When David Pearson, editor of BBC2′s ten-year-old Under the Sun strand, commissioned Bristol-based indie production company, Scorer Associates, to make a documentary about a Melbourne furniture restorer turned male prostitute, little did he know that the show would not only garner impressive ratings (4.8 million viewers and a 20% audience share) and critical praise in the U.K., but that Hollywood producers would be beating a path to his door.
Aired in January of 1998, What sort of Gentleman are you after? tells the story of Joel Ryan, a happily married father of four, who virtually overnight turned from an accomplished businessman in the furniture trade to Melbourne’s most successful, legal male prostitute. So interested in the story was New York-based women’s mag Marie Claire that they commissioned the project’s producer/director, Jane Treays, to write a feature article on Ryan, entitled ‘The Gigolo, his Wife & his 1200 Lovers.’ The doc was also broadcast, unbeknownst to Pearson at the time, as the in-flight feature on U.S. air carrier, Virgin Atlantic Airways – great publicity for a strand with a mere seven episode run per season.
Originally conceived by Mary Currie, an assistant producer at Scorer’s and the associate producer on Gentleman, the film (shot by Roger Chapman) was initially going to be about the recently legalized Melbourne sex industry. After an initial visit to Australia by Currie and Treays, however, the idea was scrapped after finding Ryan – not an uncommon development according to Scorer’s managing director, Christine Owen. ‘As with many of these projects, the idea changed and developed as the program was being made… More things came up that we liked or didn’t like, which changed the structure slightly.’
What drew editor Pearson – an award-winning filmmaker and former executive producer at the BBC’s doc department – to the project was Gentleman’s character-led plot and unusual subject matter. With the mandate to make `apparently’ inexplicable actions, customs and practices of unknown cultures understandable through stories about universal human traits, Under the Sun attempts to reveal to its audience something they didn’t already know. Projects originating from under-represented regions (such as Central Asia, Asia Minor, East and West Europe, and the Balkans), are a big draw for the series. Says Pearson: ‘I’m interested in stories where you can identify with a character and then you sort of go under their skin in a psychological sense and reveal some wider truth, whether they come from Ethiopia or Montreal.’
It was this search for the wider truth that led Pearson to immediately commission the £170,000 doc after hearing Ryan’s story. ‘It was such a strong story,’ says Pearson, ‘and I felt it would be very revealing of attitudes and behaviour between men and women. It was a univeral story in one sense, but unique to Australian culture in others.’ He adds, ‘I defy most people to watch [Gentleman] and not be affected by what they see… It was one subject where lots of people afterwards adjusted their views about male prostitution.’ All it took to get the project off the ground was an agreement with Ryan that the story would not be sensationalistic and that the BBC (through their distributor, BBC Worldwide) would not show or sell the film in Australia. BBC Worldwide has worldwide rights to the project.
Most films in the Under the Sun strand are 50-minutes, with the occassional 75 or 90-minute offering. Pearson cautions that although he does receive a lot of submissions, only a few projects lend themselves to Under the Sun’s programming strategy. ‘Usually where things fail,’ he says, ‘is that they are not strong enough character-led stories. We get a lot of semi-finished films sent to us as well as raw paper proposals. They are not engaging enough, they don’t count on you identifying with universal human traits or they’re too journalistic or general.’ Other docs in the strand include: Painted Babies (also directed by Jane Treays and originally aired in 1996) about children’s beauty pagents in the U.S., and Last King of the Gondoliers (directed by John Paul Davidson for the 1999 season) about the struggle of Venice’s dwindling gondoliers despite increased tourism.
Pearson counts Canal+, ZDF, German ARTE, and Nat Geo among Under the Sun’s past copro partners but says that these days they mainly fund projects themselves. Commissions, Under the Sun’s main avenue for productions, are budgeted between £130,000 and 200,000 with acquisitions coming in at the £40,000 mark. ‘Most of our films are fully commissioned in one form or another,’ says Pearson, ‘be they from Australia, France, Germany or this country… There’s an impression that we should probably lay to rest that we only work with British producers, which simply isn’t true.’
In the end, Pearson is pleased with the result of Gentleman – even though the subject matter may be too gritty for some viewers. ‘It’s the kind of film that could be tacky, and sensationalistically awful,’ he says. ‘It has pushed the boundaries on what has been seen by quite a long way on this subject.’ Later he adds, ‘It was unflinching, but it was not tacky, and it did have a heart.’