Published on: 10 March 2022 in Industry
“A permanent education”: Remembering Roger Graef
Reading time: 36 minutes and 18 seconds
We were deeply saddened to hear of the recent passing of Roger Graef. A Directors UK member and a hugely influential figure in the world of documentaries, Roger blazed a trail as a founding member of the Directors and Producers Rights Society (DPRS) — which would go on to become a part of Directors UK.
A native New Yorker, Roger trained in theatre before moving to the UK in 1962, where he would direct or produce over 160 films and programmes. Through his documentary career, he became known for his adoption of a “fly on the wall” style and his desire to challenge audiences and spread awareness of overlooked issues. His career was bold and wide-ranging, moving from directing the first Secret Policeman’s Ball and producing the first Comic Relief, to creating eye-opening works such as Police and State Of The Nation: A Law In The Making — which are still discussed inside our institutions today.
In recognition of his work, Roger was awarded a BAFTA Fellowship for Lifetime Achievement in 2004, and an OBE in 2006. At a BAFTA tribute evening held in his honour in 2014, Roger produced a twelve-point manifesto for filmmakers and commissioners — which you can read here.
Roger cared about directors and the art of directing, and it was in this spirit that he gave his keynote address at The Directors’ Festival 2017, in front of a rapt crowd of Directors UK members. In a speech that was as expansive as his career, Roger shared filmmaking wisdom from a lifetime devoted to directing, which he looked upon as a “permanent education” — and spilled the beans on brushes with Hollywood megastars, the secret service, and high-flying politicians in the process.
You can read an abridged transcript of Roger’s speech at The Directors’ Festival 2017 below.
I’m old enough to remember the beginning of the Director’s Guild and how necessary it was. I started out as a theatre director, but I also was chosen, at an absurdly young age, by CBS, to direct drama. I was 23, I think.
I wanted to join the Director’s Guild in America, and I can still remember I was paid the princely sum of $500, or $1000, for my work — but the union dues were something like $2000. I remember going to see this guy who was straight out of On The Waterfront, really, and I said, ‘Look, I would like to join, but actually it’s twice as much money as I’m getting paid by CBS.’ He said, ‘What’s the matter? Are you anti-union?’ I said, ‘Actually, no, but—’ anyway, that’s then and this is now. I came to England. They haven’t come after me for the rest of that money.
“Storytelling is the thing that got me into documentaries.
I was in the theatre for a while, and it was important because it gave me the chance to learn about storytelling. That really, I think, has guided a lot of the work that I’ve done ever since, and storytelling is the thing that got me into documentaries.”
I did a play off Broadway, and my agent had arranged that someone from the Actor’s Studio would come and see it. This guy — Fred Stewart his name was — was an old character actor. Afterwards, I said, ‘What do you think Fred, is that okay?’ He said, ‘No, it was terrible. It was overacted. It was completely stagey. There was no reality to it at all.’ This was the kind of moment I wanted to share with you, because if it happens to you, I suggest this is the kind of answer you should give: instead of telling him that I disagreed, the critics disagreed, I just said, ‘That’s terrible. How do I learn to do it better?’
He said, ‘You better come to the Actor’s Studio.’ That’s how I got in as an observer — and it meant that when I came to England I had done quite a lot of plays by then. I’d done 24-25 plays, and a couple of TV dramas, and I managed to get a play when I got off the boat, to direct at the Royal Court, entirely by chance. I was much too arrogant, to be honest, at 26-27, because I’d never had a proper failure, except for his reaction to the first play… and then I had a real flop.
That flop so shook me, and it came at the end of a year of promises of West End, and Broadway, and a movie, and so on, that I went and I called the Thalidomide Society, and I said, ‘Do you want a benefit at The Palladium?’ They said, ‘No, we don’t want that. All we want is a short film showing the head teachers of infant schools that our kids may not have arms of legs but they have brains, and they can cope.’ I said, ‘Okay.’
More or less at the same time, I had seen a film about the south United States. I grew up as a New York liberal on the east coast, thinking everybody in the south had horns and tails if they were white. There was a scene in that of an almost 10-minute long interview of 2 rednecks in Georgia, talking about how they felt, and how they felt their world was collapsing, and all these people coming from the North telling them how to live. There was no commentary in the film, and I was really struck, with my Actor’s Studio training, about how direct our connection was to these characters, and to the experience of the South.
When I had the chance to do the Thalidomide film, I started out with a Brechtian idea about the handicap, and a friend of mine, called Bill Morton, who ran Man Alive at that time, read this and said, ‘Absolute garbage. Propaganda rubbish. Tell the story of being a child with no arms for an intelligent 9-year-old, and get out of the way.’ So I did. I just found the nicest kid I could find. His name was Brett Nielsen. He was 4. A very independent boy already at 4. He fed himself with his feet, and fought with his brothers, and washed the dishes with his feet. That turned out to be so shocking, this simple little film — called One of them is Brett — that it ended up on ABC television in America, and in Australia, the BBC, Canadian TV, and so on. It ended up in the medical school curriculum because the doctors had never seen these kids at home. They’d only seen them as patients, and victims. I just thought, ‘This is it. Round peg, round hole. I learnt something through the camera. I shared it with the audience. It changed the way people thought about these kids. That’s what I want to do with my life.’
“Don’t ask people to do things you wouldn’t do yourself. Treat them with the respect you want for yourself. Allow yourself room to fail.”
It was this fusion of storytelling and observation, and keeping yourself out of the experience, that I enjoyed. That has been my principle as a director ever since, and a producer. Earlier, Andrew (Chowns) kindly referred to this manifesto I set out, in a tribute that BAFTA kindly gave me. Rather than going through the points, I’ll just say they’re on the BAFTA website, if you want to read them. They are, basically: don’t ask people to do things you wouldn’t do yourself. Treat them with the respect you want for yourself. Allow yourself room to fail. It was also addressed to commissioners. They could give us the space to try things, and to fail. The worst of all is an exec for an observational film saying, ‘Tell us exactly what’s going to be in this film before you’ve even considered shooting it.’ That’s a contradiction in terms. Those principles, and that failure, was tremendously helpful to me, and every time I have had a failure, it’s changed my life for the better. In the 90s, I was literally down to the last two to run Channel 4, and I was on the longlist to be Director General — and it was a complete catastrophe avoided, because I didn’t get the jobs. I was lucky, because it took me back to directing.
What I wanted to just mention before I run through the journey I’ve been on, is the difference between directing and producing, and the status of directors, that the Director’s Guild has fought so hard for over the years. In drama, I think it’s a good deal worse than it is in documentaries, and I hope it’s improving but I’m not sure. I remember a BAFTA session for drama directors in which people were getting really experienced at saying, ‘I can’t choose the crew. I don’t work on the script. I’m brought in to just position the camera. I don’t even do the edit necessarily.’ That is not my idea of directing, I have to tell you, but I also don’t believe in the mad genius director either — although there are some. I’m certainly not one of them. I am part of a team. That was the first lesson I learned when I started directing documentaries. I remember a wonderful Canadian guy who was my first cameraman. I had come from the theatre where the director is king, really — but he said, ‘Right, first lesson is, you carry the tripod.’ I then realised that it was quite right, and the second lesson was, ‘find out where we’re going to eat for lunch’, and third, ‘where do we park the car?’
In all these years of film-making, I try and use the same people, and we build a relationship which is completely collaborative. That doesn’t always sit with the way commissioning editors, or producers, and execs think. I’m very proud to say that I’m the first person that brought an editor to a screening, if you can believe that. I said, ‘He’s the editor. We’re going to do this film together.’ On another film, I said ‘Look, I’m bringing the whole crew.’ They said, ‘What do you mean you’re bringing the whole crew? There are only 3 chairs.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s it. We did the film together. They’re coming.’ I really believe in this stuff. This notion that cameramen and editors are interchangeable, and who’s available, and so on, I think that not only is a loss of continuity, and understanding, and shorthand, but it’s a complete insult to what they bring to the table.
I just had a lot of fun in those days. I made a film about the Grand National, which was supposed to be the last of the Nationals, in 1965. I was following three horses, and the BBC came in and got the winner. Anyway, we had to salvage something, because I had 23 cameras through the BBC’s own hookup, and two more of my own cameras following our horse that we had chosen, this Irish horse, and somebody else in the stands with the owner. At the end of it, because the horse fell at the last minute, all I had was a 6-second shot of our horse, from 25 cameras. I had to deliver the film in about a month. I said, ‘Okay, what we do have on one of our cameras is the jockey seeing his mate in a wheelchair on his way into the race, and then coming out, saying, “I’m sorry he fell at the end” to the owner, who’s come down from the stands.’ It’s a great jockey, if you like racing, called Pat Taaffe. The friend says, “Well Pat, at least you’re safe.”
“I just hope, in the conversations you have, that you get the kind of support and independence that you need, and fight for it. That’s what authorship looks like.”
So, I then completely converted the film into a film about danger on the racetrack, and went back to Ireland. Our chosen horse had horse flu as well, so we had no pictures of him either. I had to put together this film with singing in the Kildare race track, in the bars, and Irish republican songs. Total bullshit, frankly, but, at the end of it, they liked it. I was told: ‘I think you’ve got a future as a documentary director, if you can rescue disasters like that one.’ That’s another principle which I’ve had, and shared. Obviously, if you do observational films, unstaged, like I do, it is a problem when you miss the shot. There is no take two. You have to be resourceful, and that challenge is what directors do. No producer, no executive producer, or no commissioning editor, understands that dilemma right on the spot. I just hope, in the conversations you have, that you get the kind of support and independence that you need, and fight for it. That’s what authorship looks like. It isn’t mad genius stuff. It’s rescuing disasters. It’s covering shots that didn’t work, or that you didn’t work.
To me, being a director is just a permanent education. I went on to make a film with John Houston, and it was too ambitious for the money we had from the CBC. The BBC had already seen some of my films, and said, ‘We want to work with you,’ and so did PBS in New York, and I said, ‘I’ll make the same film for all 3 of you.’ At that point, nobody had done co-productions. Drama had, but nobody else had. I came up with one little idea which seemed to make a difference, and that was that if you don’t like the version I create for everybody else, just pay the difference, and we’ll make your version. We ended up making a 90-minute for the Americans and the BBC, and a 30-minute version for the CBC. That was the first co-production.
Making the Houston film, there were two interesting moments. One was Houston had done a film called The Bible, in Rome, and he was a fantastically glamorous character — so he was offered an opera to do at La Scala. He didn’t read music, he didn’t speak Italian, and the opera that he chose was Richard Rodney Bennett’s The Mines of Sulphur. Anyone who knows about Italian opera-goers will know they hate foreigners and they hate new music. There’s Houston, without language or music, wandering into this hornet’s nest. In the few days beforehand, the American soprano and the baritone had been flirting, and the Italian baritone’s wife was in the audience trying to make sure she didn’t run off with her husband. At one point in the opera, the soprano grabs his knee, and the baritone is pulling away, and so on, and the wife has a fit in audience. Of course for me, this is fabulous. We’re filming all of this, and Houston doesn’t understand a word of what’s happening because it’s in Italian. By this time, I’m doing the sound because we couldn’t afford a sound man. It’s so gripping, and I’m so absorbed that I run out of tape. If you know Milan, there’s the great arcade very nearby, and I say to Charles Stewart, who I was shooting with: ‘Just watch. Let’s hope it keeps going. I’m going to get some more tape.’
I rush out, and in the arcade there is an electronic shop, but they only have 9-inch spools, not 6-inch spools, and the huge recording thing which I had in those days had to function with the lid open. When I came back, they were still fighting, screaming, and so on. It’s all fantastic. Then suddenly they stop, and they start laughing, and they point to me and say, ‘Spaghetti, spaghetti!’… and my tape was running out onto the stage. That seemed to settle their argument.
On opening night, we had this terrific moment when we’re backstage, and there’s Ava Gardner, and people like that, and I just think, ‘This is heaven.’ The guy who runs it is so grateful to us for not having huge crews. We were nice and friendly. We’re sitting in black tie, in the front row, because they gave us tickets to film the opera, and he comes up in the interval, and says, ‘In the next interval, would you like to go out on stage with Mr Houston for the curtain call?’ I said, ‘Are you kidding? Of course, it’s heaven.’ In the opera, in the intervals, they only open the curtain slightly before the big one. Out comes the singers, out comes Houston, and then we come out. In those days, the cable between the camera and the recorder is an actual cable. It’s before wireless.
He hadn’t told the stage manager. The stage managers are looking, and you can see this in the shot in the film, the audience, all this grand opening at La Scala, they’re like, ‘What?’ It’s inconceivable that a film crew would come out as part of the curtain call. It’s completely nothing to do with anything. Moreover, the hired cheering section hated the opera, and they were screaming from the upper gallery, throwing programmes that had been made into paper darts. Houston, not speaking Italian, is just loving it. The stage manager leaps out and grabs me, because I’m nearest to him, and I’ve got the microphone. I’ve said to Charles, ‘Pan the golden horseshoe,’ because they’re all throwing things, and it’s all fabulous from up there. The stage manager is dragging me in front of this entire opening night audience, offstage, and the camera, as Charles is finishing the pan, is getting tighter, and tighter, and tighter. Just as he finishes the pan, the cable goes like this, and we all get pulled off the stage. Heaven, absolute heaven. I was having fantastic fun.
There’s another scene from making that film I must share with you — but it wasn’t fun.
We filmed Houston on the set of Reflections in the Golden Eye, with Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. It was a closed set. Ray Stark was the producer, and when he found out that I was making this film for the CBC, BBC, and PBS, in black and white, he said, ‘I’ve sold it in NBC in colour. I want you to scrap the contract with them and carry on making it in colour for NBC. It’ll be the making of you kid.’ I said, ‘I can’t possibly do that. These are my friends. I’ve promised. I’m halfway through the film.’ Stark really was a Hollywood killer agent. He’s really tough. I said, ‘I don’t think this is right.’ He said, ‘How much are you paying John?’ I said, ‘Nothing. This is a documentary.’ He said, ‘So, you’re getting paid by all these guys,’ yes, about 10 bucks, ‘And you’re depriving Houston of thousands. I think we should talk about it.’
Imagine the scene. About that point, how old was I? About 30, maybe 31 at the absolute most, and there was Houston, sitting behind a desk, and there was Stark on one side of the room. I’m on the other, making the case for me carrying on with the contract I had, and him saying I was depriving Houston of all this money. He was a hero of mine, Houston, but he never spoke. He never said a word. He didn’t take sides. I just thought, ‘That’s not good enough mate. I’m talking about loyalty, and principle, and sticking with what you’ve agreed.’ He never spoke. Then, because I had already agreed, which I’ve done ever since, to show the participants the finished film, I had to ring up his house in Ireland. We had been great mates, all this time, but not after that, after Stark poisoned the water. I had to drive all the way across Ireland to show him the film, in his house, his grand mansion in the west of Ireland. They said, ‘It’s good.’ That was disappointing, to put it mildly. That test of loyalty, you look at that as one of the turning points in your life. It might have been terrific for me to go to NBC, and probably, if I’d have gone there, they’d have sacked me as the director and put in somebody which they knew and trusted, which happens.
“You know how they say “f**k you” in Hollywood? “Trust me”.”
In passing, I did have a chance to go to Hollywood. That was before I became a documentary director. But years later, I did go to Hollywood and said, to an agent friend of mine, ‘I’m here for 24 hours, let’s get together. Is there anybody I should meet?’ She said, ‘Nobody comes to Los Angeles for 24 hours.’ I said, ‘I’m doing it. Guess what? I’ve got work to do back in London.’ She said, ‘This is insane,’ but I do make some contacts, and I’m offered one feature film and a television series, in this 24 hours. The feature film was called Swimming to Cambodia, by the way, and Jonathan Demme made it with Spalding Gray. I think that’s very nice, for 24 hours, to get two offers. I get back to London, and, of course, total silence. There’s this wonderful phrase which I learned while I was there. You know how they say “fuck you” in Hollywood? “Trust me”. You can write that down and keep it, and remember it any time you get the call.
When I made The Space Between Words, I was shooting in the US Senate with Charles Stewart, and I was telling him, ‘Pan right, pan left,’ and he said, ‘I’m trying to hear what they’re saying. You tell me what you want. Just shut up and I’ll do it.’ That’s when I stopped directing and started sharing with the cameraman, the authority of what to do and what to watch. We would agree what was necessary and what was important, and then Charles would shoot it. We were joined at the hip in that way, along with the sound person. We just worked together, with an understanding on a different level from what I had been doing even in those previous docs.
From that moment on, I just had the great freedom of trusting the team to get what we wanted. Out of that came for me the happiest film I ever made, and the most interesting — which was a film called Diplomacy. After a year of trying to get access, and this is typical of commissioners, they’re saying to me, ‘How about doing the Vietnam peace talks?’ I said ‘I don’t think they’re going to let us in.’ So we just tried everybody we could think of. With the border talks between Mexico and Canada and the United States, they said, ‘Yes, you can come and do that.’ I said, ‘It’ll be camera and sound.’ ‘Sound? No, no sound.’ Next, there was something called the World Power Conference, and the only decision they were going to take was changing their logo, and they said, ‘No, it’s too secret. You can’t film that.’ We had all the other 4 films shot and cut, and they were good — but we had nothing on diplomacy. Suddenly, a phone call rings in a tiny office in Kensington House, saying, ‘This is the State Department here. Would you like to come and film our UN delegation’ — this is the one below Security Council. ‘Yes. We will be sound and camera.’ The caller said, ‘Okay, that looks really encouraging. ‘Come to Washington for the briefing.’ We go to Washington. My camera assistant is Ivan Strasbourg, a South African Communist. This is 1972-73. Nixon is suing the New York Times for the Pentagon Papers in the Supreme Court, just down the road, and we’re there, unrestrained, inside the State Department, following around the people doing this, and thinking, ‘There’s something really wonderful and mad about this job.’ They’re trying to shut down The New York Times 100 metres away, and we’re just wandering around with a Communist as camera assistant, and nobody’s ever asked.
We get to Geneva with their agenda, and the big thing that was happening in those days was the change in the shift in power from the Third World, as it was called. 78 countries from the Third World wanted to have ranking on the Security Council and elsewhere. That was the big story. The press corps was rushing around Geneva every few minutes, and I kept thinking, ‘How do you follow 78 countries?’ Even if you follow one country, how do you manage to keep track of something so big? Way down on the American agenda was something called the Disaster Relief Coordinator, that was needed to stop people sending what they called “ice boxes” to Alaska for disaster relief. Everybody thought it was a great idea, and George Bush was then the ambassador to the UN. He said ‘Americans propose that the UN create this office in which the Disaster Relief Coordinator would mobilise, direct, and coordinate the other UN agencies.’
Well, the word ‘direct’, that’s how you follow 78 countries — and in this case they didn’t like it. ‘Mobilise’ and ‘coordinate’ were no problem, but nobody tells us what to do. Direct. So, the Americans come up with formulation saying, ‘A traffic cop directs traffic but doesn’t drive all the cars,’ which is a bit like ‘strong and stable’.
Of course, in three weeks, they just said it over, and over, and over, and over again. We followed all that. We were following that one word — direct — for three weeks, in and out of meetings, lifts, swimming pools, cars, as they called Washington, they called Paris, they called all over the world to see if this word would stay. Nobody in the press corps even began to understand what we were doing, but, it’s my favourite film. It’s an hour-long film about one word. At the end of the film, the French ambassador, who had been fighting it tooth and nail, misses the vote. It goes through. At the end of the whole thing, and they really have fought this hard, they’re standing outside, and the head of the Red Cross says to the head of WHO and the British Ambassador, ‘Of course, the wording doesn’t matter — it matters who does the job.’ The film was a great shaggy dog story that was then used in training by diplomats for years. As far as I know, it’s still the only one that portrayed the corridor work diplomats do — everybody’s cooking things up in the corridor while formal speeches are being made.
Because Granada had access to the government, they invited me to come and make a film called State Of The Nation: A Law In The Making. That was the beginning of my relationship with them, and we did the film inside the EU at the time of the last referendum. Then I went on to go and do the same for Decision: British Communism. That was fantastic, inside the British Communist Party, because I’d followed that for 2 years while filming inside the Attorney General’s office, so I was commuting between the Communist Party and the Attorney General’s office, never telling either side what we were doing. One day, the sound man ran out of batteries. This is King Street, where the Communist Party was, and I said, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll rush downstairs. There’s an electrical shop downstairs. I’ll get some batteries.’ I go down, and I rush in and say, ‘Can we have some batteries?’ These guys say, ‘What do you mean some batteries?’ I said, ‘Aren’t you an electrical shop?’ He said, ‘Who do you think we are? Do you know who’s upstairs’ I said, ‘Yes, the Communist Party.’ He said, ‘Well, guess who we are.’ It’s MI5. They’d set themselves up, and I tried to buy batteries from them. It didn’t work.
“I kept saying, ‘No, this is magical stuff. This is the human side of all these guys.’ Then they turned around and said, ‘Okay Granada, you’ve been here for two years. You sing.’”
The Communist Party met, after two years, for a singsong. They camped in the town hall. They fought like crazy, and, Saturday night, there was a singsong in which Mick McGahey, the Vice-President of the NUM, and many other people all sang a capella. It was really amazing stuff. The sound man, who’s completely ignorant of politics, just didn’t give a damn. I kept saying, ‘No, this is magical stuff. This is the human side of all these guys.’ Then they turned around and said, ‘Okay Granada, you’ve been here for two years. You sing.’ I don’t sing in public, to put it mildly. I don’t even sing in private. I thought, ‘Here are all these tough guys from all over the country. I know what I’ll do,’ and I sang, ‘You’ll never walk alone.’ Of course, I got through the first sentence, and they all got up and sang with me, because it’s the Liverpool football song.
That was a high point. Even better, a row had started on the Saturday, before the last day of two years of filming, and I realised it was gold. I ring Manchester and say, ‘Could I have another 30 rolls of film please?’ They say, ‘What do you mean another 30 rolls?’ I said, ‘We’ve got another film right here.’ The sweet guy, who was head of production, just said, ‘You’ve had 30 rolls for 2 years. You want 30 rolls for one day?’ I said yes. He said, ‘I’ll have to check with the bosses.’ He came back and I said, ‘My career’s on the line if I get this wrong, but I think we’ll be alright.’ In the end, they conceded, and they sent these 30 rolls down on the train. I shot with one camera, and Charles Stewart the other, and we had both sides of this ferocious row captured. We won the RTS award for best current affairs documentary with that film, shot in one day, having been there for 2 years. Part of that point was about building up trust. They trusted us. Both sides were willing to let us in, and the company was willing to let us do that, — and I’m proud of that film.
None of you are old enough to remember it, but the whole of ITV went on strike, because the pay was terrible. Six executive producers on a picket line is something I’ll remember, but my team had said, ‘Amnesty is getting together a huge group of comedians, Monty Python meets Beyond the Fringe. Why don’t we film that?’ I ring them up, and they say, ‘Great, let’s do it.’ The first one was called Pleasure At Her Majesty’s. Then we did one for ITV, which was a catastrophe, because Peter Cook got drunk, Dudley Moore didn’t turn up, Peter told the most terribly long shaggy dog story about someone who nobody knew about anyway. I was stuck with another turkey. We had to deliver 55 minutes of comedy, and, again, I managed to rescue it. Then we stopped for a while, and did Secret Policeman’s Ball. I got permission from the union, even though we were supposed to be on strike, to make that. The first clip, which, having talked for far too long already, I think I’ll show you, is not from the original film only, but a tribute, 25 years later, called Remember the Secret Policeman’s Ball. The close-up of Michael Palin, and he corpses as well, several times — you don’t see close-ups in comedy. Comedy sets the camera back, and you see 2-3 figures almost always, maybe even a single, but not close-ups. That, I think, was a kind of breakthrough.
Seeing comedy in close-up was tremendous, because it turned that whole thing into an experience, and that’s when Richard Curtis and Lenny Henry called me and said, ‘We love this. It helped to put Amnesty on the map. Would you do Comic Relief?’ That’s the approach we took in the first one. We struggled at that point, to put in any pictures from Africa at all. I put them in the end credits, because we weren’t allowed, at that point, to have it. There’s a scene I’ll never forget, which was more or less at midnight, taking the fucks out of Billy Connolly’s riff. There were 110 of them. That’s part of the directing job, to take the Us out of 110 fucks in the middle of the night. Anyway, that’s all part of life’s rich experience.
At the point at which I quit Granada, I got a call first from German television. I also — by the way — had split up with my wife, which was very painful and sad. ‘How would you like to go to South America and make a film about Nazism, and Nazis in South America?’ I thought, ‘Not sure this is really emotionally quite as good a fit.’ I had two children as well, small children. Then I got another call. ‘I don’t suppose you’d like to make a film about the British police, would you?’ I said, ‘Yes, absolutely, please.’
“I get there, and there are two other people. One’s the permanent secretary of the Home Office, and the other’s the head of MI6.”
I joined the BBC, briefly, for a couple of years, to make this series, Police. In order to get to know the police, I found out that they did something called the “extended interviews”, for future chief constables. They interview them for a week. I asked them if I could come to one, and they said, ‘Actually, yes, you can, because we have a civilian observer.’ Two chiefs and a civilian interviewer would speak to three or four of these future constables. I get there, and there are two other people. One’s the permanent secretary of the Home Office, and the other’s the head of MI6 — and there’s me. Having breakfast with the head of MI6, I just say, ‘What I do is specialise in access films, and telling the truth, and I’ve got this agreement where it guarantees we cut out all confidential material, and people like British Steel feel that they’re better understood because we tell the truth about them. I’m sure people haven’t understood what you do, because the media coverage is all distorted.’ The head of MI6 is about 6 foot 4, as well, and he leaned to me, over the table, and said, ‘Well, Roger, I think you’re right. They don’t understand, but I’m afraid it’s going to have to stay that way.’ So that was turned down.
We knew at that point, that rape was a very important issue, because lots of women’s groups had protested about poor police handling of rape victims — and the police had always denied it, said it never happened. And so, we were in Reading police station for 9 months, and we had tried to get access five times — nobody would agree to let us film. On the sixth time, they told us there was a woman in the station, saying she’d been raped, and asked if wanted to cover it. That film, which is 3 people talking to a woman you never see, was shot over an hour and a half, more or less, and a couple of people come in, go out. The film is 45 minutes long, no music, no commentary, just that. The Policy Studies Institute said it was the most influential film ever made to challenge public policy, change the way the police handle rape. That was 1982, and It’s still being used in training, to show how not to do it.
“Access and content are all that matters.”
And it’s wonderful to be proud of that, as I certainly am, but we did a Panorama 20 years later called Rape on Trial, which made quite clear that things haven’t changed enough. And you still hear terrible stories about the court, and more. But the privilege of being in on something as important as that, and treating it as simply as that, was a tremendous lesson about how access and content are all that matters. There’s no style in that. It’s beautifully shot, but it’s very simple.
That was shot on film of course, and 10 minutes cost £140. Now with a phone, you just square it off as much as you want and no-one’s even going to see those rushes. So the notion of taking care over the decisions you make is something really important to do, now that you’ve got the privilege of shooting so much. I know that I’m supposed to stop shortly, so I’m going to have to cut the rest of my career short.
I went back to drama for 4 years, I did 2 studio dramas, I did a feature film, I was developing feature films, I wrote a book on the police, and I just carried on with my life in different ways. I’d been on the board of London Transport, I was involved in teaching architecture, and also film making, and one of the things I just wanted to say to all of you is — don’t worry about fallow periods when you don’t get work, just do something else.
Television is not the beginning and end of our lives and careers, it is one element and one tool to try and reach things, and now that this social media, multi-media stuff, you can carry on the education. I had access to CERN recently, I couldn’t get the BBC to back it, and so I took it to Google, and they paid for it. They’re 14, 5-minute films called CERN people. That meant I had a trip on the plane to Geneva, reading a short introduction to particle physics, and talking to the 7 most intelligent people in the entire world about particle physics, and having a wonderful time. So I just urge you all not to lose hope when the commissioning editors don’t answer your calls, because they don’t answer mine either. Stay in the equivalent of the third floor of Kensington House, and just bump up to them.
So all I’m really saying is don’t lose hope, just move onto something else. Thank you very much.
In memory of Roger Graef, April 1936 - March 2022.