The dreaded ‘P’ word

I must admit, I cry easily. No British stiff upper lip here....
April 1, 1999

I must admit, I cry easily. No British stiff upper lip here.

Last year I spoke to a group of students about the role of the director, and at the end of the session ran a film I made in Yemen about a boatload of Somali refugees. It was a harrowing tale, and when the lights came up I was visibly moved. (Well, let’s be honest, I found it hard to speak and was distinctly damp-eyed.) I told the embarrassed group, ‘If you get involved in the events you go out to shoot, this sometimes happens, and I think it’s good. It’s called passion.’

Recently I went to a forum held by a top U.K. broadcaster, at which they told we denizens of the independent production sector what they were looking for. I took copious notes, but when I came to type them up I noticed that, although there was plenty of talk of innovation, obsession and closure, the ‘P’ word had gone unmentioned. This saddened me because it has always driven me, and I think its promotion is essential to the future of our industry.

I started out as a film editor on arts programs, and found I felt passionately about dance, but a directing job came up on a news show and I worked all over the world, now passionate about politics. Then I worked on a succession of National Geographic projects and became passionate about the environment and traveling. Nowadays, I make cooking, bird-watching, walking and house renovation leisure shows (far from the tutus, the gunfire or the banners), but I still feel passionately about them.

Isn’t the ‘P’ word the reason most of us do what we do? Isn’t it the reason you get out of bed, drive editors mad with ‘just one more change’ in the off-line, stay late to make that call overseas to check facts, and isn’t it ultimately the reason you are proud of the shows you make? If we just wanted to make money wouldn’t we be better off in the City, doing smart things with bond issues and baying at each other across dealing pits about coffee futures?

I like to encourage young talent, not because I’m a wonderful human being, but because their passion is infectious. I want them to fight for the screening of passion, which I believe underpins the ability of our non-fiction business to inform, educate and change situations, prejudices and assumptions. It may only be possible to get the viewer to consider one or two new ideas in a half hour, but it’s got to be worth it and surely you need passion to communicate this.

So why didn’t anyone mention it at that conclave of the all-powerful commissioners? Is passion dangerous? Perhaps it is ‘unformatable’ and so difficult to schedule. Is it unbalanced editorially? For every documentary decrying a dictatorial regime must we screen one expounding its virtues? Have broadcasters excluded passion and become unbalanced balance-wise?

So, I set about selecting my passionate top ten. Heading it up is any news crew who risks their life to tell an untold or uncomfortable story. Michael Moore would have to be in there. We have a new drama series running in Britain about the gay community in Manchester – it’s very graphic and challenges prejudice and stereotyping; whoever makes that is on my list. I met a journalist in Mexico with whom I made a report about debt and corruption. I got on the plane back to Houston, but he stayed there to continue to expose injustice. Is he still alive? Either way, he is on my list.

My criterion is: If I had made that, I would be happy to be remembered for it alone. But when compiling your own passionate ten, might I suggest you just put nine people on your list? After all, what could be a better ambition than to find your own way of becoming number ten – unformatable, awkward, dangerous, perhaps intensely personal, but whatever else, passionate. Perhaps the commissioners will mention it next year. It’s up to us to get it firmly back on the agenda.

Alan Ravenscroft is president of U.K.-based Zenith Entertainment, independent producers of factual, drama, entertainment and children’s programming.

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.