Storyville’s Master Builder

The BBC's Nick Fraser designed 'Storyville' as a home for docs that showcase distinct voices, and he refuses to renovate in favor of the familiar. ANDY FRY looks at the man behind the strand
June 1, 2003

The BBC’s Nick Fraser designed ‘Storyville’ as a home for docs that showcase distinct voices, and he refuses to renovate in favor of the familiar. ANDY FRY looks at the Zman behind the strand

One year ago, Nick Fraser, editor of the BBC’s acclaimed documentary strand ‘Storyville’, wrote an article for a U.K. newspaper about the BBC’s former director-general Sir John Birt. The article argued that Birt’s much-maligned theory of news journalism ought to rate a mention in the Oxford English Dictionary under the term Birtism. The problem was Fraser couldn’t work out what the definition would be.

Similar problems arise trying to capture the essence of Fraserism. Words like erudite, witty, urbane and passionate come to mind, but so do opinionated, combative and bloody-minded. A self-effacing, honest interviewee, he’s developed a reputation within the documentary community for going out on a limb to back original projects and young talent. At the same time, he is incapable of shrinking from a fight. If he doesn’t like your film, he’ll tell you why in no uncertain terms. If you show any sign of intolerance or ill-informed opinion he’ll take you on – and tell you what to read while he’s at it. Fraser is like a cross between a bookish professor, missionary zealot and bare-knuckle fighter. Maybe that’s what comes of having a French mother and an English father.

If any one thing makes Fraser stand out, it’s that he’s one of the few executives in contemporary broadcasting who has avoided compromising his editorial ideals in the chase for ratings. That he has done so is not just a credit to his own passion for great filmmaking, but his ability to persuade others to share – or at the very least indulge – his vision.

Fraser has been at the BBC for 10 years, though he doesn’t always move in TV circles. He is a contributor to New York, U.S.-based Harper’s Magazine and is the author of two books, Continental Drifts and The Voice of Modern Hatred. ‘I always thought I was more suited to written journalism,’ he says. ‘But, whenever I was about to move to a writing job, a television opportunity would open up.’

Yet, the ‘Storyville’ archive is arguably the most eloquent statement of his value system. While he rejects the idea that the strand is in any sense ‘authoritative’, the diverse body of films he has hustled into life is united by one thing: a commitment to distinctive voices. ‘Cinematography and editing are important parts of what makes a great film,’ says Fraser, ‘but when we commit to a film, we are looking for the integrity of its voice.’

Laying the foundation

London-born and Oxford-educated, Fraser’s first media job came in the form of an internship at ITV’s Thames Television in 1972. He then went to the BBC, ‘but didn’t like it much, because it was like being back at school.’ So, in 1974 he switched to print, working for Newsweek until he was fired. ‘I couldn’t write corporate-speak,’ he contends. Lesson learned, he took a position as a New York, U.S.-based reporter for The Sunday Times.

In 1982, Fraser’s career moved decisively in the direction of TV when he joined the newly formed U.K. network Channel 4 as a producer. He stayed just one year before leaving to form London-based indie production company Panoptic. This phase of his career lasted seven years, but was ‘extremely tough.’ Says Fraser, ‘We didn’t lose money, but opportunities were limited because the only U.K. market for indies then was Channel 4.’

When Fraser finally decided to abandon the precarious life of an indie, it was C4 that welcomed him back. With British television’s ultimate maverick, Michael Grade, at the helm, C4 was an ideal fit for an original thinker like Fraser, who edited strands such as ‘Witness’, a moral view/reportage series acclaimed by the press.

Fraser rejoined the BBC in 1994 to run a documentary strand called ‘Fine Cut’, which became ‘Storyville’ in 1997. After a 20-year absence, he no longer saw the Beeb as a continuation of school, but ‘as the only place you could run a strand like ‘Storyville’.’ He continues, ‘Channel 4 has changed because of the commercial pressures it faces…it’s not what it was set up to be.’

It’s fair to say Fraser’s time as an international news reporter helped shape the philosophy that underpins ‘Storyville’. John Willis, the BBC’s new director of factual and learning, was a contemporary of Fraser’s at C4 and later backed roughly eight ‘Storyville’ films during his year as VP of national programming for Boston pubcaster WGBH. Weighing in on his colleague, Willis says, ‘[Fraser] thinks and acts in a very distinctive way at a time when British television needs idiosyncratic voices. His background as a journalist enables him to come at projects from a different direction. Networks need some people who are safe and some, like Nick, who think out of the box.’

Finding skilled craftspeople

There is a relaxed, self-deprecating style to Fraser that belies the boundless energy with which he tackles the deal-making side of his job. He is always in demand at pitching sessions and snoops around obscure festivals like an antiques dealer hunting for a bargain. ‘His enthusiasm is a great strength,’ says Mette Hoffmann Meyer, commissioning editor and head of sales and copros (docs and factual) for TV 2 Denmark. ‘When people are in a job for a long time they can begin to treat it as ‘business as usual.’ But, Nick never stops being excited by a new African director or a great Brazilian film. He’s one of the few British executives who enjoys working with the world on coproductions.’

In geographical terms, Fraser has covered most of the globe, programming films from Brazil, South Africa and Thailand, as well as North America and Europe. India, Australia and Russia are also on his radar. ‘The idea of people in distant corners of China or South Africa looking for stories excites me,’ he explains. ‘I get juiced up by helping filmmakers find the heart of their story.’

Yet, he knows when to hover and when to hold back. U.K. director Leslie Woodhead, who worked with Fraser on Cry from the Grave (see sidebar) and is currently making a film for ‘Storyville’ about his experiences at spy school in the 1950s, revels in the artistic autonomy he is afforded by Fraser: ‘He’s not guilty of the micromanagement you get with less self-confident commissioners, but he always has a new enthusiasm to share. It was something he read on Srebrenica that was the initial impetus for Cry from the Grave.’

Fraser also recognizes when to keep important themes and stories alive. ‘He was the executive producer for the landmark series Death of Yugoslavia,’ says Paul Jenkins of London-based Thema Productions. ‘Realizing that the series could only address the Srebrenica massacre in brief, Nick commissioned Cry from the Grave. Then, when Woodhead and I suggested a film to examine the inner workings of the Milosevic regime, Nick readily commissioned it.’

Woodhead has traveled extensively with Fraser and marvels at his energy and fearlessness. ‘I was in post-Milosevic Belgrade for a screening when he gave a crowd of Serbs a dressing-down about never letting something like Srebrenica happen again. I don’t know how he does it.’

Fraser acknowledges that he likes to speak his mind, but he is anxious not to impose lazy liberal opinions on people who lived through appalling times. ‘There was a pretty awful silence during the [Belgrade] screening – rather like showing films of German atrocities in 1946,’ recalls Fraser. ‘But, I didn’t want the audience to think the film hadn’t been made for them. It’s their history; it doesn’t belong to comfortable Europeans. As it happened, the Serbs were fairly responsive – except for those convinced the [Srebrenica massacre] was invented.’

There is a downside to this uncompromising passion for distinct voices, admits Fraser. Although he’s open to most doc ideas, he says: ‘I find it hard to judge things like Discovery output. If a six-part series doesn’t have a point of view, I can’t see why it was made.’ There are other exceptions too. ‘I’m not a fan of pitches where the starting point is a point of view I’m supposed to approve of, rather than an individual perspective on a subject,’ he explains.

One last doc tradition out of favor with Fraser: high-brow French authored docs, which bore him. ‘I prefer the U.S. tradition,’ he asserts. ‘Filmmakers like [D.A.] Pennebaker and [Chris] Hegedus think nothing of shooting 200 hours of material to get a story. The result is films like and The War Room, which are not an approximation to life but like life itself. But, these can only be achieved at great cost to the filmmakers.’

Evaluating the market

Budget is the one area Fraser must impose objective rigor. Although 15 or so ‘Storyville’ films are broadcast yearly on free-to-air channel BBC2 – where it’s possible to attract audiences of up to 1 million – the remainder are lucky to pick up more than 200,000 viewers on digi channel BBC4. The budget constraints implied by these audience levels mean half of Fraser’s annual run is picked up as acquisitions. The remainder require copro financing.

Fraser is not at liberty to reveal his annual production budget, though an estimate of US$2.3 million to $2.8 million is reasonable based on average film budgets. In order to realize the kind of $120,000 to $180,000 films that typify a ‘Storyville’ copro, Fraser studiously nurtures a network of partners who share his editorial ethos, such as European channel ARTE, Canada’s TVOntario and New York, U.S.-based pubcaster Thirteen/WNET.

Says Roy Ackerman, who executive produced 2002′s The Trials of Henry Kissinger: ‘If [Fraser] backs your film, other networks come on board. Kissinger had such a complex financing model that it wouldn’t have happened without him. Then it went on to be the third highest grossing documentary in the U.S. last year.’

Fraser is also involved in creating stable financing structures in support of established filmmakers. A good example is the recent BBC link-up with the British Film Council and The National Film Board of Canada to finance high-end films with a view to theatrical release. London, U.K.-based Café Productions’ managing director Andre Singer is involved with Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine, one of the first feature docs to emerge from this arrangement. He sees this latest Fraser-inspired venture as ‘an initiative that should help generate great feature documentaries over the next few years.’

A sound structure?

When the BBC increased the frequency of ‘Storyville’ from 10 to 50 films a year, the strand became a standard-bearer for the newly launched BBC4. Channel controller Roly Keating admits the 50-a-year model was ‘a gamble on the quality of international documentaries and Nick’s ability to coordinate such a large volume of output. But, it has emerged as an anchor for our network.’

Keating also identifies why Fraser has lasted so long at the BBC: ‘He’s driven mad by bureaucracy, but he’s canny enough to understand that ‘Storyville’ offers him a creative space to develop talent. He’s built a franchise that plays a pivotal role in the ecology of documentary-making and I’d like to see it evolve alongside BBC4.’

In a way, BBC4 couldn’t have launched at a better time. With free-to-air sister channel BBC2 increasingly ratings-driven, Fraser’s Quixotic defense of the classic doc would have faced a tough challenge had the Beeb not been committed to an aggressive expansion into digital. Indeed, there is concern among producers about how ‘Storyville’ output earmarked for BBC2 will be marketed and scheduled.

And, while ‘Storyville’ has found a new lease of life on BBC4, the big unanswered question is whether it could survive Fraser’s departure. Currently, he runs a team of three – a light command structure that Woodhead views as a strength, but which also raises questions about succession. It’s something Fraser needs to work on, since he is keen for ‘Storyville’ to outlast him. ‘If I had a wish it would be that BBC4′s commitment to ‘Storyville’ was irreversible,’ reveals Fraser. ‘I’d hate this enormous network to fall to pieces – though that depends as much on our copro partners as on the BBC.’

Where would he go if he did leave? Ackerman thinks he’s ‘bright enough to run a channel,’ though Fraser says he’s not sure how well he’d function further up the ladder. ‘I do think about where [to go] next, but I really don’t know. Having got here via a circuitous route, ‘Storyville’ is the nicest job I’ve had.’


The Best of Storyville

Nick Fraser’s favorite ‘Storyville’ films change all the time… Here, he outlines the six he’s most in love with this month

A Cry from the Grave: ‘Leslie Woodhead’s 1999 film about the Srebrenica massacre is a piece of journalism that went all the way, and really did make a difference in the world.’

Little Dieter Needs to Fly: ‘Werner Herzog has made many films, but this one appeals to people who don’t usually watch documentary. It’s about Dieter Dengler, who emigrates from drab post-war Germany to become an American air force pilot because he can’t keep on the ground. Much of the film is zany, but it’s very serious too – with Dieter tortured by the Laotian guerrillas.’

My Sperm Donor Dad: ‘There are not enough funny documentaries made by men. But if you want a personal film that’s very funny and also very informative about things like DNA, Barry Stevens’ 2000 film on the search for his real father is useful.’

My Terrorist: ‘Yulie Gerstel attempts to make sense of her experience of having been shot in a London street more than 20 years ago. The film is very well made, but it manages to leave you with Yulie’s voice – no other film comes as close as My Terrorist to describing what it is like to live in Israel under a permanent state of siege.’

Robert Capa: In Love and War: ‘The profile is a much-abused form on television. But Anne Makepeace’s 2003 film about the wonderful life of the great photographer Robert Capa is touching and exciting.’

Southern Comfort: ‘Kate Davis’s 2001 film is about Bob and Lola, a couple who are both in the process of gender alteration, and Bob’s death from ovarian cancer. [It's] an unexpectedly poignant film which is never quite what you expect – the last 20 minutes are astounding.’

About The Author