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Perhaps Wikipedia should present documentaries, instead

November 18, 2016

I was a bit surprised to find penguins in Africa,” said Simon Reeve in Indian Ocean with Simon Reeve (BBC2). I duly rolled my eyes.

It’s the type of comment I find instantly off-putting. I’ve been watching wildlife documentaries for years.

As a result, even I, the humble viewer, know that you can find penguins in Africa. I learned this from a video game, no less: Endless Ocean.

No matter how I learned it, the fact is that I know it; and if I know it, I expect the presentor to know it, or at least pretend to. Otherwise, he’s not the expert, I am, and I’m wasting my time watching him. He should be watching me. In an age where one’s attention is pulled in several directions at once, and where anyone can technically produce content, such an idea is profoundly irritating.

This is an increasing problem in the digital age, where we’re all a bunch of know-it-alls. With the advances of internet and social media, information passes at phenomenal speed, going from completely unknown to a matter of common knowledge within a few short days – if not hours.

Information, like everything else, comes in and out of fashion. I might have learned this fact from a reasonably obscure source, but thousands of other people were learning it from other media at around the same time.

These days, you can’t click three links without arriving across a written piece on “weirdest animals” which includes in its list the pangolin, the world’s only known scaly mammal (unless you count the noble armadillo).

pangolin armadillo.png

Left, armadillo, right, pangolin

David Attenborough found and introduced the pangolin some time ago, when barely anyone knew what it was. But I don’t remember him chattering about how surprised he was by it. It has never been in his presentation style to display ignorance; he appears to know everything about wildlife that is established fact, plus a handful of well-supported theories for good measure.

For all I know, he’s Googling it all before post-production voice-over. The point is, I don’t know it; it seems as though Attenborough is a walking encyclopedia of wildlife, and that makes me feel like I’m in reliable hands.

It is, I believe, the reason why he is such a popular presenter, and his legacy will continue well beyond his years. While being affable and not at all intellectually snobby, Attenborough shows that he knows his stuff. TV and wildlife have been his specialisms for years.

The cult of ignorance is infecting television across the board. It’s the fashion for a presenter to either pretend they don’t know their subject matter, or to actually not know it. Celebrity presenters are hired to stumble their way dumbly through other cultures, raising a disbelieving eyebrow at everything so that we the viewers can appreciate the weirdness of Other People Who Aren’t Like Us.

It’s probably so we don’t all get an inferiority complex, thinking how much cleverer than us people on TV are. Look at them, responding to the Japanese as though there’s nothing weird about them, as though there’s no such thing as an objectively correct and decent culture, or some crazy notion like that. That’s just… Weird.

But we should think that presenters are smarter than us, without getting a complex about it; they didn’t get where they are by being born with some extraordinary talent, they got there by being passionately engaged with their subject matter for a long period of time. When a presenter is old, there’s a good chance they dedicated a significant proportion of their life and career to that subject, making them fit to teach others.

Wanting young, dumb presenters doesn’t make any sense. We rely on informative entertainment to teach us things we don’t know, and should expect that the people who teach us, like our actual teachers, know more than us about the subject. What’s the point of them otherwise? Teachers are supposed to be aspirational. No one aspires to be someone who bumbles through their subject, barely knowing enough to scrape by.

I should admit that I don’t thoroughly and automatically dislike non-professional presenters, particularly if they have an interest in learning and are not presented to the audience as a guide, presenter or teacher, but rather someone who we are merely travelling with. This necessitates the documentary to include nothing that requires technical expertise, and limited critical opinion.

Joanna Lumley can sightsee around Japan with a camera following her, armed with her charming and apparently honest enthusiasm, because Joanna Lumley’s Japan never had pretensions to be anything different. Instructive documentaries, or ones which actively invite the audience to judge issues, are another story.

Now in her 70th year, Joanna Lumleys presence on a show like JLJ shows that non-professional presentation isn’t a preserve of young people. She’s also single-handedly shown that posh doesn’t equal intellectualism; therefore by extension, intellectualism doesn’t have to mean posh, which can alienate some people, who think that immediately cuts them out of the conversation.

Professor Brian Cox, while not exactly young, possesses an enduring boyish charisma that makes him seem so. He’s on the flip side of the JL coin, directly appealing to youths with youthfulness, yet still providing complex information.

His audience reach is actually pan-demographic, but includes the elusive group of Young People, who contemporary documentaries are patently making strenuous efforts to reach. And it’s not as though he lacks knowledge and expertise. The implicit idea that such things automatically alienate young people is therefore proven to be a load of old arse.

Brian Cox is another great example of a presenter who can be affable and also clearly know his subject. The trade-off is that the poor man has to be known as the rock star of physics, much to his chagrin.

A smaller trade-off – which I don’t personally mind, but which irritates others – is that the highly professional format of the documentary is given an amateur makeover. There goes celebrated physicist Brian Cox, demonstrating the cosmos with salt shakers again. If you didn’t know the trend, you’d think the BBC couldn’t afford anything better.

The BBC, despite leaning towards trends for wallpaper (visual snippets that serve no informative or story-telling purpose) and over-dramatisation, do at least have a sanctuary where they still hire people who are not ashamed to show that they know what they’re talking about: BBC4.

Evidently, BBC2 – which in 2012 let Simon Reeve tell the world that he doesn’t know a fact about wildlife that the average person could find out via Buzzfeed – is not the channel it once was. That show is only worthy of the Travel Channel where it now airs, an adverted freeview that schedules second-hand travel shows of varying quality. Not to diss it; Michael Palin’s Pole to Pole is on there too, and despite outdated information is a fine example of an old-school, professional documentary.

BBC4, long may it live, still has a sense of pride in intellectualism, qualification and experience. It hasn’t picked up that curious middle-class shame of thorough education which clever people without it sensibly aspire towards rather than deride. People who like to learn don’t want their presenters to know less than them, or pretend to. They know condescension when they see it.

Adding Lumley-esque classiness to entertainment shows while adding universal accessibility to informative shows is not necessarily a bad trend; particularly as it belies traditional, class-dividing notions of which types of shows are for which social group. This positive change in attitude is, however, dependent on non-patronising presentation style – i.e., not confusing accessibility with lack of substance or professionalism.

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