An email from a researcher doing a documentary for BBC3 on the history of teenagers arrives. That’ll be short, I think. She wants to talk to me about ways of presenting the Sixties to today’s teenagers, who she has discovered know nothing about the period. BBC3, with a viewer age range of 16 to 24, doesn’t do history documentaries as a rule, so it’s a bit of an experiment.
‘We’ve got a bit of development money for the project and I saw you had a book out about the Sixties. The reviews said you were involved with young people, and I was wondering if you had any ideas for grabbing the attention of modern teenagers about what teenagers were like in the Sixties.’
A researcher. She had (mis)read a review or two of a book she hadn’t even looked at. Might be worth a phone call. Reading a book, rather than ringing around to find someone useful in the field, was time-consuming. Information wasn’t necessary, only informers. A new kind of research for a hustling world.
‘I haven’t been involved with teenagers since the 1980s,’ I explain. ‘I’m a writer, not a teacher any more.’
It occurs to me that she doesn’t think of people who write books about things as writers, but as memoirists or autobiographers.
‘Oh,’ her maybe-you-can-be-useful voice dies on the instant. ‘Sorry to have bothered you.’
But I’d been thinking about what’s happened to television documentaries. I watched a recent half-hour on the children of 1970s communards which had found at least one complicated, interesting subject, who just about kept me from switching off, because the voice-over was that now-essential matey tone and unambiguous style that was supposed to give you an authentic sense that you were down in the pub and someone was telling you a story they’d heard. Nothing too taxing, but interesting enough to last to the end of the pint before someone starts the next story. On commercial TV, when documentaries return after every ad break, the narrator – voice-over or walking head – gives a full precis of the previous segments. You can’t expect an audience to hold information, so it has to be reiterated, even though very little is being asked of the viewer in the first place. A simple point is made, and then it is enacted or pictured. Then it is said again. Don’t get complicated. Documentaries are like mixed ability lesson plans. You teach to the least able who you never ask anything of. Audience numbers are all that counts, if they don’t turn off, you’ve won.
So, although, the researcher no longer had any use for me, I held her on the phone a moment longer.
‘A historical documentary on BBC3. There must be a lot of constraints on what you can do and how.’
‘Well, there are,’ she said, wrapping up the conversation, needing to get on. ‘But it’s not a problem. We just have to think creatively.’
‘Oh, if that’s all . . .’
I’m left wondering what the word ‘creative’ means to people who can overcome difficulty by just being creative. It seems to be like an ingredient that’s available down the shops. If it’s necessary, you’ll get some and use it. Need to produce something? ‘Oh, just think creatively.’ I want to say, how do you think creatively? What is thinking creatively? But I don’t want to let on that I’m ignorant of a process everyone else seems to understand perfectly.
It’s a word I’ve never been able to use because I don’t know what it means really. Creative writing? As opposed to? Does it mean imaginative? OK, now imagination is called for. Right, there you go. How confident everyone seems to be about having the ability to be creative, and knowing what to do with it, and how very little effect it seems to have on the vast majority of products it is sprinkled on.