A matter of opinion: Features
Associated-Rediffusion asks its producers what makes a ‘feature’ in 1960
In this and the following columns are the answers to a questionnaire sent out to a group of features directors. The head of features, Peter Hunt, says:
A long time ago, in 1955, a founder member of the programme department said: ‘the word “documentary” makes me think of cranes and things….’ Hence ‘Feature’, which is determined by Chambers as a programme ‘that reconstructs dramatically the life of a prominent person, or an important event, or gives a dramatic picture of an employment or activity.’
I have taken Chambers as a reasonable platform for framing these questions.
Which is worth most: a personality talking at you or over relevant pictures of what he is talking about?
John Frankau: This must depend on the subject, envisaged audience and the personality. There is room for both, and a combination of the two.
John Phillips: I favour him talking over relevant pictures every time. Television already consists of quite enough faces on the screen, any opportunity or reason to cut away to something else must be seized with both hands.
Peter Morley: The question is the answer – whichever is worth more, you hold on the screen. If you are putting across the character of a person you must see the face. If this person is talking about ‘things’ you must show these ‘things’. The test is relevance.
Geoffrey Hughes: Both. The personality must first be established. Then it is a question of whether the pictures of what he is talking about are stronger and more relevant than his ‘personality’ or his interest as a man.
Sheila Gregg: It is impossible to answer this question. If the programme is about people it is probably better to sec their faces, especially if they are good characters, and also that you may try to judge their sincerity from the emotions on their faces. But if the subject is more important than the people, obviously you should see the relevant pictures.
Can the dramatised feature do anything our current forms cannot do?
Geoffrey Hughes: Yes, it can put over an emotional state of mind in a way that our present feature programmes cannot. And emotional states of mind are as much part of people’s reactions to the real world as they are to (say) drama.
Sheila Gregg: Yes, I think so, as there are always subjects which are extremely difficult to bring to life in a non-dramatic form. On the other hand, as soon as dramatisation and actors are brought in, the authenticity of the whole thing is weakened, and I think people might find it difficult to distinguish between dramatised documentary and straightforward drama.
John Frankau: Yes, the dramatised feature can do something in addition to our current forms. Apart from more easily catching the attention of most sections of the public by presenting facts in a more digestible way, often they can be more succinct and possibly more accurate than programmes which use a few individuals putting forward their own isolated views. As a form of entertainment they should not be neglected.
John Phillips: Yes, by attracting the viewer who switches over or off whenever he feels he is being talked ‘at’.
Peter Morley: A dramatised documentary produces an atmosphere of the theatre – a performance which can make some feature subjects more palatable to a mass audience. It can in many cases simplify a diffused collection of facts by making these facts fit the story, and not the story fit the facts. But this theatrical atmosphere is the weakness of the dramatised documentary, reducing its authenticity and credibility, and therefore its viewer identification.
How should the features personalities we need in the future be found and trained?
Sheila Gregg: It takes a long time to train a television interviewer, and the only real training he can get is to work on actual programmes over a considerable period. I think the essentials for a television interviewer are: intelligence, good general knowledge and a certain experience of life. An interviewer should also be able to ask questions because he genuinely wants to find out for himself, and because he is interested in people and ideas, not simply because the questions have been written in a script.
John Frankau: There is no golden rule. They may be found almost anywhere it’s possible to find the combination of an interesting personality and an enquiring mind. The particular type of mind required might be most easily found in the world of journalism. As well as experience, the only training should be that of theatrical professionalism.
John Phillips: By the same methods that are used to get the right people for any skilled trade or profession – lengthy and patient search for suitable types, imparting of expert advice and knowledge based on experience, encouragement of expansion of personality and ideas.
Peter Morley: I haven’t the faintest idea.
Geoffrey Hughes: I believe they should first be significant in their own right. If we look for people who are immediately available and unemployed, they are likely also to be unemployable – or, in short, no-goods. So, having been snatched from their jobs (and properly paid) they can only be trained by practice – and production.
Why are features necessary?
John Phillips: Assuming the basic premise that television is necessary and presumably we all do that, then surely features are necessary because they exploit most fully television’s greatest accomplishment (that of projecting sound and vision simultaneously to millions of people) to the common good by making them aware of themselves and the world they live in.
Peter Morley: They are not necessary. They are highly desirable. The entertainment pattern of a television network would be incomplete without them. Feature programmes satisfy a thirst for knowledge which all viewers think they have or would like to think they have. The feature is not always considered as ‘entertainment’ but I believe that the successful feature must be as entertaining as any other programme.
Geoffrey Hughes: They aren’t necessary. Features should only be put on if they are entertaining. But I believe that they can be entertaining, as a genuine interest in current affairs does exist. It is up to us to exploit it.
Sheila Gregg: Apart from entertainment, I think television has a duty to inform people (in as entertaining a way as possible). Anyway features are the thing that television can do better than any other medium.
John Frankau: They are a valuable form of entertainment and as such must take their place in this, the entertainment business. Unlike other programmes, they can survey topical subjects at short notice, floodlight social or world events and sometimes peep through keyholes.
Should features set out to influence public opinion?
Peter Morley: If you set out to influence, you distort. But if you set out to inform you can’t help but influence.
Geoffrey Hughes: No. We re not allowed to by the Television Act anyway; and I don’t agree with the missionary attitude formerly adopted by the BBC under Lord Reith. We can and should, however, stimulate people to think for themselves.
Sheila Gregg: They should not necessarily set out to influence public opinion. Some programmes merely inform (and in that way they may help people to make up their own minds). However, there are some subjects – Apartheid is an obvious example – on which we should take sides and try to influence opinion, although I think we should give a fair hearing to both sides.
John Frankau: No, but in either presenting facts or a point of view, it would be unlikely that some of the audience would remain uninfluenced.
John Phillips: No – they should set out to inform accurately and fairmindedly so that public opinion may be responsible and enlightened.
Peter Hunt: ‘I make no comment. I merely take relevant refuge in this pregnant extract from Shepherd Mead’s brilliant text book – ‘How To Get Rich In TV Without Really Trying’.
‘We can’t use the script’, he said, his voice vibrating by force of habit.
‘What’s wrong?’ I said. ‘Not dramatic enough?’
‘It isn’t – me,’ he said. ‘I take a universal point of view.’
‘There is no such thing’, I said, ‘as a universal point of view. You are for this or you are against it – you cannot be universal about it.’
‘I must see both sides of every question.’
‘Listen,’ I said, ‘if you take both sides of every question you will be a skyrocket that is shooting off at both ends. You will make a lot of fizz-fire and go no place.
‘So the way it worked out, I was the one who went someplace. Out on my ear.’
About the author
'Fusion' was the quarterly staff magazine for Associated-Rediffusion and Rediffusion Television employees.