The era of Trump and Brexit is proving a fertile one for documentary makers to explore. Televisual Factual Festival producer Pippa Considine surveys the fast-changing documentary landscape

In a year of seismic political change, documentaries that seize the moment and 
show it with a raw drama have been capturing the zeitgeist. “People want the urgent thing, the social thing, the thing that makes my channel contemporary. It’s an exciting moment to be working in factual,” says Aysha Rafaele, head of documentaries at the newly-commercialised BBC Studios.

“There’s never been a better time to be a documentary film maker, in a world where we need to make sense of the world more than ever before,“ says Clare Sillery, the head of documentary commissioning at the BBC.

Nick Mirsky, head of documentaries at Channel 4, clarifies that he’s not looking for lots of documentaries on Corbyn, Trump or Brexit. “But they all feel like an expression of people saying we don’t believe what we’re told any more, a sense of disenchantment with the establishment, and somehow in a doc that’s the world we would like to see explored.”

There have been some shifts in the world of UK documentary commissioning recently, with the BBC refreshing its team and Channel 5 commissioning more in the documentary territory. Now, with the arrival of Alex Mahon as ceo at Channel 4 and the departure of chief creative officer Jay Hunt, another shake up is on the cards.

Competition between indies is getting tougher. This year has seen the launch of several new factual indies and BBC Studios has taken its place as a supplier to all channels. In the past few months it has been branching out, pitching to other UK terrestrial channels, as well as talking to US and international broadcasters, including Netflix and National Geographic.

Finding business growth by extending overseas has continued to be a successful strategy for indies; Nutopia, with one foot in the US has significantly increased its turnover with overseas business. But companies are finding it hard to build a concrete base with commissions where the IP is given away and while precious UK business is reportedly flat, with the familiar downward pressure on budgets.

Mirsky at Channel 4 thinks that there’s a polarisation of the sorts of films that are working for documentary at the moment: “I feel there are two directions we’ve been going in – the films that have been successful have either been really escapist or confronting the moment.” He cites First Dates and 24 Hours in Custody at opposite ends of this spectrum – both have been getting record viewing figures. The channel’s new stand-out films – A Very British Hotel and Catching a Killer – are also poles apart.

While Catching a Killer, 24 Hours in Custody or the BBC’s new fast-paced Hospital are undoubtedly confronting difficult issues, none of them is difficult to watch. Each of them uses the beats that traditionally belong in drama. “There’s something about when a doc gets close to drama, there’s also an element of allowing yourself to be lost,” says Mirsky. “Catching a Killer is one of the most powerful films about domestic violence, you are gripped by the narrative and that takes you in and makes you think about domestic violence.”

Giving a doc a dramatic arc is not new, but there’s a more widespread imperative to have a story engine that goes to the eye of the story. Custody has consolidated its multiple story arcs into one powerful narrative in the more recent films. Boundless’ new BBC2 format, The Week The Landlords Moved In, focuses more intensely on the human dramas of the cast. When the drama works well, it attracts audiences of all ages. “It’s really interesting with something like Ambulance there’s a younger skew,” says Sillery. “The top line is that the drama can deliver the audience to important social issues.”

Big docs that go into forensic detail on one subject are in demand, with commissioners emboldened by the traction of shows like OJ: Made in America or Making a Murderer. The third series of BBC3’s Life and Death Row tackles one story of 98 executions in Arkansas scheduled over an intense 10 day period before the licence to use a lethal drug expires.

True crime has been burgeoning, with commissioners accused of turning from poverty porn to crime porn.  ITV has publicly pinned some of its hopes on true crime. Its much–anticipated Undercover Prisoner series is in production and a Crime and Punishment strand will launch later this year. The strand has ten films commissioned, including An Hour To Catch A Killer from ITV Studios production company Potato, announced last year.

“We know there’s an appetite for crime and punishment,” says ITV director of factual Jo Clinton-Davis. ”So we’re pulling together different films that straddle that area, making people think about issues around crime and punishment, but also making big films about a range of subjects in that territory. It’s a way of making a splash.” Plus, Potato’s film suggests a natural format for future iterations, with its focus on the critical ‘Golden Hour‘ that police believe is vital to solving a murder.

ITV is also interested in performance-based factual. The Real Full Monty was a hit for the channel, with overnight ratings of over 5m. The celebrity format, which involved dancing and stripping off, also explored the issue of testicular cancer. Says Clinton-Davis: “They literally unpeeled, undressed the issues alongside the actual strip: that’s documentary in a more entertaining framework.” Next up is Gone to Pot, a three-parter from Betty, where another group of celebrities will travel to the US to investigate the pros and cons of using cannabis for medicinal purposes.

At the BBC, Sillery points to the success of Marigold Hotel when saying that there’s room for more lightly formatted factual and documentaries generally. She admits respect and perhaps a little envy of Channel 4’s First Dates. “We do gloom very well in docs and it would be nice to get some lighter touch stories,” she says.

Whether it’s entertainment, drama or scheduling big events in the schedule, what’s become official is that noise and impact are crucial ingredients if a documentary is going to cut through.

Sanjay Singhal, chief executive at Voltage TV, which has grown rapidly in the three years since it launched, says that the indie’s strategy has been to pitch big ideas. “My feeling is that across the industry and across genres, people are looking for fewer, bigger, better programmes that have noise, impact and scale. That applies as much to single films as series.”

Singhal is keen not to box factual shows into silos, pointing to Hunted as a good example of a show that has become more of a game show, but still retains documentary sensibility. “There’s nothing wrong with taking the beats of an entertainment show and filling it with authenticity and purpose.”

Voltage is producing BBC2’s Great Family Cookery Showdown, it has an ambitious fact ent show in development with Sky and another funded development with Amazon. “The thing that we’ve tried to do is focus on those ideas that we feel have real scale and potential punch at the expense of trying to go for programmes that are relatively easy to miss and therefore channels don’t get excited about them.”

This scale includes strong feature doc ideas which can play as events in the schedule. Voltage was behind feature doc One Deadly Weekend in America for BBC3 and another feature length science doc with Ant & Dec is in production for ITV. And there’s definite demand for longer form. Nutopia, with its eye on both UK and international markets, is bringing feature doc producer Roast Beef into its fold.

At ITV, Clinton-Davis says that she is not sure that Netflix and the other SVoDs are behind a greater demand in features, but big ideas and one-offs with scale can work: The Real Full Monty was 90-minutes and recent Oxford Film & TV production Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy netted 7m viewers. C5 is increasing its demand for feature-length films to run at 9pm, following success with Brinkworth Films’ The Accused.

BBC3 has found that running features as a strand is one way to stop the ebb of viewers since the channel moved online. At BBC Studios, Aysha Rafaele says the Murdered by… strand of fact-based dramas helps to bring in the audience through its title. “It’s a way of identifying in an online landscape when you’re trying to make young people aware of your programmes.” BBC3 has struggled with certain shows, without the support of a terrestrial platform. Clare Sillery says that despite its strengths, a show such as American High School just couldn’t get enough traction: “It was too docusoapy to cut through, it needs to be more pointy.”

The established channels are mindful of the loyal older audiences that they must serve. One approach that Sillery likes is to give audiences an insight into the world view for young people, especially with the backdrop of recent political decisions, where the youth vote lost the day. There are two BBC commissions in this vein: David Glover’s 72 Films is making Redcar, a film about growing up in the North Yorkshire town; Blast! Films’ Gifted explores the issues facing children from disadvantaged backgrounds.  “One of the things behind Gifted and Redcar is that I’m really interested is to get the older audience to look at the younger audience because younger people have been shafted….it’s about making them included and getting them included and valued.”

Access is, as ever, in big demand. While contributors are now wised up to the potential perils of access, there’s also an increased openness. “The police are much more open and can see the benefits of allowing the camera in, in a way they didn’t five or 10 years ago,” says Mirsky. But access on its own isn’t enough. ITV’s obdoc on the London Fire Brigade saw Mentorn Media taking a new camera angle. “We had to approach that access thinking what can we do differently and we made sure that the cameras were used as they’d never been before, in the heat of the moment,” says Clinton-Davis.

Be it through drama, humour or a clever camera angle, audiences in 2017 seem to prefer even their gritty realism with a lightness of touch. It also helps if formats are not chewed over too much before they get made, says Simon Dickson, creative director at Label1 (Hospital). “Sometimes you can see commissioners over thinking formats and trying to inject social purpose and weighting them down with legacy which at the end of the day takes them further away from being the simple easy to engage with shows that the audience is currently looking for.”

And what are they looking for, how has demand changed? “We have to have our finger on the pulse,“ says Clinton-Davis. “With Brexit and with Trump, there’s something shifting in the tectonic plates and we as commissioners have got to be mindful of what those concerns are but embrace them in an entertaining way that gives audiences an escape from it or makes them think differently.”

The Televisual Factual Festival takes places on the 14th and 15th of November at Bafta. Go to for full details

Pippa Considine

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