Gavin Weightman

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Gavin Weightman
  • 0 Faking the Wild

    • Thoughts
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 13-12-2011
    0.00 of 0 votes

    The story of David Attenborough and the "mocked up" sequence with polar bear cubs brought back to me many memories of cutting room arguments and near disasters that I can recall from twenty years as a factual film maker. I am still not sure about the acceptability of some sequences in progammes I made, though my intention was never to deliberately deceive the viewer. Well, only a bit. I often re-run in my mind one episode that occurred back in the mid-1980s. I was a producer-director in the current affairs and features department of London Weekend Television. In those days there was no chasing after ratings and LWT factual programmes ( Lord Birt was in charge) and we had a reputation for making few if any concessions to "popular" programming. However I was given the chance to make the first ever wildlife programme for the company, a project I relished as a keen bird watcher and amateur naturalist. Although by then I had made a few programmes it had never occurred to me how those brilliant wildlife cameramen got their amazing sequences. Did they crawl down holes to film moles? How did they get so close to tigers in the jungle? The buzz around the office was that I would not have much trouble as my series was to be six half hours on wildlife in London. Once I had the sparrows in the can, that would be it. Maybe a rat or two as well. In fact, London is very rich in wildlife. The problem was how to film it. We went to a couple of lectures given by BBC wildlife producers and asked around. I was astonished, and not a little put out, to discover many of the most gripping sequences were faked. The tiger stalking the jungle was a zoo animal. The eagle catching a hare was a falconer's bird. Which brings me to some episodes that I re-run in my mind from time to time. A star of my series called City Safari was the kestrel, a little falcon once common in the capital,. We saw them every day from our tower block office on the South Bank, and found a nest to film high up in a tower block vent shaft. But we wanted some pukka shots: the bird in slow motion with the Houses of Parliament in the background. And another of a kestrel catching a sparrow, its favourite food in the city, with another classic London backdrop. There were plenty of wild kestrels to film and we got some great shots of them, mostly from a distance. But for the big close-ups with the birds hovering in the right place at the right time we brought in a falconer. I will never forget the first sequence we shot. We chose what was then a building site on the south side of Vauxhall Bridge, now the MI6 building. At low tide the falconer was able to go down on to the foreshore while the cameraman set his high speed equipment on top of the embankment. The kestrel was on the falconer's arm. He shouted: "Are you ready?" I put my thumb up. In his hand he had a little yellow, dead, day old chick. He showed it to the falcon and then hid it again in his hand. He then threw the bird into the air. It unfolded its wings and looked down for the lure. Momentarily it hovered there giving the cameraman a chance to find it, focus and shoot. The film zipped through the high speed camera taking 500 frames a second. Played back at 25 frames it would be slow and elegant and last twenty times as long as it took to shoot. We had several goes at this until the kestrel got fed up and flew off. The falconer was seen running across Westminster Bridge calling: "Rosie!". Then there was the Tower of London shot. Here we wanted to show a kestrel catching a sparrow. The same falconer and the same obliging kestrel performed brilliantly on the south bank of the Thames opposite the Tower. When the film was in an advanced "rough cut" stage the executive producer came to view it. To our gratification he loved it. And it did look pretty good, certainly as professional as anything the BBC produced. Then he asked how we had got that amazing shot of the kestrel catching the sparrow. I took him to one side and explained it was falconer's bird called Rosie which had been in Life on Earth. The sequence was cut so that it appeared Rosie had caught the sparrow which, in reality, the falconer had brought with him from the countryside. Looking crestfallen, the producer asked me how I felt about the deceit. I said: " Not very good". But how were we to compete? The BBC and other wildlife film makers all had what we came to call "equity" birds and animals for close shot sequences. We could have brought up a caption saying: " Reconstruction" but it would have looked daft, and no other companies did that for wildlife programmes. I resolved the moral dilemma by arguing ( to myself ) that kestrels were common in London, they did catch and eat sparrows, and we knew there was a pair nesting near Tower Bridge. Cheating, we discovered, was endemic in wildlife film making but if you were not misleading your audience about what species could be found where, there was no big issue involved. What you had to be most careful about was what you claimed in the voice over. It would have been quite wrong to pretend we had got an amazing sequence of a wild kestrel catching a wild sparrow. We used the sequence to make the point that kestrels in London fed mainly on sparrows. But we did want the viewer to imagine we had staked out the sparrow just as it was caught in the kestrel's talons. David Attenborough, to his great credit in my view, has always been straight forward about staged sequences and, as far as I am aware, has never tried to deny that they occur. A classic is the inter-cutting of a sequence of the birth of polar bears, filmed in a Belgian zoo, with the bears in the wild as if the birth had been shot in the Arctic. To own up on screen would spoil the magic. I know this for certain because I was banned by my family from watching wildlife films as I would constantly let on that the tiger was clearly from a zoo and looked very much as if it had a piece of string attached to its left back leg.  I have argued before elsewhere that fakery, in the sense of staging sequences, is endemic in documentary film making. Those film makers who like to refute this -- and there is surprising number of them -- should ask themselves if they have ever asked anyone in one of their films to "do something again" because the first take was spoiled in some way. Or asked them do something they would not otherwise have done. That is all fakery, but not necessarily pernicious. I argue that it is mostly "legitimate". There is another kind of fakery which is "illegitimate" in that it seeks to seriously mislead the viewer about a sequence of events shown on the screen. What I find most dispiriting about the discussion of fakery in factual programming is the degree to which senior people in the industry pretend they did not know it was going on when it is in fact stock in trade in television documentaries. The intention, invariably, is to make a programme more watchable than it would otherwise be rather than to mislead the viewer about the essential subject matter of the programme. In the case of the polar bears in Frozen Planet the same pretence that cubs were filmed in the wild when in fact they were born in a zoo has been done before with David Attenborough narrating. It cause a bit of a stir then but in time we forget these things and are prepared, in the words of the poet Coleridge to "suspend our disbelief". If you had been watching Frozen Planet with me I would have ruined its best sequence by pointing out there was no way the birth of those cubs could have been filmed in the wild.

  • 0 Don't Kill that Kindle

    • Thoughts
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 03-11-2011
    0.00 of 0 votes

    So that I could get to research the Marconi Archive which is now safely housed and expertly catalogued in the Bodleian Library, Oxford I applied for admission . I had to find a sponsor and was lucky that a neighbour who is a publisher and was an Oxford student long ago was on hand to sign the relevant papers. As I left his house he called after me: " You will not be able to kindle any fires." I smiled back wondering what he meant. The admission procedure was very jolly. I was ticked off for not completing one of the forms correctly then told by the lady dealing with library tickets that my misdemeanour would, on this occasion, by over looked. I had my passport for identification and my debit card for payment, a very modest sum for six months access. But before I was finally granted permission to enter the library I had to read an oath. It was printed on a laminated card and I was instructed to read it aloud. "I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, nor to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document or other object belonging to it or in its custody; not to bring into the Library, or kindle therein, any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library."  This little episode captures, I think, the wonderful theatricality of Oxford University. When I got to the science library where the Marconi Archive is held there was a chap on the door dressed rather like a posh waiter with a red rose in his button hole. While I was marvelling at the quaintness of this attendant I failed to find the correct way to put my new ticket into the very modern entry gate and had to be shown. I learned later that the oath I had taken was originally in Latin and the ban on smoking is relatively recent. And I began to wonder if the Bodleian might soon be storing not just books and papers but Kindles. A new oath might ask me to promise not to set fire to any Kindles. Or some such. 

  • 0 In the Dark

    • Issues
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 14-09-2011
    0.00 of 0 votes

    I was up late watching the thrilling final of the Men's Singles at the US Open and Djokovic was about to serve for the match in the third set. Would Nadal hold on? Before the World No.1 hit his first serve everything went black. I looked into the road and could see some lights on, but there was a dark area where the street light opposite our house was out. I lit candles and found a phone book with the Electricity Emergency number. They did not know of any faults in my area. I checked the fuse box and that was OK. They would send someone round, should be within four hours. I tried to get our clockwork radio to work in the hope that I might find the result of the match in New York, but the band connecting the generator to the spring had snapped. So I lit candles, read a bit and then went around with a candlestick in my dressing gown like someone from a BBC Victorian drama . Eventually I went to bed. I was woken not long after I dozed off by a phone call. The men from EDF Energy were at the door. They were a cheery pair who checked out my fuse box, noted that the junction box dated from around 1900, and said they could do nothing. As they emerged by torch light from inspecting the equipment in the cellar I thought I would show them the book I had published earlier this year. They trained their lights on the cover of Children of Light: how electricity changed Britain for ever. I thought they might have offered to buy a copy but they simply showed mild surprise that I was the author, the man in a dressing gown carrying a candle. It occurred to me as they left what strange continuities there are in history. The men, as British as you like, were working for the company EDF. This is the acronym for Electricité de France which now owns a big chunk of our power networks. It was similarly a French company, the Société Général d'Eltricitié which had lit the Embankment in London with arc lamps in the 1870s at a time when Britain was a little tardy in introducing the new technology. I went back to bed and was woken again by a call to tell me another team would be out to look at the problem in the next few hours. I was asked if I minded them using heavy machinery in the early hours of the morning. I said I did not mind but my neighbours might, and we left it at that. Around 5 am I woke briefly to see that the lights had come on again. I went around re-setting the freezer and checking everything that might have been affected. I went back to bed and slept in. When I woke I felt pleased with myself for getting the problem solved. My wife, however, looked disgruntled and I wondered what was wrong. It turned out that in my travels around the house in the black out I had dropped wax everywhere, much of it now solidified in the carpet. The art of nightly candle-carrying has been lost, in my household at any rate. No heavy machinery was needed to put the power back on. I have no idea what went wrong, but it was likely a fuse in our local sub-station. Only two or three houses appear to have been affected. Next door, our neighbour, who usually sets off for the City about 5.30 am, was late for work. His alarm was run off the mains. There is nothing like clockwork for reliability: provided the elastic band does not snap.

  • 0 The black rat and the Black Death

    • History
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 18-08-2011
    0.00 of 0 votes

    A new study of the Black Death in London has concluded that the disease which wiped out perhaps half of the capital's population in the mid-14th century was not bubonic plague spread by the immigrant black rat from Asia ( The Black Death in London by Barney Sloane, The History Press Ltd 2011). When the plague struck in 1348 nobody had a clue about the nature of such diseases and it was only much later in history that there was speculation about the cause of the epidemic. I am not sure when the black rat and the flea it carried was first implicated but certainly there was no knowledge of the nature of bubonic plague until the nasty bug, Yersinia pestis, was identified in 1894 during an outbreak of the disease in Hong Kong. It is transmitted to humans by a flea that lives on a variety of rodents, one of which is the black rat.  When there was an outbreak of bubonic plague in India in 1994 I remembered that I had a book on my shelves by a zoologist called Graham Twigg which disputed the received wisdom that the black rat was to blame for the black death ( The Black Death: a biological reappraisal, Batsford 1984 ). On the one hand, said Twigg the small black rat ( rattus rattus ) is rather a timid creature and not the aggressive invader imagined by historians. It is a tree rat by nature and very acrobatic. I can vouch for that as I once arranged to film the only black rat surviving in captivity in England. It was kept by the firm Rentokil and I wanted to get a sequence of it for a wildlife film I was making. When we first went to see it, the rat did not look well, but demonstrated a little of its gymnastic ability. Sadly that was more or less its last performance and it died before we got the camera in.  Twigg argued that the spread of plague did not match the movement of the black rat and that descriptions of the disease did not tally that well with the symptoms of bubonic plague. He speculated that anthrax was a possible cause of the black death. In 1994 when the Indian outbreak brought back the black rat story I got in touch with Twigg and researched an article which was published in the Independent in October. I spoke to Philip Zeigler who had written a book on The Black Death in 1969 in which what might be called the "classic" account of the origin of the 14th century black death was formulated. I summarised it in my article:  " It goes like this: bubonic plague was endemic in parts of central Asia before a series of natural disasters disturbed the ecology of the region and drove the rodents, fleas and bacillus westwards from their natural habitat. Ziegler wrote: 'It was, above all, rattus rattus, the tough, nimble, by nature vagabond, black rat that made the move.' Carrying the fatal flea, it invaded the Middle East and then Europe, reaching the south coast of England in 1348, perhaps on the ships of returning Crusaders."  Twigg had taught this to his students for many years before he began to question it. Why would an essentially tropical disease spread like that in a cold northern climate? And was it likely that the black rat, huddled into the artificial warmth of ships and houses, had enabled a disease to spread so fast. I put Twigg's thesis to a number of historians. Zeigler thought it interesting but most other historians brushed it aside. They were not about to re-open the case on the black rat. The little rodent is history now anyway, perhaps surviving in one or two ports and turning up now and again on ships. Our resident rat is the brown rattus norvegicus which is thought to have arrived around 1728, ushering in the Georgian era: another name for it is the Hanoverian rat. The brown rat is a ground dweller and burrower occupying a different niche from the tree loving black rat.  Bubonic plague has not gone away. There were major epidemics in the twentieth century, one in China which broke out among trappers who were infected by fleas in the pelts of marmots. Whether or not the black rat was responsible for the black death, it is certainly not regarded now as the first culprit when there is an outbreak of plague. It seems quite likely, too, that the black rat had nothing much do with the black death in London or elsewhere. 

  • 0 Hitler's Feathered Friends

    • History
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 13-08-2011
    0.00 of 0 votes

    Just before the looting and burning began in London I was thinking about putting down some thoughts about house sparrows. Those in my back garden seem to have gone on days out somewhere now that their young have fledged and I hear them return in the evening. I have no idea where they go but I like to imagine them off in the countryside or down the River Thames taking a dip in the river. They enjoy a bath in the pottery dishes we leave out for them in the back garden.  At the same time as the scenes reminiscent of the Blitz filled the TV screen I read a review of a book about the wartime campaign that became known as Dig for Victory (The Spade as Mighty as the Sword: The Story of World War Two's 'Dig for Victory' Campaign by Daniel Smith Aurum Press). Before 1939, Britain was absolutely reliant on food shipped in from around the world. At the outbreak of war, the German U-Boats laid siege and the Government appealed to the nation to start producing home grown crops and livestock. The campaign became known as Dig For Victory.  It is often forgotten now the degree to which the British people, fiercely proud of their refusal to accept authority unthinkingly, knuckled down when faced with a real threat to their independence. The Ministry of Information produced propaganda worthy of any dictatorship and even when the war was over the huge posters produced by the Labour Government urging everyone to make a greater effort was one of the inspirations for George Orwell's 1984 ( he finished writing the book in 1948). Daniel Smith's book on Dig for Victory reminds us that the Ministry of Information identified as one of the most notorious enemies of the British people the humble house sparrow. The sparrow is one of those birds ornithologists call " commensal": it has become accustomed to living close to man and to rely on handouts from the domestic table for its food. Related to the African weaver birds, the sparrow appears to have travelled across Europe with the spread of arable farming. It has the beak of a grain eating bird–though, when feeding young, the adult sparrows make a big effort to catch insects. They also have a taste for newly sprouted seedlings. In the countryside they have always been regarded as something of a pest, but in towns they were tolerated as one of those creatures which had adapted to urban life and brought the natural world to the hostile environment of the city.  In London and other cities any piece of available ground was turned into an allotment in the Dig for Victory campaign. This included the many bomb sites which were left behind after the Blitz. Once the land was cleared and dug over the seedlings went in and the crop eagerly awaited. However, many Londoners woke one morning to discover that a flock of sparrows had decimated their little arable crop. The Ministry of Agriculture issued a decree that the house sparrow was " Hitler's Feathered Friend" and should be destroyed ruthlessly. The public were asked to spare the little "hedge sparrow", or dunnock, which was regarded as an ally as it is an insect eater.  I doubt if many people had the heart to kill sparrows and resorted to other means to protect their wartime crops: netting is pretty effective. But the edict to kill sparrows is a reminder of a Britain we have all but forgotten about, but might begin to revive in the current atmosphere of anxiety about our domestic peace.  The torching of parts of London took my attention away from the swifts I had been watching every night, wondering when they would leave for Africa. Last night there was no sign of them and I imagine they are already in to their 14,000 mile journey to their wintering grounds. I just hope they got away from their rooftop nests before the fires burned in Tottenham and Croydon and Enfield. As for my community of house sparrows, I trust they will be back home as autumn sets in and they see out the winter on a diet of the luxury food I put out to attract goldfinches: sunflower kernels.

  • 0 A lesson in crime reporting

    • Thoughts
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 28-07-2011
    0.00 of 0 votes

    A guest blog from my old friend and colleague on New Society magazine in the 1970s David White. We had been exchanging stories about crime reporting in the old days..........here is his:    My contact with police on the Daily Mirror in 1969 was slight but memorable. Before transferring to the Mirror Magazine, the Mirror's weekly colour supplement, I was attached to the Daily Mirror newsroom as an early form of intern. It was suggested that I might learn something if I shadowed their senior crime reporter . This man and his boss comprised the grandly named Daily Mirror Crime Bureau. Both were ex-Met officers. One a huge, self-important man with crinkly black hair. The other I remember as also large but less pleased with himself, and quite happy to have a beginner at his elbow.  When a body was discovered on Wimbledon Common one morning, the crime reporter and I were sent off to cover the story. It was quickly established by the huddle of police at the scene that this was a gay killing, nothing out of the ordinary, hardly worth a line, and that the important thing was to get over to the pub before they called time. "The first thing you need to find out on any case is which pub the police are drinking at," was the tip I was given if I wanted to be a crime reporter. In the saloon bar of a Wimbledon watering hole, my mentor and his former police colleagues settled down for a steady mid-day drinking session. The murder was hardly mentioned. Mostly the conversation was about the Met - what so and so was up to and what wotsisname was doing now. The drinking went on well beyond time.  Finally, at about 4.30pm the reporter found his car and wove back to High Holborn. Back in the office, he struggled to push triplicate copy paper into his Bluebird, hit a few keys, missed most. Finally he gave up. "Get us the PA story, will you", he muttered. The result was a couple of paragraphs from the Daily Mirror Crime Bureau, summarising the Press Association's account of the incident. Innocent days.