PtG Article 01.11.2007

Maintaining interest without interviews

How do you make an attention-grabbing TV documentary when no one will go on record?

James Oliver of BBC Panorama told Play the Game of the problems involved in filming investigative TV documentaries - and innovative ways to solve them. Telling a story can be just as important as breaking it, he said, and interviews undoubtedly help tell stories. However, when no one wants to be interviewed, documentary makers face an uphill struggle to maintain interest.

As a case study, Oliver showed extracts from the Panorama programme “The Beautiful Bung: Corruption and the World Cup”, that was first transmitted in 2006.  Reliable off-the-record sources had convinced his team that they had a story related to bribery within FIFA, he said, but they were unable to persuade anyone to go public. The question was, could they run the story anyway?

They could, they concluded - as long as interest was maintained. To do this they decided to portray the reporter, Andrew Jennings, as a central detective-style character, and use more footage of him than is usual in such programmes.

While Jennings narrated, the film “kept moving” through images of trams, cars and fountains, which were interspersed with long-lens shots of Jennings making his way through city settings. He was filmed looking into public telescopes, taking photographs and making phone calls. The camera also zoomed in on his video cellphone, allowing the documentary to move in and out of archive footage.

To maximize interest in the information provided by the sources, Jennings was filmed speaking on the phone and in person, while an actor spoke the sources’ words. Unorthodox camera techniques were used for a staged interview scene including shots taken from a moving camera mounted on a trolley.

As Jennings was banned from FIFA press conferences, they decided to use a classic “ambush” technique to put questions to FIFA President Sepp Blatter. Their FIFA source had told them that Blatter would be walking through a public park at a certain time, so they arranged for Jennings to lie in wait. Another Panorama journalist was installed in the FIFA press conference to put allegations on Jennings’ behalf. Blatter refused to answer questions in the park and the journalist working with Panorama was refused a microphone. However, events were confrontational, and as such made compelling viewing

The final product was an entertaining and informative documentary which demonstrated that with a little imagination, a lack of interviews need not mean a lack of interest.

More information on the programme can be found at