Earlier this year, the BBC appointed Alan Hayling as Head of Documentaries. The Discovery Campus Symposium at Sunny Side of the Doc in Marseilles was one of the first opportunities to get to know the man who says: “I sense a real determination at the BBC to lead the industry in a long-needed documentary renaissance.”

DOX brings excerpts from the talk.

Alan Hayling wants people to watch the films that he commissions:

«I like doing very serious things occasionally, but I also like to do kind of intelligent things ‘tabloidly’ and tabloid things intelligently. That’s roughly my kind of trademark.»

In his new job as Head of Documentaries at the BBC, Alan Hayling discovered that the controllers of all BBC channels strongly believe in documentary: “We’re in a moment when the BBC’s charter is under scrutiny for renewal, and therefore there is a greater impetus to do documentary as well. I’m very fortunate to have arrived at the BBC just at this moment when I won’t be required to invent ‘Paradise Hotel’.”

Alan Hayling’s new job is to return single documentaries and series to the heart of the BBC. Referring to his time as commissioning editor at Channel 4, Hayling explained, “I discovered that it was perfectly possible for documentaries about serious subjects to reach out and win large audiences.”

Better Make It Funny

Alan Hayling was the commissioning editor on Michael Moore’s Channel 4 series *The Awful Truth and worked with him on the early stages of Bowling for Columbine. “For me, there is a bit of re-education to do among the filmmakers at the BBC to understand that you can make it worthwhile but you’d better make it funny, like Michael Moore does it, or like Supersize Me or Nap Attack, or you’ll die. And that gives the space for some very serious documentaries that weren’t always right. I mean, the most immediate thing I want to do at the BBC is a series about Iraq called Losing The Peace. I want to do it as a documentary, not as a current affairs maker.”

Alan Hayling

Asked by Christoph Jörg (who presented the session with Alan Hayling in Marseilles) why the BBC tried to get rid of all these documentaries a few years ago and why they’re returning now, Alan Hayling said that power within terrestrial TV had shifted from commissioning editors to schedulers: “You should always be doing films that won’t win audiences and some films that will win substantial audiences. And that just wasn’t happening at Channel 4 and the BBC. So the schedulers lost confidence and there was a huge decline in documentaries. One can over-analyse this; one can say it’s because there was a huge growth in formats, or because there was a growth of cynicism in society. I don’t believe that. I think it was just crap commissioning.”

Alan Hayling admitted that he is “in this curious honeymoon period where I can say more or less what I want and not get fired.” His new job is not the one of a commissioning editor: “I run the in-house production department at the BBC. I don’t have the right to simply say ‘I want to do this’ and somebody gives me the money. I have to convince channel controllers that this idea is worth doing and for this range of reasons. Some of which will be audience, some of which will be because it’s important in itself for public service reasons, some of which will be because it’s a particular filmmaker who’s got a passion.”

From ‘Faking It’ to Real Talent

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