At the British Film Institute, on November 1, 2011, I was
presented Britain's highest award for documentary films, the Grierson Trustees
Award, given in memory of one of the pioneers of the documentary.
My response to the Grierson Trustees upon receiving this award is below.
Thank you to the Grierson Trust for this honor. Documentaries are the work of a team. That's why they are so enjoyable to make; I so admire the skill of the people I work with, and I'm rewarded with the sheer pleasure of us all bringing a film together. There is nothing quite like it.
So this honor is shared with many others, not least three young BBC renegades, Paul Watson, Charles Denton and Richard Marquand. They took me to lunch one day in 1969 and persuaded me to join them in making documentaries that "broke the code." That's how they put it. I've always relished that expression.
Over the years, my comrades in "breaking the code" have been extraordinary people: David Munro, Alan Lowery, Joe Frost, Richard Creasey, Roger James, Chris Martin, Gerry Pinches, Noel Smart, Preston Clothier. Others have given me crucial support -- David Swift, June Peacock, Peter Fincham, Michael Watt, Gordon Roddick, Tim Beddows, Maggi Hurt, Christo Hird -- to name but a few. I pay tribute to these friends, knowing that without them, I would not be standing here tonight.
When I set out to make my first film, I was terrified; I didn't have a clue. "It's easy," said Charles Denton, "let the camera say what you know to be true, not what you think is acceptable." My first documentary was The Quiet Mutiny made for Granada in 1970, which told the story of a rebellion sweeping the American army in Vietnam. The US ambassador in London at the time was one Walter Annenberg, a crony of Richard Nixon, who was then in the White House. The morning after the film went to air, the ambassador phoned the head of the Independent Television Authority, Sir Robert Fraser, and told him angrily that nothing like this would ever have been shown in the United States.
Although Sir Robert had not seen the film he, too, was outraged: apoplectic, according to the Granada executives he summoned to his office. Banging his desk, he described me as "a bloody menace" and "a dangerous subversive."
This puzzled Sydney Bernstein, Granada's distinguished founder, who replied that the film had been welcomed by the public and none of its facts was in dispute. "We are not in the business of pleasing the powers that be," he said memorably.
I suggest those words are inscribed on the bathroom mirrors of every young documentary film-maker.
Britain remains one of the few countries in the world where talented, challenging work is still shown on mainstream television. But documentaries that go against the received wisdom -- that break the code -- have become an endangered species; many young documentary-makers are convinced that, to be acceptable, they must produce a form of reality TV.
That is not acceptable, and we need independent spirits as never before.
Who else will make sense of a world in which social democracy is being drained of its life-force, and the main political parties have all but converged? Who else will make sense of a semi-permanent state of war, in which the most potent weapon is the drum beat of the mainstream media?
One of the most revealing WikiLeaks disclosures was a 2,000-page Ministry of
Defence document titled, "How to stop leaks" -- which was leaked. According to
the authors, the greatest threat was not terrorists, but investigative
journalists. In other words, whistle-blowers: perhaps truth-tellers.
If those of us who make documentary films allow the craft of John Grierson to look away -- to merely distract and titillate and pacify -- who will dare blow the whistle?