Recently, members of the media in London gathered to view a trailer of a forthcoming ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary commissioned by BBC television. The high-level BBC manager presenting the programme was very proud of what he was about to show, and as the tape rolled the journalists could see why. Here was Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth at a photo session with the Queen of Yank celebrity photographers, Annie Liebowitz. Here was Her Maj getting irritated with the upstart American when she suggested the Highest of Highnesses take off her cape for a more informal look, and, oh, look!, here she was, QE, storming off from the photo-shoot, snapping, “I’ve had quite enough, thank you!”
It was sensational material and headlines it did make, all over the press and TV the next day, the banners being along the lines of “Queen Throws Tantrum!” and “Celeb Shutterbug catches Royal Wrath”. Except, there was a small, teensy-weensy, problem. The Q hadn’t actually thrown a fit. The shot of her “storming out” of the shoot was actually a shot of her storming in, speaking to a courtier about something completely different and, when put back in context, not particularly nastily at all. The slight tetchiness in one shot as she posed was just that, a minor wrinkle, but the artful editing had amplified it into “a full-blown hissy fit”.
The Palace protested. Most strongly. Whether or with what Annie Liebowitz’s lawyers threatened the BBC is not public knowledge. RDF, the TV company that made the programme, immediately issued a denial that any tantrum had taken place. The Palace blamed the BBC. The Corporation blamed RDF. The company tried to, simultaneously, blame the BBC and their own junior editing staff (inexperienced! irresponsible! Anyway that clip was only for the BBC’s internal consumption). This mother of all contretemps came just as other BBC programmes on both radio and TV were being exposed for all sorts of telephone call-in and competition fraud. As the Royal Waste hit the turbo-jet fan and the scandal escalated, politicians, commentators, cartoonists, and watchdog body mandarins all weighed in with their opinion.
All kinds of questions were raised about the veracity of what the public was being fed as ‘news’ and ‘documentary’ and ‘reality’ programmes on British TV. Some people blamed the huge influx of young know-nothings into television, others pointed out that the philosophy of cutting back in-house staff and hiring big private companies to produce their programmes was backfiring on the BBC, others mapped the huge pressure the Beeb was under to compete with private TV channels and the corners it was thus being forced to cut, while yet others attached that to the government threatening to do away with or reduce the TV licence fee which provides the money to run the Corporation. For me, the most telling question hanging there was, “If they can do this to the Queen, what can they do to some ordinary person who they’ve filmed and interviewed'”
Finally, a senior executive at RDF, Stephen Lambert, came forward carrying his seppuku sword and accepting that it was he himself and not some junior editor or director’s assistant who had stitched together that particular misleading sequence of shots. Lambert used to be a respected commissioning editor who ran the old BBC documentary series called Modern Times in the early and mid-Nineties.
But, as the zamana changed Lambert obviously felt he had to change with it: leaving the BBC, Lambert joined RDF and became a pioneer of ‘structured reality’ programmes, or ‘shows’ as they are more widely called. A structured reality show (henceforth SRS) is one in which the ‘participants’ or, some would say, ‘willing victims’ agree to put themselves in an essentially constructed situation and then agree to be filmed as they deal with this situation. As anyone who watches any TV will know, these kinds of shows have now spread faster than the AIDS virus, whether they are called Indian Idol, United Kingdom Big Brother or Celebrity Desert Island. Lambert became known in the business as the inventor of huge hits such as “Wife Swap” and “Faking It”. As he and his company swapped serious documentaries for re-designing reality, there was certainly nothing fake about the money they raked in (Lambert is said to have cashed in stock options of about £1 million last year, and his annual salary is said to be around £377,000). With Lizbethgate, as more than one person pointed out in the British press, it felt like the re-constructed chickens were coming home to roost.
The true story of Lizbethgate, as far as it is possible to make out, goes something like this: the BBC partly commissions RDF, one of its most trusted big Indie production companies, to do a documentary on a day in the life of the Queen; since the Beeb is only putting up part of the money, RDF and Lambert need to attract buyers from other countries such as Japan and the United States of America; Lambert takes some material and “sexes it up” into a presentation tape to show TV-buyer execs at the Cannes market, faking the whole ‘Queen throws fit’ scene; this tape is only meant to give a false impression to the buyers and not the general public, or so RDF says, but it somehow makes its way to the BBC; the BBC exec trying to sell the programme, not to American and Japanese buyers but to the British press, shows the tape without first verifying that the said incident actually happened. Everything goes ballistic, with more curses criss-crossing than the climax of a Harry Potter book.
In the mid-Nineties, post the brief late-Eighties bonanza, independent documentary film-makers, British as well as Indian, were already struggling to find money for serious work; our main source — television — especially channels from what I used to call “the least worst television in the world”, that is, British TV, were in an upheaval that would ultimately rebirth a much warped and dwarfed creature compared to the one that was being killed off by Thatcherite policy and marketing avarice. Channel 4 was being pushed into the open market in a policy diametrically opposite to its founding brief and people were being laid off from the BBC, seasoned producers and directors who would immediately jump to the front of the queue ahead of the several directors from the global ‘south’ who’d tried to build a relationship of inspiration and trust with Brit commissioning editors.
Suddenly BBC, ITV and Channel 4 projects set in third-world countries would go straight to these ‘old boys’ instead of coming to those of us from the ‘subject’ countries who had foolishly imagined we had proved ourselves in the international arena as being equal to anybody. All our work that had gone into working out contemporary documentary strategies, ways of filming and depicting that held veracity close without sacrificing invention and narrative was about to be pushed into obscurity, while a certain kind of ‘meat and potatoes’ Western-oriented docu would grab centrestage.
And, if we thought that was bad, then we only had to wait for a couple of years by when the axiom became “if it doesn’t have a British subject at the centre, it won’t get made” — for example, the only way you could get a documentary on, say, prostitution in Thailand, would be if you promised to follow two English blokes going to Bangkok for a sex holiday. Again, this too would shortly be deemed too stodgy — to get the minimum required ratings for a channel today you’d basically need to get single British celebrities of both sexes on an island off the shore of Thailand and also put on that island an equal number of local sex-workers…
Though I never did get a film commissioned from him, I remember sending Stephen Lambert proposals for Modern Times, which was, even then, one of the few slots in British TV that took serious documentary films. When the whole of British TV began to go pear-shaped my sympathies were, unsurprisingly, primarily with people like myself, independent film-makers from the southern hemisphere, next they were with the British mavericks and oddballs who had managed to make amazing and weird work in the face of the Tory-deadly political Establishment of the Eighties, then and only then on my ladder came the highly-skilled old staff hands from the Beeb, mainly for their great skill at straight documentaries. In as much as I gave Lambert any thought, it was mainly because I knew him through others to be a ‘straight’ and unshowy man. I didn’t at all envy people like him their “Wife Swap”-type triumphs and, if anything, I was slightly bemused by this bizarre career change. I certainly had no inkling that one day I’d be watching the downfall of a seemingly decent man, squeezed into becoming a mini-Dr Faustus of television.