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.”
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