Few people are as qualified to talk on the subject of documentary-writing as Simon Elmes. As the former Creative Director of the BBC’s Radio Documentary Unit, and with over 40 years’ experience in professional documentary production, the Keble alumnus (and one-time Cherwell photographer) is hugely keen to get students involved in his chosen career.
“I’d always say to anybody who wants to join the media: neither overestimate nor underestimate yourself. For most people, it’s pretty much hard graft, and if you’re good, you’ll get there. It’s important for me to spread the word that radio documentary’s a fantastic medium and a fantastic place to be, and it’s really worthwhile making the effort both to listen and to make it.” We’re sitting in the National Film Theatre café on the Southbank of the Thames, one of Elmes’ favourite haunts. Despite his love of film, however, his career has largely focused on audio media, specifically radio documentaries.
I ask him about the differences between the two. “They’re not, curiously, as great as you might imagine,” he says. “Not editorially at least. The purpose is the same: that is, to tell these stories in such a way as to make riveting content that holds the viewer/listener in a way that they can’t go away, and entertains as well as informs. When planning a TV documentary, one of the things they’ll immediately say, aside from discussing the plot, is, ‘What are the images? What are the pictures?’ In radio, of course we’ll say, ‘What are the sounds?’ but the narrative is pre-eminent. It’s about telling a story.”
When the visual effect is removed, Elmes suggests, the focus on the narrative of the documentary comes to the fore. He describes piecing together the facts that make up a programme into a coherent narrative. “You’re always trying to find something bigger than the sum of its parts. You’re telling one story but you’re always telling slightly bigger stories at the same time.” It sounds like there’s a fair amount of overlap with drama, I suggest. Does he see the two as entirely separate genres? “Broadly speaking, no. But also yes,” he laughs. “Because in literal terms, drama deals in fiction. It has an author who can spin whatever he or she wishes to spin, create characters. In factual documentary, you are going entirely the other way round: you are taking a story, and you are trying to get at the inner truth in that story. You are trying to be factually truthful, but also say something, communicate something larger than the individual components.”
There is undoubtedly an overlap, however. It’s the entertainment factor that’s so crucial, and one which Elmes believes is often underregarded in factual programs. He’s critical of those who approach a documentary as they would a dissertation or an essay: “I always say to graduates in the BBC, because they’ve all learnt how to write essays and write dissertations with a thesis, antithesis, synthesis formula, that that’s not the way you do drama, and actually the way we do factual programs shouldn’t be like that. It’s okay if you’re doing a news report, if you’re doing something that needs the case for, the case against and then your summing up. But a documentary needs to have a much more theatrical, dramatic shape to it, and that calls on all sorts of skills that go way beyond essay writing. They are about entertainment.”
If the art of documentary-writing is also the art of story-telling, then what, I ask, is the story of the radio documentary itself, from its beginnings to the present day? At a time when old-fashioned forms of media are struggling to adapt to the digital age, one might be forgiven for thinking that radio might well be consigned to a similar fate. But Elmes is not at all pessimistic; in fact, he says, there are have been lots of beneficial advances. “Over the last five years I’ve spent a lot of time with my team trying to work out how we should adapt radio documentary for the digital age. I think podcasting has opened up a lot of opportunities. The actual mode of listening has, in fact, helped us. People can download a podcast and listen to it, so if they have to get out and fetch the kids they can pause it and go back to it. That’s a fantastic advance.”
The figures he provides me with back up his claims: BBC Radio 4 routinely draws an audience of over a million for a mid-morning documentary: a rating which, he tells me, BBC2 would be extremely happy with. Elmes urges restraint and caution in moving with the times. “There’s a lot of rubbish spoken about how we have to cater for the digital listener. Yes we do, of course. But don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.” The methodology of documentarymaking, he claims, hasn’t changed; rather, “the technology has changed how we do it. But it doesn’t make the process any different.” And why, it’s implied, would one try to fix what isn’t broken?
What quickly becomes apparent in talking to someone like Simon Elmes is just how much freedom a career in documentary production can bring. His topical focus in the past has tended to be on language, a direct fulfilment of his own interests. “I was a linguist when I was at Oxford. I love language, and always have done.” He has produced long-running linguistics documentaries such as Word of Mouth, Talk of the Town and The Routes of English, and worked alongside giants of the radio entertainment industry like Melvyn Bragg and Lenny Henry. But, he’s keen to stress, he’s also done “pretty much everything else. I’ve done programmes about circuses, about seaside piers, about people sharing houses, about radio presenters who have cancer, about French politics, music…” The list is endless. Now officially retired, Elmes still works freelance for the BBC, and is keen to “give something back” by helping aspiring young people enter the profession. And for himself? “I’ve got a couple of big projects on. But I’m having fun. That’s the main thing.”
Simon Elmes is speaking at a documentarymaking conference at St Hilda’s College on Saturday 16th May.