Interview: Nick Mirsky

Channel 4 Documentaries have a distinctive way of doing things. They’re big, popular, abrasive and confident, and, more often than not, notably gritty.

Consequently, when I heard that Nick Mirsky was speaking to the Oxford Media Society as part of their stellar lineup of talks this term, I was keen to meet the man behind it all. As Head of Documentaries at Channel 4 Mirsky has one of the most high profile jobs in television media. He’s overseen massively popular series such as One Born Every Minute, Educating Yorkshire, and Benefits Street alongside weird and wonderful singles like the now infamous Dogging Tales.

“What makes Channel 4 interesting is the way it’s run,” he tells me with a clear sense of pride. Their documentaries are energetic and provocative in a way that few media outlets manage to achieve or imitate. “It’s a commercial channel, so we’ve got to generate advertising revenue, but equally it’s a public service channel, and it operates under a license from Ofcom. Under that license there’s a sort of remit which is laid out, and that remit was quite an effect on the documentaries we make, in a really good and exciting way.

“There’s probably three things which also make us different from other broadcasters. One is that we’ve got to be geared for a younger audience. The audience of Channel 4 is probably about 10-12 years younger than any of the BBC channels.” He then mutters, “apart from BBC3, which no longer exists”.

And then we get to the most crucial marker in Channel 4’s brand of factual content. “It’s written in our license that we have to be innovative. We have to innovate, we have to experiment. The BBC can churn out a series about motorways made in loosely the same fashion as they would have done ten years ago. I’m not saying you couldn’t pick through our output and find the odd thing that isn’t revolutionary in format, but we are supposed to innovate.

“The other thing that we’re supposed to do is give a voice to people whose voices are not heard so routinely in other media outlets. It makes the Paralympics our perfect sporting event. It means that it’s right that we should do Benefits Street and Skint. It means it’s right that we do Bedlam. We’re looking in and trying to get inside the lives of people who have mental health problems or are living in different states of unemployment. We’re looking to give them an opportunity to tell their stories. That makes us a bit noisier.” 

Mirsky’s immediate defence of Benefits Street is palpable. The series, which followed the lives of several people living on James Turner Street in Birmingham, exploded beyond what anyone could have imagined, including Mirksy himself. The series has received criticism from both sides, with some, including the contributors, stating that the series was unsympathetic and portrayed those filmed in a way that was different to how the program was pitched. Others have used the program as an excuse to vilify those using the welfare system — there have even been death threats directed at characters.

It’s clearly an issue about which he is often asked, but he’s defiant that it was the right decision to bring the lives of unemployed people into the living rooms of Britain. “It’s so important in those spaces that the emphasis is on letting people describe and reveal what their lives are like.”

I mention the extreme criticism of the series and wonder whether Mirsky still considers Benefits Street a responsible venture. “There’s an awful lot of unpleasantness on Twitter. That’s difficult, but the truth is, if we as Channel 4 didn’t make films because we were afraid of what some nutters on Twitter would say, what we would be saying is ‘Here’s our channel, we’re going to give editorial control to some extremist nutters, who are very unpleasant and might tweet about it.’ We can’t do that.”

“What we have to do more and more is make contributors aware that social media is there and people will say nasty things. All the time we’re there. We talk a lot to everyone that comes close to going on the program about the fact that there will be tweets, and people might say horrible things. In the past, we had to prepare them for the fact that a reviewer in a newspaper might be mean. Now we try to get people to not look at Twitter. It doesn’t attract all that’s best about human nature. We have to help people through that. As documentary makers, we have to be close to people as the programs are going out.”

Channel 4 are even taking the series further, with a spin off show that may or may not be called Immigration Street, filmed in Southampton, as well as a follow up to Benefits Street, this time filmed in Stockton, Teesside. Of course, immigration and the welfare state are two topics which will be nigh on impossible to avoid next year in the lead up to the General Election. I ask Mirsky if he thinks documentaries have a political responsibility:

“I think they’ve got a responsibility. I’m nervous of saying they have a political responsibility. They’ve got a responsibility to engage with life as it is. Immigration is a massive subject and we should be making programs about it. People are very concerned about the benefits system, and there are definite pockets of long-term unemployment where people want jobs and cannot get them. We should be looking at what life is like, both in areas of high immigration, and also in areas where a lot of people are on benefits.

“What we need to do is reflect Britain to Britain and find people living in those worlds, giving them the opportunity to tell us what their lives are like and what shape their life takes. Political, maybe with a small ‘p’, but I feel a little bit nervous about saying we’ve got a ‘political responsibility’.”

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What’s perhaps intriguing about the range of documentaries on Channel 4 is the juxtaposition of shows about incredibly common and ‘normal’ British experiences, like going to a comprehensive school in Educating Yorkshire and giving birth on One Born Every Minute, with programmes like Dogging Tales and Paedophile Hunter, which reveal subcultures and ‘unusual’ people to the public eye.

I ask Mirsky why he thinks both have a popularity and belong on the channel. “They don’t necessarily have the exact same audience, but I think they’re both quite Channel 4. I would say that they’re edgier. Many of the documentaries are taking you into strange worlds with a kind of confidence. They’re sort of revelatory in those worlds.”

“But then there’s something about what technology has enabled us to do in One Born Every Minute and Educating Yorkshire which means that we can make films in those spaces which are not like any films that have ever been made before. There’s something about the rig that’s a little bit closer to drama. When you’re watching Educating Yorkshire, at its best, it’s much more dramatic than Waterloo Road. That’s quite revolutionary.” 

He adds with a smile, “Now that Educating Yorkshire is onto its third series, and One Born Every Minute is onto its sixth or seventh, they feel quite safe, like a mark on the landscape. There are Channel 4 values deep inside them, but they’ve grown up. They don’t feel revolutionary anymore, they feel a bit more classic.”

Some of Mirsky’s most notable documentaries have been those he produced for broadcaster Louis Theroux. Known for his distinctive style and approach, and fascination with subcultures, often American, Theroux’s documentaries have seen him visit American prisons, swingers, and the Westboro Baptist Church. 

I wonder whether they’ve been successful because they play so heavily into the British appetite for taboo, or because of the presenter himself. “It’s the combination,” Mirsky answers immediately.

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“If you were making a documentary about American prison you’d be thinking in one way, but if you’re thinking about making a documentary about Louis and an American prison, you’re thinking in a completely different way. What you’re actually thinking about is making Louis a player in the scene. He turns everything into an actuality. What you’re actually watching is what happens when this English bloke comes into an American prison. It feels like that creates a sort of drama. The scenes feel not just like someone’s interviewing, but like they have some kind of dynamic.

“On a Louis film you’re always thinking, ‘What are those scenes where you watch and think ‘oh God, what’s he going to say and what’s going to happen to him when he goes in there’. Those scenes are a way of accessing content. They’re a way of illuminating the world you live in.”

I comment on Theroux’s sympathetic nature with other people. “He’s very likeable, but he doesn’t make people feel totally comfortable. There’s something in that that means he creates a space into which people reveal themselves.”

I finish the interview by asking Mirsky, a New College alumnus, if a documentary about Oxford life might be something on the cards for Channel 4. He rejects the idea almost immediately.

“It does occasionally get pitched, but it feels quite ‘the establishment’, and there’s something about what we would be saying by going to Oxford that would feel like it was not the right message. I wouldn’t be making people look at the world differently. It wouldn’t be surprising enough. We wouldn’t do Educating Eton, we do Educating the East End. And when we made The Secret Lives of Students, it was much better that we went to Leicester University rather than Oxford. Unless there was something amazing I’m missing.” He gives me a questioning look, as though I should be convincing him. “I suppose, if someone made a taster tape, and it was so extraordinary…”