DOX met her in London to talk about her career and her methods.
Imagine you are a major politician, participating in a series of events that irrevocably shift the balance of power in the world. Wouldn’t you want to talk about them at some point in time, to reveal what took place behind closed doors? You bet you would. And you can also bet that sooner or later Norma Percy will be knocking at your door.
Rolls Royce of Documentary Making
Percy has built a formidable career out of a single interest: moments of crisis in political history. For thirty years now she has been turning this passion into some of the most gripping documentaries made anywhere in the world. The titles tell all-“Watergate”, “The Death of Yugoslavia”, “The Second Russian Revolution”, “The Fall of Milosevic”, “The 50 Years War: Israel and the Arabs”, “Endgame in Ireland -her territory is not so much geographical as geopolitical.
The unit headed by Norma Percy at Brook Lapping, a London-based production company, has evolved a distinctive method for examining moments of crisis in recent political history, a style “The Wall Street Journal” dubbed “the Rolls Royce of documentary making”. At its core are lengthy firsthand accounts from key participants, including many heads of state, prime ministers and presidents, giving viewers a ringside seat to history in the making. The programmes eschew pundits and are meticulously objective by including both sides to a conflict. Hence the astonishing sequence in Percy’s latest series, “Israel & the Arabs: Elusive Peace”, where both Palestinians and Israelis give their account of the deadliest suicide bombing in Israel’s history. As Ariel Sharon accounts how the bombing interrupted his Passover dinner in 2002, a terrorist speaking from inside an Israeli jail says the bomb brought more deaths than he had dared “hoped for”. Like its predecessors, “Elusive Peace” has won major awards, including the British Royal Television Society’s Programme of the Year.
The Art of Persuasion
In person, Percy comes in an unlikely package: tiny and spry, she is usually the smallest person in a room of heavy hitters. But there is no mistaking the charisma and force of her personality and her devotion to her craft. At the recent World Congress of History Producers in London, she kept the audience captivated with tales of how she has managed to cajole even the most reluctant of politicians into participating in her programmes. “One rule is anyone who is any good says no the first time,” she says with a smile.
Indeed, Percy spends a lot of time convincing politicians that her programmes will be good and fair, writing many letters and using previous programmes as calling cards. Nonetheless, each time she finds gaining access difficult. For “Elusive Peace”, three-quarters of the way through production the team still didn’t have any of the key players on board. But as soon as they landed one big name, the others started agreeing, eventually bringing in Bill Clinton, Yasser Arafat, Ehud Barak and Sharon– the latter’s interview being his only retrospective view of his presidency. The series went on to make headlines round the world with the revelation that Bush had said “God told me to get a Palestinian state.”
The Middle East is familiar territory for Percy, having already made “The 50 Years War: Israel and the Arabs”, a six-part series broadcast in 1998. Why the return? Percy blames Clinton. After interviewing him for “Endgame in Ireland”, as he showed them around his office, she asked him a question about President Assad of Syria. Clinton’s ensuing tirade about the failed Middle East peace process and lost opportunities at the Camp David summit convinced her to return to the subject. “Clearly it’s what wakes him up in the middle of the night,” she says.
From Economics to Television
Raised in the US, Percy initially came to London to get a Ph.D. at the London School of Economics. When the government introduced a huge hike to foreign students’ fees, Percy took a job as a researcher at the House of Commons, soon abandoning her studies. “I realised I was learning so much more politics by meeting the politicians and seeing it happen. I’m really not an intellectual, I’m interested in people, gossip, stories. The thing about being a backbench MP, you don’t take any decisions but you really have a ringside seat to other people’s decisions. And so I was doing this, which I loved, and I had no desire to do anything else.”
When her House of Commons funding came to an end, she took a one-year job as a researcher for a programme Brian Lapping was making about Parliament. Although she had had no previous interest in a television career, she was soon converted. “I discovered that television was in fact a really brilliant way of finding out secrets,” she says. “Politicians need television, so they’ll tell you things that they won’t tell anyone else. That’s what I’m interested in- finding out what happens behind closed doors when big decisions are being made. I’m interested in the big decisions and I’m also interested in how much they’re like all other decisions.”
Creating a Style
The genesis of the Brook Lapping style lies in the world of drama documentaries a quarter of a century ago when Percy and Lapping used to employ a cast of journalists to re-enact key decisions that had taken place at political summits. She recalls: “Between the summit meeting and the transmission, usually one of the politicians involved had gone, and we would get him in the end to say that story was absolutely right. Otherwise nobody would believe it, it was just the rantings of journalists. So we kind of realised that if you want people to really believe it, you need to do real people.”
Having worked as a Commonwealth correspondent in the 1960s, Lapping was keen to do a series on British colonies gaining independence, and Granada came through with funding for a fourteen-part series chronicling the end of the British Empire. “End of Empire” was absolutely ideal because in each case the story had an end: the flag came down. And so you were getting people to reminisce about what happened on both sides.”
How Decisions Are Made
Brook Lapping’s first series, The Second Russian Revolution, broadcast in 1991, took eight hours to tell the inside story of the revolution that destroyed Communism, including first-time interviews with Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev. It was broadcast in forty countries. “Glasnost really took off between the first research and filming,” says Percy. “And suddenly they were telling you what happened in Politboro. Because they were new to it, they didn’t have the kind of guidelines that Western politicians had, so they were telling you everything. They somehow thought you had to tell the truth to the BBC.”
At Brook Lapping, Percy has been able to indulge her ongoing fascination with the decisive moment, which includes an understanding of human nature at play. “Things can happen partly because you’re tired,” she says. “In his first interview, Bill Clinton pledged in his election campaign to give a visa to Gerry Adams. And nobody had ever done it before because they always listened to the British, and the British were against it. And he tells a story that ‘I was on the campaign trail, I came into this room. It was the fifth meeting I was doing that day. I was two hours late. Some Irish journalist asked me if I was in favour of a visa for Gerry Adams. I was so tired I didn’t know what I was saying’…[laughs] And you know, you can relate to that. And then the chap who was his foreign policy advisor comes on and says ‘We were horrified…As soon as the meeting was over, we made him backtrack.’ And then it took two years before he actually came out and did it. But you can understand quite complicated politics, I think, if you are also getting to know the people who did it, and following their problems in doing it.”
Accounting in Details
A hallmark of the Brook Lapping series is the way narratives unfold as compelling stories, told by several people, usually the key players at the centre of the event being dissected. What’s impressive is the way the participants are able to account in such detail and how their narratives seem to blend together into one seamless account.
It takes a lot of work behind the scenes over many months for such magic to appear on screen. “Initially we send quite “fishing” questions. It’s always hardest to get started, until you know something. You have to keep learning things so you can ask enough specifics,” Percy says. Where possible, interviews always take place twice. The initial research interview is followed up by a script complete with bits of synch, then a return for a final interview. By the time of the second, filmed interview, the questions are very specific, and often remind the interviewee of the circumstances surrounding the meeting – the location, details such as whether dress was casual, who was there, etc. Percy says such specificity is crucial to getting detailed answers. “If you ask me what was the most exciting moment in my career in television I would look at you blankly,” she says. “But if you ask me what it was like the first time I interviewed Bill Clinton, I could give you a good answer.”
Another part of the formula is to never make the interviewees look like liars. If versions conflict, then Percy and her team choose which version they think is right. Often, to secure the agreement of a participant, they are told what some of their colleagues have said in their interviews. Such was the case in the masterful “Watergate” series. Percy had unsuccessfully tried to get a key witness, Jeb Stuart Magruder, who had given the Watergate burglars their orders, to agree to being filmed. After a stint in jail he had become a minister and didn’t want to remind his parishioners of his wayward past. But after seeing some of what burglary organiser G. Gordon Liddy had said (in a nine-hour tour de force filmed in front of his wife’s gun collection), Magruder knew he had to provide his side of the story. He agreed to be interviewed – in full clerical regalia. The entire series unfolds like a bizarre thriller, placing viewers at the very centre of the events leading up to the downfall of President Nixon.
Percy says that no one has ever complained about their representation, another testimony to the quality of the journalism. In fact, the life of the series extends far beyond the television broadcasts, as programmes are often used for university teaching, training diplomats and conflict resolution, with rushes housed in London’s Kings College’s Department of War Studies. In 2004, Percy received an Honorary Doctorate of Arts from London’s City University and Brian Lapping was made a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire). Percy is also the only journalist ever to be awarded the James Cameron prize twice (2000 and 2003) for the year’s outstanding work in journalism.
So, rather than deciphering recent political history do they help to shape events? Perhaps. An attempt at an Iraq series fell through, as the key participants in such a current conflict were unwilling to show their hands. Undeterred, Percy has set her sights on an equally politically sensitive country: Iran. A three-part series called “Iran and the West” is in pre-production. As always, Percy is doing lots of upfront legwork to ensure that Iran’s leaders take part. “I’ve been showing them bits of “Elusive Peace, so I could show them what a story is like and how they come together,” she says. “Because to get these people who are used to orating at you, to actually tell stories is hard. And any impossible trick you can think of is fair.”
The Death of Yugoslavia (1995), a six-part series in which Slobodan Milosevic, the other Yugoslav presidents and sixty of their generals, ministers, and rivals each told their part inhow Milosevic rose to power and gave the world the term ‘ethnic cleansing’. It was broadcast all over the world and won sixteen major awards.
In the sequel, The Fall of Milosevic (2003), Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac, their ministers and generals – and Slobodan Milosevic’s generals, rivals and advisors, (including his wife Mira) – tell the story of the Kosovo war and the events that finally brought Milosevic to the Hague. Three 90-minute programmes.
The Second Russian Revolution (1991), eight hours of television made for the BBC and the Discovery Channel, was seen in forty countries, including the former Soviet Union.
Avenging Terror (2002), called Campaign against Terror in the US, was shown in 23 countries to mark the anniversary of 9/11 in September 2002. In this two-hour programme, Vladimir Putin, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schroeder, Pervez Musharraf, Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell describe how they put together the coalition to fight the war in Afghanistan. The series won Britain’s top prize for international current affairs journalism from the Royal Television Society.
The 50 Years War: Israel and the Arabs (1998), a six-part series, has been shown on the BBC, PBS (US), ARTE (France and Germany), ABC (Australia) and worldwide – including both Israel and MBC throughout the Arab world.
Israel & the Arabs: Elusive Peace (2005), a three-part series. A sequel to “The 50 Years War: Israel and the Arabs”, it won the British Television Society’s Programme of the Year award.
Endgame in Ireland (2001) had Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and all the relevant prime ministers and Northern Ireland politicians – and many of the gunmen— telling the story of the fight for peace. It won Brook Lapping’s third Peabody, and is used to teach conflict resolution.
Playing the China Card (1999) won another US Peabody award for, according to the citation, “a behind-the-scenes glimpse into Nixon’s overture to China that’s like the best political novel.”
Watergate (1994) won a US Emmy and was the first foreign series to win one of Columbia University’s duPont awards.
The Washington Version (1992), Dick Cheney, Colin Powell and others in George H. W. Bush’s war cabinet tell the inside story of how they ran the 1991 Gulf War.