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Nick Booth: A BBC documentary on the BBC? A perfect way to burn your cash


So, I’m making a documentary for the BBC. So I want to know what’s gone wrong with this beloved institution. So I want to ask about everything. So, why do presenters start each sentence with that annoying two letter word? And end them? With a rising inflection?

Coming up later, I may ask about the squandered billions of pounds. And why does every programme use that awful, clichéd ‘presenter’s journey’ style of documentary?

I start with the embezzlement. I want to ask: if the poor must be forced to buy a £140 TV licence, shouldn’t their money be spent more carefully? Is it really necessary to pay rich luvvies a fortune for programmes that don’t need a lavish travel budget or a star presenter? Why don’t they just interview people by Skype? I’ve flown to the Five Star Alliance in Rio de Janeiro to ask Stephen Fry this question.

But it’s about to get worse for me. Someone – probably a right wing thug – has leaked the script of my documentary narrative. If this gets out, it could ruin the suspense of my personal journey documentary when it’s eventually broadcast.

It looks bad. I’ve only shot a ten second interview with Stephen, filmed some cut away shots of Copacabana beach and a five second tracking shot of me looking moodily into the distance. It’s touch and go.

The incomes of thousands of working class people have been raided in order to fund my lifestyle/documentary. I don’t want to make it look like we’ve robbed the poor to feed the rich. Stephen and I fly to California to see if the narrative of my documentary will take a turn. I need to find a linking phrase for the next bit of this highly unpredictable story.

I’ve had a lucky break. When I try to interview my friends at the US offices of The Guardian, they seem reluctant to talk. But I find a man called Alan, who takes time off from his piano lessons, to talk to me. Alan knows a man who can help me move my documentary on. But it’s not going to be easy for the British taxpayer, many of whom, BBC newsreaders tell me, have to choose whether they heat or eat. Can I live with that thought? It’s a crisis of conscience that pushes me to the edge. Finally I decide it’s all David Cameron’s fault and that assuages my guilt. My socialist core has survived, but after that conflict things may never be the same again. It’s time to move on.

I’ve come to Beijing in China, ostensibly to shoot some establishment shots of a vibrant economy and to find some new sunsets to stare into and beaches to walk down as I narrate my documentary. But I’ve got another agenda. I need to blow a hundred grand before the end of the tax year or the BBC accounts people will assume I don’t really need such a lavish budget.

But disaster strikes. By a bizarre coincidence, I bump into the BBC’s head of global services just as I’m clambering into a taxi for the red light district. She’s here for a team building exercise with the diversity department and she’s headed for Bada Hutong too. It’s not looking good for my documentary. I’ve only got 24 hours to embezzle the funds and I haven’t been able to answer the question: what’s gone wrong at the BBC.

This seems to happen in every documentary I make. The pattern is all too familiar. That’s why I don’t seem all that bothered, even though the documentary would have the viewer believe there is everything at stake and I’m on the edge of a precipice, staring into the abyss.

Finally, some good news. At the last minute, I manage to squander the money, on coke, hookers, lady boys and technology stocks. I’ve been on a journey and discovered a great many things about myself. Later, I discover that the viewers switched over from my documentary, the minute Stephen Fry came on. But by this stage it doesn’t matter, as I’ve been commissioned for another personal journey documentary.

But things are about to get worse for the poor TV licence tax payer. Much worse.

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Nick Booth
Nick Booth
Nick Booth is a freelance writer.

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