Documentaries are broadcast regularly on British television, despite persistent fears about their diminution in a competitive climate. They are found in regular series slots on most channels, their objects of study continuing to include science, travel, wildlife, marginal groups and controversial social and political topics. Simultaneously, forms of documentary practice have become greatly diversified, so that sometimes their own workings rather than their subject matter attract public and academic discussion.
   At the heart of documentary is a belief in evidence; in many programmes this is still delivered (despite various changes) by an apparently authoritative (or well-known ‘name’) presenter, in person or through voiceover. Explorations of such topics as nuclear waste, terrorism in Northern Ireland, or prison conditions continue to provoke public discussion and, at times, government hostility. Documentary subject matter (treated incisively, or not) now includes powerful groups and institutions as well as the disadvantaged. Some observers and film-makers see such programmes as enriched but in part displaced by a dramatic rise in new ways of constructing documentaries. These include the dramatized documentary reconstruction of political or other events (‘drama-doc’), and the regular documentary treatment of the life of a hospital or other institution on a continuing basis and with key ‘personalities’ (‘docu-soap’). The availability of the lightweight camera has enabled the appearance of authored ‘video diaries’ and of the BBC’s ambitious project Video Nation (broadcast in two minute, half hour and longer slots) recording the views and lives of ‘ordinary British people’, an approach which has been extended to Russian life and other subjects in parallel series.
   Particularly controversial has been the evolution of the ‘fly on the wall’ documentary, drawing on extended on-site observation sometimes with ‘authentically’ rougher sound, jump-cutting and visible camera movements. The work of documentarists such as Molly Dineen, Roger Graef, Paul Watson and many others has embraced this kind of painstaking in-depth analysis, often through a series of institutions such as schools, the army, factories, police stations and the family. Later developments drew out the entertainment value of observing people and their foibles, so that documentaries on subjects such as shoplifting or learner car drivers began to draw very considerable audiences and even present the documentary as comedy. In the light of these innovations, much general debate continues to question the value, ethics and purpose of ‘serious’ documentary, together with its capacity to survive new ratings wars.
   Further reading
    Macdonald, K. and Cousins, M. (1996) Imagining the Real: The Faber Book of Documentary, London: Faber & Faber.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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