Next week, the industry will get another pasting when BBC2 broadcasts what happened when two feminist journalists spent a week with a couple of domestic builders. But given documentary-makers’ own reputation for dodgy behaviour, were the two pairs treated fairly – or simply brought together to fight it out?
The programme, to be screened on 6 October, is the fourth in the Living with the Enemy series. Producer Gabe Solomon says the idea behind it is simple: “We put people in a situation they wouldn’t otherwise be in and see what happens.” But he admits that this means that “you are, in a sense, working with caricatures”.
After it was all over, Building asked the participants what their week in front of the lens was like and, after they had seen the final cut, if they thought they had been presented fairly.
Lorna Russell and Gemma Mitchell, journalists on a feminist magazine called Sibyl, are invited to spend a week living and working with Sean Denyer and Mark Shaw of Titchfield Construction. The BBC rents the four a house in Potters Bar, the lads’ home town, and sends them to work on a house conversion in Notting Hill. Cameras follow their progress at work, at home, and at an East End strip club. Meanwhile, they are invited to talk candidly, Blind Date-style, about their opposite numbers during the week.
The feminists’ story
“I assumed that the programme was going to make us look as stupid as possible,” says Lorna Russell, editor of feminist magazine Sibyl.
So why on earth did she and her colleague, Gemma Mitchell, agree to appear on it? Because they wanted feminists to be seen as real people instead of dungaree-wearing harridans. “Gemma and I hadn’t really thought about how to approach it but we did want to get our perspective across that feminism is not about man-hating,” she says.
They stood on the scaffolding shouting and spraying us with a fire extinguisher
The BBC had other ideas. “They made it quite clear that they expected a scrap,” Mitchell says. Producer Gabe Solomon denies this. “We didn’t say, ‘This is the way we want you to act’,” he says – but adds, “obviously, the whole point of being there is an exchange of views.”
The first such exchange occurred when the women arrived on site for the first time. “They all stood on top of the scaffolding shouting and spraying us with a fire extinguisher,” says Russell. “It was really surreal. I just thought ‘Oh my god’.” She is now almost sure that this was set up by the programme makers: “I’m quite convinced they told them to whistle from the scaffolding when we arrived, but I’m not sure they needed much encouragement,” she says. Solomon pleads innocence: “We wanted to be able to get a shot of the girls’ arrival so we said can you go up there so we can hear your first impressions.”
Getting to know the lads meant having to listen to “some pretty horrific jokes that weren’t even remotely funny”, but Russell feels she and Mitchell made an effort to be good humoured and to muck in. She claims that the builders did not reciprocate: “They called us birds and whistled at women across the street. It was obvious they were trying to wind us up, but it came across as pretty natural,” she says.
Russell says one incident did strike her as particularly false. After finding out that Sean Denyer sometimes visited a strip club, the BBC team set up – and paid for – a visit to one in east London’s Shoreditch. Russell and Mitchell both found this unpleasant – Russell describes the show as “really, really graphic. Sean and Mark didn’t seem to enjoy it either.”
The women were paid £250 each for the filming, but not surprisingly, Russell says this did not compensate for the “very stressful” week. Not only did they have a camera crew following them around, but they found the work and the long hours tiring.
Having watched the final cut, Russell feels it was a “pretty fair representation of the week, even though “you can see the bits that were set up”. She has no sympathy for the two builders’ gripes about how they were portrayed: “I can see why Sean and Mark are more upset than we are because they came across as quite childish. But they said what they said. If they feel they didn’t get their arguments across, well nor did we. We all knew it was only a half-hour programme.”
The builders’ story
At first, Titchfield Construction boss David Barron assumed that the call from BBC researchers was a wind-up. “They said they wanted a typical arrogant builder. Someone who wouldn’t be boring. We’re young adventurous boys so we agreed,” he says.
They told us to whistle. I didn’t mind acting up, it’s only a laugh
They were offering his firm £500 and half-an-hour’s national exposure for the inconvenience of having a film crew on site. He asked for volunteers among his 53 full-time staff. Enter carpenter Sean Denyer: “I’m a loudmouth, so I said: ‘Yeah, I’ll do it’.” Labourer and glazer Mark Shaw followed suit.
The BBC offered them £250 each for the week’s filming. Series producer Gabe Solomon insists that this is normal practice for documentaries and is not intended as a payment for “acting”. “We pay everybody a fee to compensate for loss of time or work,” he says.
During the week, both builders were encouraged to argue about feminism.
Their main point was that women were not strong enough to do the work – and that that went double for a pair of middle-class do-gooders like Russell and Mitchell. “The girls couldn’t cut it on site,” says Denyer. “The programme shows them doing quite a bit of work, but that’s not really what happened during the week.”
Nor, according to the builders, could they cut it in their discussions of gender identity in contemporary society. Denyer says what comes across in the programme is “biased”. Shaw is more reflective: “I suppose they had to put it across that way to make the sides even.”
Denyer also claims that the rows were not always spontaneous. “They [the BBC] would throw a subject at us,” he says. Shaw is more circumspect, although he does admit that they were “helped out a bit” with questions to ask the women. “They were probably things I wouldn’t have thought of, but then I’m not a TV producer.”
Solomon rejects accusations of bias. “There was no idea of writing a script,” he says. “You don’t envisage how it [the programme] will turn out in any way at all.”
Denyer does not entirely agree. He feels that he and Shaw were made to fit the stereotype of a builder. “There is this one section showing us having a fry-up for breakfast that is repeated several times. I usually have coffee and croissants,” he says. As for the trip to the strip club, he says this is not typical behaviour: “I go there because my mate owns it. I’m not going there to ogle women,” says Denyer.
Shaw seems more relaxed about how he appears on film. “It was a fair representation of how I behave normally at work. I’m always having a laugh.” He adds that the wolf-whistling was stage-managed. “They told us to whistle. I don’t personally whistle and ogle, but a lot of builders probably do. I didn’t mind acting up, it’s only a laugh.”