The Doc Fix


Regularly updated articles on story structure and analysis; tips, thoughts and useful bits and pieces.

This is how the BBC trains it’s documentary makers

When I started out at the BBC, I was put onto the popular science TV show, Tomorrow's World. For those of a certain age - and it ran for over 50 years - it was a staple in the TV schedule, Thursday night just before Top of the Pops! At the time we had a regular audience of around 13 million a week, one of the biggest in the UK.

I was 21, and it was a remarkable experience, something I can only truly appreciate looking back.

My job was simple.

For two years I had to make one 3-minute film a month. Research, write, produce and direct. And then on to the next one. The most challenging part of the process was walking into the office of the series editor, Richard Reisz, to talk through my script. We went through every line. Why I made that choice, what images I was going for, why this story at all. Was it new, engaging, meaningful?

That meeting could easily take an hour for a single 3-minute film, and it could be excruciating if I wasn't prepared.

I'd go off and make my film, and the day after the broadcast, every member of production - around forty of us - would gather in the main office and discuss last nights show. What worked and what didn't.

And the next day, I'd start all over again.

It was tough, but the finest education I could have received. The constant feedback, mentorship and accountability. And being surrounded by a group of people with the same goals and ambition.

But what was missing was the specific teaching of skills.

No one could really articulate why you had to do things a certain way. There were many suggestions of things to try and how things had worked before. Storytelling as a skill wasn't taught.

It was really up to us to work out the 'why'.

This was where the system failed. If you were lucky to work out some tips and tricks, you would survive. But it could take years of searching, and often people gave up because when they struggled to bring an idea to life they felt it was their own fault.

I am, by nature, quite analytical and wanted to understand why some of my films worked so well and others were flat. What I needed to understand was where the meaning came from. Why did one shot mean something, where another left me cold. Why did one interview question move the story on, and another feel unfocused?

It's why I continued looking for answers, by leaving TV for a short while to work in the theatre. It's why I explored drama direction as well as factual. It's why I spent a fortune on every book, course and seminar I could.

I eventually created The Doc Fix to recreate the best of how I was educated in story - the mentorship, accountability, sense of community. But underneath all of this are explanations of 'why' - the specific skills that you have to have and work to internalise to allow you to become the best documentary maker you can be.

This is not a course that just gives you some tips and tricks. And I'm not going to overload you with theory and information.

Instead, you'll be learning the practical skills - that is, steps, techniques and insights - that will result in you consistently being able to take your idea and from it produce a meaningful, complete documentary. These are based on the fundamentals that apply to all stories, whatever the subject matter, length of project or style.

I've only really realised how this system came to be as I have been writing this. But it's convinced me of another important lesson which I emphasise - writing things down is key to understanding your idea. So, however unsure you are, however early in the process, get something of your idea down on paper. You can only understand your idea by standing back from it objectively. And the easiest way of doing that is by writing it down.

Then the analysis can begin.