From Drinking for England

Pre-title images show Ami and Kerry, the ‘Maidens from Maidenhead’ of Drinking for England after a few drinks – on v/o Tony says: ‘It’s the national disease and the national drug!’

‘Shaun, that’s me! – a protagonist from Drinking for England.

Shaun at home with wife Barbara ‘who works a double shift to keep the house afloat.’

‘Shaun, that’s me! Who’s only exercise in life is running up a tab…'

‘…whose old man taught him booze when he was 12, and that was that.’

Tony: ‘Drinking is what we do!’

The street where working-class sherry-drinker Jane lives.

Jane: ‘I’m 38 now, and I knew one day would come when everything has to change…’

Jane’s son [with his grandmother]: ‘When she’s been drinking…I just never know what to do…’

Tony sings: ‘Thinking’s a beautiful thing for a man…’

‘Thinks from a bottle, thinks from a can.’

Counselor in the rehab center: ‘Do you feel you’d want to self-harm, Jane?’

Ami on her night out drinking with her friend…

…Kerry – who downs it in one.

Barbara, Shaun’s long-suffering wife, who doesn’t think he’s got ‘a real alcoholic problem.’

Denis, an English drinker ‘in my sunset days’…

…and his sunset days English garden.


Denis’s wife Jill: ‘Any chance of a drink, old bean?’

Donna: ‘Every day, corner shop/ First one down, comes back up.’

The words of Donna’s poem are reinforced graphically.

Donna’s children play in a garden very different from Denis’ big yard.

Jane’s counselor in v/o: ‘Do you want to change your lifestyle, Jane?’

Exercise in the rehab center’s pool.

Jane: ‘Sometimes I feel ashamed of things I’ve done when I’ve been drinking…’

‘Sherry’s the one with the nut-brown eyes/ One full of promise, one full of lies.’

‘Sherry and me, we’re a fact of life/ I’m a widow to sherry as well as a wife.’

Jane, returned home from rehab…

…tries to answer her son’s question: ‘What I didn’t understand was why you used to drink?'

‘So open your wallets and pay for a round/ When the Maidens from Maidenhead roll into town!’

Shaun, finishing his evening in the pub with vodkas.

Shaun at 12 o’clock: ‘might be dodgy on his pins but never drops…’

Barbara: ‘…whose wife descends at closing time…before he pops!’


Giving voice
Performance and authenticity
in the documentary musical

by Derek Paget and Jane Roscoe

Documusical: a "seriously playful" form

We have consistently argued in our work for the value and importance of popular forms that mix documentary and drama. We see the hybrid forms developed by television’s factual program makers not as a threat to "documentary proper" but rather as an exploration of its borders with other modes of representation. Exploration does not always mean colonization; it can also mean discovery and the opening of new horizons. We have claimed elsewhere that the best of the hybrids transform and illuminate documentary. We are suspicious of the critical lockstep that insists "dumbing down" is the only effect of recent developments in popular factual television.[1]

The subject of this article is the television "documentary musical" (or "documusical"). We use this term to describe television documentaries that use purpose-composed verse, music and song within a documentary setting. Four documentary musicals are currently extant: Drinking for England (1998), Feltham Sings (2002), Pornography the Musical (2003), and Songbirds (2003). All were directed by Brian Hill for Century Films, a London-based company. There are plans for at least one more. Hill is keen to make this one outside the UK (possibly in the USA, possibly at Angola Prison in Louisiana – where he has already done preliminary research).

We make a distinction between "documentary musical" and "musical documentary." Our view is that the latter term better describes films that feature music centrally in the diegesis or narrative (like D.A. Pennebaker’s 1966 Don’t Look Back). The U.S. has been slow to recognize the documusical. A recent HBO film Showgirls: Glitz and Angst, which explored the onstage and backstage lives of Las Vegas showgirls, was suggested to us as a possible example. However, by our definition this seems to have been a "musical documentary." It featured music and song, both in rehearsal and performance, but these were part of a pre-existing Las Vegas show, not purpose-composed.[2]

Brian Hill and his collaborators have pioneered an innovative form more provocative in many ways even than the mock-documentaries discussed by Jane Roscoe and Craig Hight in Faking It (2001). These jokey films are, after all, partly predicated on understandings of traditional observational documentary practices. As for the film and television docudramas discussed in Derek Paget’s No Other Way To Tell It (1998) and Steven N. Lipkin’s Real Emotional Logic (2002), these films begin to look positively respectable, even staid, when set against the documusical. Clearly, a "not a proper documentary" argument can be mounted against the form, but we believe it deserves to be taken seriously as documentary. We will argue that the documusical should be regarded as "seriously playful – playful in form; serious in content."[3]

Sound, word, music

The image has been a major analytical focus for film studies from its inception as a field of study. Academic writing on documentary film has similarly taken analysis of the image, with its indexical link to a pro-filmic historical referent, as a first principle. This has meant that analysis of sound, word, and music in film generally and in documentary particularly, while certainly not negligible, has been a relatively under-researched area. The activities of the microphone ear are somewhat sparingly treated in comparison with those of the film and video camera eye, whether the object of study is the feature or the documentary film. A mere glance at the chapter heads and indexes in any of the founding texts of documentary studies will bear this out.[4]

A further illustration of this neglect is furnished by the "Visible Evidence" international conference on documentary film and video. Over the past ten years, there has been one panel on music (San Francisco 1998) and none on sound.[5] It is not that the community of documentary scholars has failed to recognize sound’s inherent importance within the documentary experience. To give just one example from a founding text, Bill Nichols observes:

"The centrality of argument gives the sound track particular importance in documentary…. [It] relies heavily on the spoken word." (1991: 20,21 – our emphasis)

The visual has held a dominant fascination for scholars (the fact that the conference series is called "Visible Evidence" also bears out our contention).

Rick Altman’s 1992 collection Sound Theory Sound Practice tried to redress the balance a little. In it, he coined the important term "point-of-audition" to counter-balance the concept of "point-of-view." In classic film drama, he argued:

"We are asked not to hear, but to identify with someone who will hear for us. Instead of giving us the freedom to move about the film’s space at will, this technique locates us in a very specific place – the body of the character who hears for us." (1992: 60).

"Hollywood," Altman concludes, "uses the sound track to anchor the body to a single continuous experience" (62, again our emphasis).

More recently, Gianluca Sergi has argued that new sound recording technology and reproduction systems in high-tech multiplexes have done more than just "anchor" an essentially visual experience – they have transformed the auditor at a Hollywood movie into a species of "super-listener":

"a being (not to be found in nature) able to hear sounds that in reality would not be audible or would sound substantially duller."[6]

In documentary, how much more situating is a sound experience that carries rational argument? How much more a figure for alignment if not identification is the pro-filmic thinking auditor centering and ordering that argument? Often this individual is the filmmaker, putting questions to "characters" at the point-of-view’s very point-of audition.

In Altman’s collection there is one essay, by Jeffrey K. Ruoff, on documentary. Ruoff draws attention to the trade-off found necessary in television documentary. There is, he argues, a basic narrative intelligibility required by audiences in popular television of all kinds. It is carried principally by the sound track. For television documentary, this has had important repercussions, because classic observational film documentary favors a lack of clarity in location sound that can make films difficult to follow. "Fuzzy sound" has come to be read as authentic – seeming to be as "pro-sonic" as the documentary film image is "pro-filmic."[7] In TV documentary, this lack of clarity tends to be acknowledged in a kind of quotation of documentary convention. But is almost always softened as an effect. Intelligibility is rarely threatened (1992: 224-5).

Television documentary’s bias towards intelligibility ensures a greater control at the point-of-audition, effected primarily through speech (via, for example, presentational voiceover, direct address, and interview) but also through graphics (borrowing from television news codes). Music, as in drama, has a linking/ commentating function, driving narrative and providing emotional texture. As John Corner has observed, music in documentary "greatly intensifies our engagement with…images" (2005: 245 – our emphasis). Apart from graphics, linked strongly to speech, these techniques maximize intelligibility through sound for a less forgiving living-room audience. The documusical extends these aspects of control, comment and emotional color through its use of purpose-composed song.

Songs go beyond background music in heightening and intensifying the experiences being documented, in creating "space around" the documentary subjects or "characters." The overt theatricalization introduced through songs in documusical connects with Ruoff’s analysis of the 1973 US TV series An American Family. He compares Craig Gilbert’s famous program with Thornton Wilder’s meta-theatrical stage play Our Town (1938). In both works, he argues, "everyday events" and the characters inhabiting them are transformed so that "their ordinary significance [is] heightened." The "Stage Manager" in Wilder’s play thrusts on-stage events beyond their immediate naturalistic frame, comments reflexively in Brechtian direct address, and brings Wilder’s characters into a (then) new theatrical relation to their audience. In the TV documentary, it is not simply the direct witness of camera and tape recorder that presents the Louds’ lives. In marked deviations from observational film norms, the producer/director himself intervenes via direct scene- and attitude-setting narration and his "characters" also give perspectival voiceover narration (230-1).

Brian Hill and the documentary musical

The songs in Hill’s documusicals work in a similar way to "make strange" moments in his films. Indeed, they effect even greater heightening, even greater extension beyond the naturalism expected of television documentary just because they are songs. An especially provocative shift in spectator-position occurs at the moments when participants in documentary musical shift from documentary interviewee to musical performer. At such production nodes we are suddenly cut free from a conventional point-of-audition/point-of-view and aligned in an altogether new way with the documentary subject.

Thus, the sound track in this sub-genre is so fundamental both to the experience and to the information offered through it that it demands exegesis. In the context of her writing on Reality TV, Jane Roscoe has drawn attention to moments she calls "flickers of authenticity," in which the mask of performance falls away from the Reality TV contestant/ participant. Her phrase deliberately recalls Barthes’ notion of the "punctum" and Brecht’s "alienation effect." But the "event of the song" in documusical produces a kind of obverse effect to Reality TV's flickers of authenticity, abruptly breaking away as it does from the conventions of documentary and accelerating into, rather than out of, something altogether more theatrical. There is definitely a "flicker" here, but one signaling a new kind of life – that of performance.[8]

An example: in Hill’s first documusical Drinking for England, the very first song (lyrics: Simon Armitage; music: Michael Conn) occurs some fourteen minutes into the film when forty-year old Tony suddenly sings! Previously seen in conventional "talking head" interview he stands now, beer in hand, in front of a closed-down shop singing jauntily:

"Thinking’s a beautiful thing for a man,
Thinks from a bottle, thinks from a can."

The visuals to his song then montage this urban backdrop with its graffiti with scenes in the pub, a fish-eye lens thrusting the singer forward from his working-class fellow drinkers, just like a music video would. The performance, like others in the film, does not hide a "real" self, but rather enables, enacts, the version of himself he seems most comfortable to own. The self-mockery of the song’s words means he performs his drink addiction with unexpected self-knowledge and self-confidence. Take my attitude to drinking or leave it, he seems to say. His conventional pieces-to-camera are suddenly lifted to a new level of overt performance.

Whenever we show the film to students, there is usually laughter at this point – both song and singer are so unexpected. This is a documentary about drink, yet Tony is happy to be a drinker. A frisson goes through our student audiences, the moment of pure surprise effecting an almost palpable exhilaration, expressed invariably through delighted chuckles. The space Hill makes through the device of song for this appreciative laughter is a formal reminder that constructing people as victims can sometimes say more about watchers than subjects. Trailing a history of sober (sic!) discourse, any documentary on drinking almost has to disapprove. We think that is why our students laugh. Documusical capitalizes on audience expectations of TV documentary, and takes a significant step into full-blown performance in order to deconstruct conventional expectations.[9]

Hill and his company Century Films also make "documentary proper" and drama. Like any innovatory form, the documusicals have provoked discussion and doubt. As far as the filmmaker himself is concerned, doubts about category only irritate. To him, the documusicals are first and foremost documentaries:

"Some people are quite snobbish about the documentary musicals that we do. The Amsterdam Documentary Festival wouldn’t accept them – I’ve never had anything [like this] accepted at Hot Dox in Toronto, or at any American festival."

His best-known film is the 2002 theatrical release Nobody Someday. This featured the singer Robbie Williams:

"Amsterdam accepted the Robbie Williams film but not Feltham Sings – which is a much better film. They took the Robbie Williams because they knew it would play to packed houses – which it did. It sold out every time they showed it."[10]

In 2003 Feltham Sings was thought good enough for BAFTA (the British Academy of Film and Television Art) to give it the Flaherty Award. Century had success in the USA with Facemakers (made for BBC1 and Discovery in 2000). This won the US Circle of Excellence Media Award for "Best Medical Documentary" and was also a finalist in the 2001 New York Film Festival’s "Best Humanitarian Documentary" category. But Hill did not direct the film, nor was it controversial.[11] In summer 2005 Hill was a little bitter about what he called "the cartel that runs international documentary festivals." There seemed to him to be a determination to ignore what he regarded as his best work. We also deplore the failure of festival curators to make space for the documusical. This failure of nerve ended in winter 2005 when the Sundance Festival decided to include Songbirds in its 2006 program.[12]

Saturday Night (1996)

An early hint of something different was Hill’s Saturday Night, made for BBC2’s Modern Times series in 1996. It portrayed the Northern English city of Leeds during the classic (sometimes rather dour and joyless) English pursuit of "Saturday Night Fun." Hill collaborated on this film for the first time with a young Yorkshire poet and novelist, Simon Armitage. Armitage told us:

"We wanted the city to have a voice – a sort of "time-code voice." We found an ‘author’s voice’ could say things you might be afraid of saying in a documentary."

Asked to write a poetic narration Armitage was free, he says, "to look…at an image [in the film], go spiraling off and just crank up the imagery" in the poetry he composed.

In one section of this black and white film, there is a sequence of splendid poetic excess in a tracking shot of a boy on a bike. The film cuts to a cat slinking through Victorian iron railings, seen from the boy’s point-of-view. Armitage’s voiceover transforms the dour Leeds landscape into a jungle, the boy’s field of adventure. The ordinary domestic cat becomes the nobility of its species, a Bengal tiger. By such means filmmaker and poet create what Armitage calls "a fantasy life in the film." This meshes and clashes with the fantasies of a city’s Saturday Night people, providing color and ironic comment.

Although innovative, this film is easily classifiable as a "reflexive documentary." Its quirky "voice" is not unlike, say, Ross McElwee’s in his 1986 Sherman’s March. It would fit, too, into the older historical category of "poetic documentary." In Harry Watt’s 1936 Night Mail, for example, W. H. Auden’s verse accompanies the closing sequence and transforms the final stages of a mundane postal train journey. But, still seeking something new, the Armitage/Hill collaboration moved beyond poetry into song in their next film.

Drinking for England (1998)

Drinking for England (transmitted on BBC2 in 1998) addresses a social issue – alcohol over-use (we want to avoid the word "abuse"). For the participants (we want to avoid "subjects") their relationship to alcohol is certainly a troubled one, and the film documents plenty of evidence of this. But acknowledged as a vital part of their "trouble" is the sheer pleasure some of them take in what others would automatically construct as a vice requiring treatment (not to say censure). Hill avoids the label "alcoholic": "I just don’t think it’s my job to make moral judgments on people," he told the 2004 Sydney Symposium. Instead he offers a series of layered portraits through which the audience sees both the fragilities and the paradoxical strengths of his drinker protagonists.

In the opening section, we meet most of the characters. Drinking, Tony from Birmingham says in a piece to camera, is "what we do." The "we" clearly means the working-class men often seen around him in his favorite neighborhood pub. For Londoner Shaun, too, the "public house" is his natural habitat. The characters' performances (Shaun’s in verse, Tony’s in song) reference a set of emphatically British pub culture discourses. Drinking is a social activity, a way of escaping the boredom of working-class life, a way of interacting with others, a way of having fun. The pub is a place that offers opportunities to perform in a variety of ways. Tony not only sings his song for the film, he is also shown singing lustily over the credits – the pub involved in a folk-song session.

We also meet some women in the opening sequence, three out of four of them drinkers. There is Jane (about to enter onto a rehabilitation program), twenty-somethings Ami and Kerry (the "Maidens from Maidenhead" in their poem), and Shaun’s long-suffering wife Barbara. Later, we meet others, such as upper class Denis. There is also sad-eyed Donna, the "Cider Girl" of her poem. Verse speaking is backed by music in the way of the jazz and poetry sessions favored in some English pubs. There are, in fact, just two songs in the film – Tony’s and Jane’s. Ami and Kerry, and Shaun and Barbara all present themselves partly through verse, as does Denis later in the film. Donna’s sequence, which occurs thirty minutes in, even draws formal attention to the poetry by superimposing her words on the screen.[13]

The Drinking for England participants do not seem to us to turn away from themselves, but rather to be "self-fashioners" through the extension of their conventional pieces-to-camera into verse and song. Like Irvine Welsh’s junkies in the 1996 novel Trainspotting, their troublesome identities do not fit socially approved stereotypes, and they celebrate this. Also like Welsh’s characters, they reveal a more complex identity through their idiolect – the "voice" that characterizes them with its tones, word-choices and distinctive phraseology. Verse and song take the idiolect beyond their "normal" speaking voice. Conventional modalities of voice are thus extended and expanded. Within these developed modalities of voice, new levels of character are revealed (rather in the way soliloquy in drama and aria in opera halt narrative in order to progress character).

Jane, the character who goes into rehab, was crucial to the development of a methodology moving from verse to song. Hill and Armitage had discussed writing songs, but it was Jane who actually suggested it. Earlier in her life she had been part of a local Gilbert and Sullivan light opera group. She had enjoyed singing. It was part of who she was before drinking became an issue in her life. In the film, we see her go into rehab to try to break her addiction. She wants actively to rediscover and reclaim a self unaffected by drink and to take that back to her young son (she is a single mother). Singing her story, and consciously referencing a previous life, becomes an indicator of her desire to return to a self that she seeks to "re-inhabit."[14]

Her song "Sherry and Me" occurs some thirty-eight minutes into the film. It becomes part of the expression of her resolve to stop drinking. The lyric is disturbing, the musical style mournfully minor key. A kind of love song to her preferred drink, the bleak lyric tells of a woman trapped by addiction. Suspended in a kind of half-life in the closed world of the center, her performance allows her an expanded "song self." In terms of the film’s dynamic the song puts her into a different, dramatic, "circle of attention." It is in a different emotional register because it references "non-documentary" forms of representation – the musical "character song" or the melancholy popular ballad.[15]

The song sequence ends with an interview with her counselor that rehearses the mental means by which she must try to hold on to a "dry" post-rehab self. Outside the center, on her own again, Alcoholics Anonymous mantras must stand between her and alcohol:

"COUNSELOR: What do you believe your disease is, Jane?
JANE: Well, it’s alcoholism.
JANE: And it’s a disease I’ll have for the rest of me life.

Like any recovering alcoholic, she is encouraged to admit her weakness in order to control it 'one day at a time':

JANE: I can imagine pouring [a drink]. I can imagine drinking it. But I’ll do it tomorrow. I won’t do it today."

In moments such as this one we are not very far from "documentary proper." Jane’s speaking voice is heard, not for the first time. The region she comes from, Lancashire, heavily accents her speaking, but not her singing, voice. The two voices combine to offer a very different, nuanced kind of documentary representation.

In general, the performances in Drinking for England are underplayed. They are more obviously linked to a conventional documentary evidential than the other documusicals. Mises-en-scène are not fabricated and there is much in the film that is straightforwardly observational. In the above dialogue sequence, the camera tracks from counselor to Jane and back again in the kind tight close-ups familiar to the genre from the "Direct Cinema" 1960s onwards. Pro-filmically, and more importantly pro-sonically, the sequences before and after both Tony’s song and "Sherry and Me" could not be more conventionally observational. For the latter, transitions are effected smoothly from a situating opening shot of the rehab center, into Jane’s song and on to the interview. The two songs, however, took Hill’s work a significant step outside and beyond familiar modes of documentary address.

Continued: Feltham Sings

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