Alan Whicker opened our eyes to the world's most extraordinary, visionary and downright dangerous. From the legendary Muhammed Ali to the murderous president of Haiti, François Duvalier.
As SAE Film alumnus Keith Hoult is nominated for Whicker’s World Foundation award, we chat to the Foundation about what cuts it in the world of documentaries…
‘The Foundation seeks to fund and empower emerging documentary makers. Alan Whicker was aware that talent can emerge at any age and continued to make documentaries well into his eighties. That’s why, as well as the funding award, we also set money aside to reward new talent over fifty. This is also why we were so thrilled to see Keith’s work. In our view Keith exemplifies the true ‘spirit of Whicker’ - he went on a trip to Berlin and discovered something extraordinary going on. His response was to pick up his camera and film it. When prevented from filming exactly what he wanted he worked out another way to tell the story in a coherent, engaging and memorable way. That takes guts, imagination, dedication and a certain kind of maturity. Alan would have been so proud.
The rules for the three different awards, Funding, Veterans and Audio are different, but the main criteria are the same. Here is a quick run down of the five key things we are looking for and why…’ Jane Ray.
1. Personal, not partisan
One of the most important things about Alan’s documentaries was how accurately he documented his subject without judging it. He always gave us the facts from all sides, whatever his own point of view, and left the audience to make up their own mind. He interviewed dictators and billionaires, lost souls and divas - as well as those society deemed to be deviant, mad, bad and dangerous to know. Yet Alan's broadcasts always remained open-minded and tolerant.
2. Character focused
The most common misconception about Alan is that he was a ‘travel journalist’. No, Whicker and his world was always about the people rather than the places. The programmes that excite us most today are those that show incredible access to engaging characters. If you cannot give your story a face, it is unlikely you will draw an audience. For Alan it was audiences, not critical acclaim, which mattered.
3. Strong interviewing skills
Alan had a real gift for coaxing the human spirit into revealing itself. He always believed that you could ask any question under the sun - as long as you did so politely. This technique worked with everyone from movie stars to shop assistants. He knew when to talk and when to listen, and how to draw out the wittiest and most gripping stories without threat. The ability to listen and to let the character’s story emerge in their own words is a huge asset in documentary filmmaking. It is something that we're always looking out for.
The neatly clipped moustache and blue blazer became famous. But if you watch closely, Alan actually appeared very little in his own films. He never took himself too seriously. Behind the uniform of what Stephen Fry described as ‘the quintessential Englishman abroad’ was a maverick mind. And behind his glasses was quick witted thinking guided by his insatiable curiosity and an acute, sometimes devastating, sense of irony. That is something we want to foster.
5. Excite wonder
Alan was the first broadcaster to experiment with satellite broadcasting and lightweight hand held cameras. He was determined to take his audience with him in an age where international travel was inaccessible to the majority of the TV viewing public. His film about San Francisco was, for example, the first to broadcast a gay kiss on TV. He invented the blue light cop car chase, the ‘as it happens’ drug bust and the close up cosmetic surgery operation - the list goes on and on. Many who remember the days when Whicker’s World was getting more viewers that Coronation Street have said to us that Alan’s weekly visits to their home gave them a ‘licence to dream’.
Alan ‘wrote the grammar’ for today’s modern documentary - now so familiar, it is all too easy forget what a pioneer he was. His foundation pledges to keep these attributes alive and in the forefront of every documentary maker's mind.
Discover more at www.whickersworld.com. And keep your fingers crossed in the meantime for Keith’s submission. We’ll find out soon if he’s won and share the news…