out and telling his parents, we're engineering the situation, we're meddling with reality a bit and setting up a false premise in order to explore a theme or an idea. The truth of the matter is that, for the broadcasters, they are getting definite results within a week or two as opposed to spending three or four months filming to try and get something, he says.
He agrees that it is the week-in, week-out results that reality television serves up which are proving very popular with the audience and the broadcasters - hence the reality tv and factual entertainment boom. In our field we're obviously always looking for people who will make good television in a documentary, at the other end of the scale, they are even casting for people, be they really extreme or showbiz characters, for Big Brother to make sure they get sensational results, conflicts and shocks. However, factual entertainment is great television and it does have its place. Wife Swap was great TV and it does have something to say about relationships in contemporary Britain - that's why I like my line of work because we have something to say and in one way or another, we're dealing with real issues. So, reality TV is in fact, at times the complete opposite? Yes, I guess so, because in certain cases we're deliberately creating a situation. True or false, Simon disagrees that there are too many reality programmes on British tv I think there's a very good balance and still a very wide variety on British tv. The BBC has been told to stop chasing ratings and mimicking Channels 4 and 5. I guess that's fair enough, but on the whole I think the BBC has got a good balance of programmes. It's cyclical, four or five years ago, docu-soaps were all the rage, now it's reality tv in its various forms but I think the reality and factual programming is much more successful and entertaining. But, in the case of the BBC, and I've heard rumours, I would be tempted to bring back something like the Community Programme Unit - I think it would be very viable for the BBC as the unit's ultimate aim was to get alternative voices on the television and explore new areas - hence we developed Living with the Enemy. It was that programme and a few others that spawned reality tv, as commercial broadcasters saw the power of this kind of programming. But while Living with the Enemy was quite innocent, now it's all much more machine tooled, pre-planned but at the end of the day I think it's all good TV.