Edinburgh Fringe 2013
We’ve all seen those fly-on-the-wall documentaries, with the breathless voice overlay of the narrator, the pseudo-tension created as the subject is eased like a sheep towards the programme maker’s desired sound bite. Well, here’s a chance for you to choose your own little adventure.
Documentaries abound. My TV watching is so infrequent that I rarely get past BBC2 or BBC4 but both stations seem to survive on little else. A six-parter on the railways was trumped by an eight-parter on the NHS which put the four-parter on people job swopping to obscure parts of the universe to shame. Almost everyone who has ever got out of bed, it seems, has had a camera and a mike boom shoved unnecessarily close to their left nostril and been asked to describe just how vital their role is in keeping the economic wheels turning.
Nathan Penlington, however, is on a more esoteric quest. To start with, he looks geeky. He also sounds reassuringly nerdy in the way some of those that front the odder documentaries do. He’s a self-confessed introverted obsessive, in this case about the Choose Your Own Adventure series of kids books penned by Edward Packard. And it was some series. It ran to 106 books and was a hit in the 1980’s, selling around 250 million copies, mainly in the US, but it penetrated parts of subnerdum Britain.
Acquiring a complete set of these books for the princely sum of £41.01 via eBay, Penlington discovered extracts from an old diary, tucked between the pages of one of the volumes. Written by the previous owner over 20 years before, the diary contained intriguing clues about what appeared to be the troubled childhood of its author. This sparked Penlington’s bizarre voyage to trace the owner of the books and return the diary. And what better way to do it than in the spirit of adventure redolent of the CYOA series, by using multiple story lines with multiple potential endings. Only this wasn’t fiction, it was fact and there was no way of knowing what might happen along the way.
Teaming up with professional filmmakers de Jesus, Smail and Watson, the search for the diarist began. The whole story took two years to film across four continents and the finished documentary contains around 60 separate filmed sections, with over 30 different characters involved. Do the maths and, eliminating a bit of duplication, you can get over 1500 different programmes out of this single exercise. A TV planner’s nirvana.
The “choose” element of the show is carefully inserted along the way through a series of multiple choice questions on which the audience votes using hand held devices. It is an ingenious way of creating a different programme each day as which film clip we see depends on the majority answer to the question being posed. Penlington is no doubt guilty of trying to point his audience in the direction he wants them to take simply through the choices he gives. That’s how most research works – work out the answer you want, then frame the questions to lead the punters to your conclusion. Most people will take the bait, and they did here.
But that doesn’t detract at all from a really interesting show involving some very clever multi-media and professionally devised, edited and presented documentary film footage that takes some surprising twists and turns, enlisting the help of some weird and wonderful people along the way. It would be unfair to reveal more but, despite running to 90 minutes, it never drags and produces moments of fun and hilarity as well as genuine poignancy.
Penlington, despite his obvious nerdishness, makes a very good, calm interviewer and delivers well to camera. He also intones his introductory remarks in that slightly hushed, breathless, pseudo-dramatic style so loved by documentary makers. This won’t appeal to everyone – you may validly question the point of the whole exercise, especially given that it was produced with a wodge of grant funding from the Arts Council and others. But it demonstrates man’s almost infinite curiosity about fellow man.