This is a copy of the speech delivered by Tom Giles, ITV’s controller of Current Affairs, at the Grierson British Documentary Awards 2022. The late Roger Graef was awarded the Grierson Trustees’ Award.
It’s an honour to be asked to say a few words for the Grierson Trust’s celebration of someone that was, to me and others, a life-affirming force and inspiration. Even now – after he’s gone – he still is.
In fact, it’s hard to believe Roger’s not actually here tonight because, obviously, he’d have loved it – and no doubt he’d be pitching away about some new project before, during and after he left the stage!
But ‘a few words’ aren’t really going to cover, or do justice to, Roger’s remarkable life of many parts: theatre director and impresario, television drama director, author, criminologist, professor of Media, campaigner for social justice, founding board member of Channel 4, Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects,
re-designer of the London bus map, patron of so many charities, sponsor of so much good work, spark to so many new talents. A polymath, a renaissance man and, in between all that, somehow, he managed to be one of the most significant and transformative documentary makers of our time.
Eight years ago, at BAFTA, Roger set out what he called a manifesto for documentaries. He called them “islands of evidence and tools for change in a sea of noise.” He asked for them to be given time to flourish, given the room to take risks, the ability to try new talent and called for us all to trust in the viewers’ need for what good documentaries could do.
You only have to look at his record to see how he lived by that.
His classic fly-on-the-wall series Police, into the work of Thames Valley Police, gave us the landmark episode, A Complaint of Rape. I can still remember the furore that created in 1982. Even now, 40 years on, its subject matter – the police treatment of rape victims – remains as searingly topical as ever.
There was the inspiring Feltham Sings, in collaboration with Brian Hill and the poet Simon Armitage. His ground-breaking thalidomide film: One of Them Is Brett. And his many forensic, documentary insights into our institutions – from Great Ormond Street Hospital and the European Commission in Brussels, to the Communist party of Great Britain. And also into all aspects of the system that’s entrusted to care for our most vulnerable children.
All these sought in their different ways to throw light onto darkness – even to make the world a little better, which they often actually did.
My own memories are of his warmth, passion and sheer tenacity.
Roger was, rightly, no great respecter of people’s diaries or their gatekeepers; in fact, of anything that came between him and getting a passion project made.
But I do remember as Panorama editor being a little shocked to find him in my office out of the blue – as I’d never met him before. He’d rather wandered in, on one of those sweeping tours of the BBC building he was prone to take. But he was charming, showing me rushes for a film he’d been developing.
The scenes he showed were all about Connor, a kid in the care system losing all control and attacking his social worker’s car after being denied a trip to see his Mum. It was an amazing, raw sequence and a touching story of a sympathetic but tragic kid. Roger cared so much about him and the film that we took it straight away to BBC One and it became an hour long 9pm doc, Kids in Care.
Two weeks later, I was surprised again, when he turned up with more ideas. This time I found out he was in the diary – again and again and again. So, after he’d gone, I asked, “how come Roger’s in the diary?” And it turned out that on his way out the first time, he’d gone over and assured my assistant that it had all been okayed with me for him to be booked in for sessions for his updates, every two or three weeks.
That was Roger. But I’ve never felt anything other than gratitude for the films he went on to make for me, as he did for so many others. In fact, the team that worked together on that film – Kids in Care – are currently making what was perhaps Roger’s final commission – to be broadcast next year.
And, yes, this one’s also about the police, and the rights of vulnerable women, and those fighting with the criminal justice system to gain proper protection. Because up to the very end – even at the grand old age of 85 – he was still the same Roger, still bursting with ideas, and still caring about what we do and the people we can help.
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