The publicity surrounding the latest ‘Panorama’ undercover filming exposé of the old ‘give ‘em a uniform and they think they’re Hitler’ adage – this time concerning G4S staff at an immigration removal centre at Gatwick – evokes memories of the appalling abuse of patients by staff at the Winterbourne View private mental hospital that the same programme exposed six years ago. That Winterbourne View had received a glowing endorsement by the organisation of ostriches known as CQC just months before ‘Panorama’ cameras captured the realities of the regime at the institution not only highlighted the ineptitude of the system, but also reminded TV viewers of how current affairs shows still have the power to right wrongs if television companies are prepared to invest in them.
There is actually no valid excuse for there not being numerous series on terrestrial television in the vein of the ‘Panorama’ Gatwick/G4S programme; people will watch if current affairs are afforded the same level of pre-publicity that the ‘Bake Off’ franchise receives; and if viewers are stirred out of armchair torpor by voting someone off a glorified knobbly knees contest, how much better that a similar reaction is provoked by something that actually matters. But the dumbing down factor, which saw ITV’s twin titans of current affairs, ‘This Week’ and (especially) ‘World in Action’, disappear from the schedules within six years of each other in the 90s, has become a mainstream virus in recent years as ratings are seen as a barometer of significance when in reality they count for far less in an age of Netflix and DVD box-sets.
The BBC’s public service remit, which it is happy to evoke when confronted by criticism but doesn’t always place at the forefront of its scheduling, was once mirrored by its main commercial competitor. The aforementioned ‘World in Action’ was a revelation when it first appeared in 1963, deliberately adopting a brasher approach to investigative journalism than ‘Panorama’, one that took a fearless aim at guilty parties and took no prisoners in the process.
A product of an age when ITV companies really were autonomous entities, ‘Word in Action’ emanated from Granada in Manchester and proved to be a breeding ground for some of the most notable broadcasters in the business, including Jeremy Isaacs, Michael Parkinson, John Pilger, and future Hollywood directors Michael Apted and Paul Greengrass. The latter once reflected on his time working on the show by remembering the Granada chairman had told him ‘Don’t forget, your job’s to make trouble.’ One of the programme’s editors had described its ethos as being ‘to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’
Throughout its 35-year history, ‘World in Action’ shone a light on neglected abuses within society that rightly roused the indignation of viewers – Poulson, poverty, the homeless, the cover-up of industrial accidents, the treatment of the elderly, the Birmingham Six, pirate radio, the British intelligence services, Jonathan Aitken and endless others; in 1984 it also famously sent then-Tory MP Matthew Parris to live on state benefits for a week in Newcastle, an experience that eventually led to his early retirement from politics in favour of a media career. Michael Apted’s prime contribution to the programme was ‘Seven Up’ in 1964, the first instalment in what has become an ongoing series every seven years.
Its premise was to film fourteen seven-year-old children from the full range of social (and in one case) racial classes in Britain at that moment, from cheeky working-class scamps to precocious upper-class toffs, as an innovative critique of how each had their futures mapped out even at such a tender age. Had the original programme been a one-off, no doubt it would still be viewed as a remarkable piece of television documentary, but what made it such an extraordinary concept in the history of British TV was that Michael Apted, a researcher on ‘Seven Up’, was commissioned to direct a sequel seven years later, contrasting the seven-year-old children with their fourteen-year-old selves, to be followed seven years later by a third instalment and so on.
Even though some of the participants have dropped-out, unhappy at the way they had been portrayed on-screen and unwilling to be lifelong participants in a television experiment, the ‘Up’ series has continued to be filmed at seven-yearly intervals ever since, and in the process has created a unique social history of Britain over the course of almost fifty years.
Of all those who have taken part in the series since its inception, perhaps the one to have made the greatest mark, and in turn raised the ‘Up’ series to the pinnacle of British TV’s finest achievements, was introduced as a bright Liverpudlian schoolboy called Neil; his progress from optimistic child to disillusioned adult has been imbued with an existential resonance that has touched a nerve in the British public and has gifted television with some of its most genuinely moving moments as Neil’s life has flashed before the viewer’s eyes in a sequence of engrossing vignettes unparalleled in any other medium. Television doesn’t need the contrived drum-roll drama of announcing the winner of a talent contest when it’s capable of doing this. If only someone would tell that to the wankers who run it.
The ‘Up’ series is one of the rare examples of television that not only justifies the licence fee, but justifies the existence of television itself, vividly demonstrating how, especially in the case of Neil, it can tell a true story with an immediacy that hits an audience in ways that print cannot emulate. In the 60s and 70s, when both the BBC and ITV made ample room for powerful documentary stories in their primetime schedules, the ‘Up’ series seemed like another example of television’s unique ability to reach out and grab the viewer by turning a mirror on the lives of others; but by the 21st Century, surrounded by wall-to-wall reality programmes following the narcissistic bowel movements of every wannabe celebrity whose every inarticulate utterance is a plug for another project in the pipeline, the ‘Up’ series is relatively isolated in a field of its own and reminds both critics and audiences alike what a missed opportunity it has been for the bastard genre it inadvertently spawned.
Like ‘Panorama’, ‘World in Action’ had a prized slot at the heart of the primetime schedules; that it is no longer with us when ‘Panorama’ has continued to prove current affairs shows of this nature can still hit the mark given half the chance is one more damning indictment of an industry reneging on its potential. And the viewer is the loser.
© The Editor