Have TV Documentaries Become Too Intrusive?

Reality TV documentaries: providing an intimate look we never asked for…

I wouldn’t say I was an avid TV watcher, especially now university has taken over my life and I spend most evenings complaining I’ve got too much work and not doing any of it. But a trailer caught my eye the other day, and I felt it was worthy of a column as my feelings are quite strong on the subject.

The trailer in question was for ITV’s new two-part documentary ‘Broadmoor’. In case you’re unaware, Broadmoor Hospital is a high-security psychiatric hospital with most patients there either having been convicted of serious crimes or been found unfit to plead in a trial for such crimes.

Recently, it appears there’s been an influx of documentaries such as this on television, with less controversial series such as the ‘Educating…’ series on Channel 4, which whilst being highly entertaining and nominated for many awards (particularly for its ‘Educating Yorkshire’ series last year) I can’t help feeling it’s reached its end. When the cameras are set up in the next school, wherever that may be, it can probably be assumed that the teenagers will know the format and know they’re being watched. I have mixed feelings about the series, because although it’s really interesting to see the similarities between schools, and some of the individual stories are inspiring (see Musharaf in ‘Educating Yorkshire’), I can’t help but feel that it can only lead to more problems in the classroom with kids playing up to the cameras.

Similarly, as TV producers now feel we should be able to view every part of daily life condensed into handy 60 minute episodes, comes the onslaught of medical documentaries such as ‘24 Hours in A&E’ and ‘One Born Every Minute’, which have proved quite popular with audiences thus far. What I find highly interesting, is that people will happily watch a stranger giving birth on television, but kick up a fuss when Robbie Williams live-tweets the birth of his new son. I can fully understand how this may be interpreted as a hugely subjective viewpoint, and is probably highly skewed by my incapability to watch ‘gory’ television, but I just don’t see the point in watching people at their most intimate and private moments.

Following on from this is my objection to the new Broadmoor documentary. I can see the attraction; people want to figure out what makes criminals do what they do, they need to find a reason to separate them from society, it’s why there are so many Channel 5 documentaries about murderers. But I feel this one is a step too far.

There’s a reason why these people are not in a standard prison; they’ve been diagnosed as having a severe mental illness, so I feel more than a little unsure about them being on display like animals in a zoo when they are at their most vulnerable, for the entire world to gawp at. I had similar feelings when Channel 4 showed their documentary ‘Bedlam’ last year; this was a 4-part series following patients and staff at the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and after watching the first episode I just couldn’t bring myself to watch anymore. It was painful to see how these people’s lives had been ruined by their mental illnesses, and I felt like I didn’t have the right to be able to stare at these people and watch them as they suffered through their days. I can completely understand the argument that these programmes can help people’s understanding of mental illness, and discourage the stigma attached to it, but I can’t help but feel that these series go the wrong way about this. ‘Bedlam’ in particular felt like it was edited to show the patient’s ‘funniest’ moments; such as the man who had to do any act repeatedly due to his crippling OCD, or the patient who had his life torn apart by his anxiety concerning going to the toilet. I believe there are better and less intrusive ways to help fight the stigma of mental illness, and endless documentaries isn’t the right tactic for this.

’Broadmoor’ differs from ‘Bedlam’ in that the people covered in the programme are mostly criminals, and I believe this only makes matters worse. Even if you believe that since they’ve committed crimes they are no longer entitled to their privacy, then think of their victims or their victim’s families. To know that people are able to watch interviews with criminals and their psychiatrists when they may openly talk about their crimes and reveal previously unknown details must be an unbearable experience.

Overall, I just don’t see the attraction in such documentaries. In my opinion they’re no better than placing mentally ill patients in a glass box and letting people queue up to poke them with a stick.

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