The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

August 5th, 2007

Fatal mistake of a deluded film-maker

Film-maker Paul Watson’s protestations of innocence are unconvincing – as is his relationship with reality

‘Am I a manipulative sod?” asked Paul Watson, the documentary maker, last Sunday. He was giving an interview to this paper at a time of uproar surrounding his ITV film, scheduled for this Wednesday, about the death of a man with Alzheimer’s. “Am I a manipulative sod? I am,” he answered, “because that’s what editing is about. That’s where you play God, and if you don’t play God truthfully, there’s no point.”

In the light of what has followed, this was an unfortunate confession. At that time almost everyone who took any interest in his film – Malcolm and Barbara: Love’s Farewell – believed that viewers would see Malcolm departing this life on screen. Many people disapproved. I wrote a column in the same edition arguing that there is something of the snuff movie about even the most delicately filmed death rattle; a man’s death should not be a television spectacle.

The public had every reason to believe Malcolm’s death was to be broadcast. Those who saw the film preview thought so, the ITV press release of July 20 said so clearly – Watson spoke in it of “filming to the bitter end” – and for days there had been a huge amount of publicity driven precisely by the rights or wrongs of filming real live death, as ITV no doubt expected. Neither the film-maker nor the widow said anything to disabuse us, and there was an odour of sanctimony about them; both he and she spoke heart-warmingly of the film helping people to overcome their fear of death.

So it came as a surprise when the dead man’s brother Graham wrote a blog on the Times Online website on Sunday evening (in response to my column) that Malcolm did not die on screen; he died several days later, after the end of filming and after Watson’s departure.

This put many people, starting with Watson, in an awkward position; if he hadn’t filmed Malcolm’s death, why had he let us think he had? Why had he not contradicted the impression that he had? Why does the film clearly suggest it? Watson’s response has been to take an adversarial stance of self-justification; on Wednesday he said on Radio 4 that his “crime” was that he hadn’t compiled the ITV press statement himself and hadn’t read it “sufficiently clearly”.

Now there’s a thing. He expects us to believe that an experienced media man like him, who has spent 11 years working with the Pointon family, at the end of all his impassioned creative input does not bother to read or try to influence the publicity introducing his own magnum opus. That isn’t easy to believe, to put it mildly.

Then there’s the matter of the alteration to the film that occurred to him so belatedly; he says he asked ITV last Monday to let him insert five words into the film “to explain that the picture you are looking at, at this moment, is not Malcolm’s death”, but that they initially refused. Why at that late date did this experienced director suddenly feel the need to insert “five words” to his long-considered, carefully completed and crafted film?

Are we to suppose that this hugely important moment, this “bitter end”, suddenly needed a bit of tidying up? Or should we, perhaps, make a different inference? We may never know, though ITV and a furious Michael Grade have started an independent inquiry. I have a curious piece of evidence of my own, which may interest readers who find this story as deliciously sanctimonious as I do.

Assuming the Times Online computer records are correct, Graham Pointon did not post his blog until 8.25pm last Sunday. At 7.24pm – before anyone could have seen Pointon’s damaging revelation – Watson sent an e-mail to me at my Sunday Times address. And in view of what he has said subsequently, it is rather astonishing.

It’s astonishing in what it leaves out. For nowhere in his strange, self-justificatory ramble does he say or hint that he did not film Malcolm’s death – he clearly suggests he did. Yet he had not, and this would have been the perfect knockdown defence against my column. He chose not to tell this truth. And nowhere does he complain to me of misleading publicity, or the need for clarification, which began to bear down upon him so forcefully a few hours later. I do not think he could have written to me as he did had he been aware of Pointon’s blog.

Nowhere does he suggest in his e-mail (as he has since) that the film “has been turned into something where it looks like I am trying to pass off a shot as a death scene . . . I was not there for the moment of death, quite deliberately”.

Last Tuesday he said in self-defence that “if anyone had bothered to call me I would have told them the situation”. But he didn’t tell me “the situation” in the e-mail he wrote to me, a journalist, two days previously. Indeed, almost the first thing he said to me was that he had filmed the moment of death before; last November he transmitted a film in which two alcoholics died in front of his camera, but nobody from “the usual suspects” or officialdom had complained.

“You must also know,” he went on, “that I lecture around the country against the insidious harm to ‘truth’ and the documentary form and indeed to ourselves by the ‘get rich quick’ formats of RDF, Endemol and others.” Words fail me. I cannot think of a character in fiction so preposterously self-contradictory.

I am not a lawyer but I do at the least think that Watson has been economical – or is it in this case generous? – with the actualité. I could go further and say Watson has an eccentric relationship with reality, and an arrogant one too. “You are right,” he wrote to me, “about the slight removal of reality (in a documentary) by my being present. But like grit in the oyster my presence can kill or produce a pearl.” This vaingloriousness prevents him from understanding that an audience doesn’t want the polished encrustation of the director’s embellishments; we simply want the real oyster.

The trouble with the enormous power of documentary television is that it tends to corrupt; it tends to produce manipulative sods playing God, quite often untruthfully. At the same time it tends to corrupt both truth and reality. I wonder whether Watson will continue giving lectures on the insidious harm to truth. God knows, I suppose.