Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Bear Grylls and Coleridge

Last night on the Discovery Channel, there was a gripping two-part 'Born Survivor' special, as Bear Grylls demonstrated how to survive in the Saharan desert. At one stage, Grylls was presented with a dead camel from a local tribe. To provide a blanket against the cold of night, he stripped the skin from the animal, then he cut into its side, and scooped out some water-like liquid to re-hydrate himself. He then cut into what I think was the camel's stomach, the inside of which contained a mass of yellowish manure. Grylls scooped some out, held it above his head, and squeezed the yellow liquid from the manure into his mouth! "It's better than nothing," he claimed.

This was all very impressive, but I couldn't held remembering the recent revelations that Andy Serkis actually performs all the survival stunts on the show, and Grylls's face is simply CGI-ed on in post-production. And at one stage, when Grylls, shot from an aerial perspective, stood atop a high escarpment and wondered aloud "How do I get down from this," I did blurt out: "Use the helicopter!".

Seriously, though, I noticed that the programme was now making the presence of the camera crew explicit, Grylls talking to them at times, and taking a hand-held camera from them on one occasion. Along with the rider displayed at the beginning of the programme, which emphasises that some situations are set-up in advance for Grylls to demonstrate survival techniques, this seems to be a reaction to the accusations of fakery which were levelled at this programme, amongst several others. Similarly, I noticed on a recent 'Top Gear', that when the lads were driving across Botswana, the presence of the film crew and supporting mechanics was made quite overt.

There was a time when TV documentaries, like films, would seek to transport the mind of the viewer to another place, and, to sustain this illusion, no reference would be made to the presence of the camera, or to the production process as a whole. There was no attempt in this to deceive the viewer, rather the viewer and programme-maker were conspiring together in the willing suspension of disbelief (© Sam Coleridge), with the ultimate purpose of enhancing the viewing experience.

The modern trend to make explicit the presence of the cameraman and sound recordist, and to refer within a programme to the programme-making process, is seen as lending a type of authenticity to a programme. The upshot, however, is to dissolve the possible suspension of disbelief in the viewer, and ultimately, therefore, to reduce the potential pleasure which a viewer can gain from a TV programme. This is not a positive trend.

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