EDN MEMBER OF THE MONTH – Jane Ray, Whicker’s World Foundation
In this monthly interview series EDN focuses on one of its many members to show both members in the spotlight and the diversity of the EDN membership group.
Jane Ray — Whicker's World Foundation
Photo Credit: Curtis Gallant
Our EDN member of the month for June 2016 is Jane Ray, Consultant Artistic Director, Whicker’s World Foundation, UK. She is a multi-award winning documentary maker and executive producer in radio and television with a journalistic background and 29 years’ service at the BBC. She started there as local radio reporter and was the Editorial Guardian for BBC Worldwide Content when she left last year to set up the Foundation and her own company “CatFlap Media”. Her awards range from the TRIC award for best children’s programme (1993) to the Sony Gold Award two years running for best news programme (2002) and best short form feature series (2003) and China’s Golden Kapok award for best director (2014). In her spare time Jane is a documentary mentor and trainer in emerging markets such as China, Korea, Northern Africa and the Middle East and is busy working up her own proposals.
EDN has talked to Jane Ray about the Foundation, their current activities and future plans.
EDN: Can you start by telling a bit more about your background and your road into the world of documentaries?
JR: Although I started my BBC career as a radio reporter I was always more interested in shaping the story behind the scenes. Since my round and curious childhood I have loved finding things out about people and things, and writing them down. I started a magazine and called it “Surprise”. The surprise was that no-one else was able to read it. I was dyslexic and the writing, if it came out at all, was back to front and sometimes up side down. So I tried drawing these stories instead. This worked but took ages. Then in my teens I discovered radio and the magic of being able to communicate without the audience needing to see what you had written.
Later still I discovered TV, which was like writing with pictures, and the rest flowed from there. I am married to the BBC Foreign Affairs correspondent Mike Thomson and while the children still needed someone who loved them more than life itself to be sleeping no more than a breath away, I took on more managerial roles at the BBC. During this time I became fascinated by how programmes could best say challenging things without breaking the law or generating needless offence, and also how the meaning of troublesome words changes across societies and generations. I was given the title of Head of Compliance and did the job for ten years. However, from time to time. I was allowed out on good behaviour to make my own programmes and films. Now that the kids have grown I have gone back to these first loves.
EDN: And then of course also the background of the foundation. When was it launched and what is the objective of the foundation?
JR: We launched a year ago last June at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015. There are three goals. The main one is to support emerging documentary makers by funding and empowering talent who might otherwise never find its place in this competitive industry. We also aim to recognise and celebrate brilliance in audio documentary and encourage first time documentary makers over the age of 50.
EDN: Which are the awards offered and what is the funding scope?
JR: We currently have three annual awards, the main one being £80,000 (€101,000) for the best documentary proposal from a new director. We believe this is the largest single funding prize in Europe. The runner up gets £10,000.
In support of the other two goals I have just mentioned we also have an audio award of £4000 for the best radio or podcast documentary of the previous year with a runner’s up prize of £1000, and awards of £4,000 and £1000 for first time documentary makers over the age of fifty.
Further awards and increased funding will be announced in September.
EDN: What are the types of projects the foundation awards?
JR: These are authored documentaries in English with an international feel. The funding award needs to be for a project that could work on TV at an hour long. The extraordinary variety of proposals in this first year range from girl gangs in North London, to wolf hunters in Siberia, genocide in Guatemala and an enduring friendship across the Korean divide. Our applicants came from all corners of the world. We learnt among very many other things about men in stilettos, miraculous tiny plants in the Amazon, wicked dictators in a tight spot, blood feuds in Honduras and a fabulous musical hall architect called Frank. Predictably there were several stories from Syria and Palestine but all were very different from one another. None of our entries were without merit and afterwards Liz McIntyre the CEO and Festival Director of Sheffield Doc/Fest, where we announced the winners earlier this month, said “The documentary ideas and young talent that you are supporting is outstanding”.
EDN: What is your role at the foundation?
JR: On my contract it says something about providing the strategy and leadership to empower the next generation of documentary makers whilst guarding and guiding Alan Whicker’s legacy. In day to day terms this involves watching and listening to documentaries and mentoring talented, creative people which I absolutely adore. I am also writing reports, doing sums, battling with office machinery and paying the bills, which is less of joy but must be done.
EDN: The Foundation is named after Alan Whicker – can you give us some insights in to the man behind the name and the work he did?
The foundation's name patron & journalist
Alan Whicker in an interview with Cassius Clay
(Image courtesy of Valerie Kleeman)
JR: I think Alan Whicker was a maverick genius disguised as a Proper English Gent. He got international documentary journalism into a top entertainment slot with audiences that, in its heyday, exceeded the most popular British soap opera Coronation Street. Behind the charming exterior was a brilliant and determined steel trap of a mind that refused to be told what to think and saw subtle satire wherever he looked.
Alan came to prominence on British television in the late 1950s when he was given a slot called Whicker’s World on the BBC’s early evening news show Tonight. It was witty and daring and led to David Attenborough, then controller of BBC Two, giving Alan his own prime time documentary slot. Whicker’s World was styled as a signed documentary, an approach we now think of as authored and it became a cultural phenomenon in the UK. It has been said that the rise of the ‘coffee table’ can be dated from the point viewers started having their supper in front of the TV rather than miss the show.
Alex Graham, chair of Sheffield Doc/Fest said that growing up as a poor kid in Glasgow the programme gave him “licence to dream”. Alan appeared every week to be equally, affably calm doorstepping dangerous dictators, sharing a whirlpool with swingers or being told by Disney he had to get his teeth fixed before he could join the company (they kicked him out soon after).
His overnight stardom had a long gestation. He had been directing behind the camera for many years before he came to Whicker’s World. In 1943 Alan joined Britain’s Army Film and Photo Unit and ran a team of 40 who were documenting the war in Europe. Slaughter, fear and triumph were captured without the aid of a telephoto lens and this schooled Alan in getting right up close to the action and keeping his nerve. Then as a correspondent in the Korean War he learnt to write with speed and accuracy earning the nickname One Take Whicker.
However it was TV of course that made Alan famous and TV had never seen anything quite like Whicker’s World before. Alan used the emerging technology, such as the hand held camera to gain access to hitherto unseen worlds all the while writing the grammar of documentary that is now so familiar it is generally taken for granted.
It has been said Alan was the first travel journalist of the airplane age but for him it was never about the places and always about the people. Alan, or one could say Donald, as Alan was actually his middle name, died at home on the Channel Island of Jersey in July 2013. His simple headstone stands at the edge of the graveyard looking right down the lane with a fine view of all the Island’s comings and goings, how fitting.
EDN: You yourself have also worked with Alan Whicker. Which projects did you work on and how was the collaboration?
JR: The other day I discovered a copy of the Radio Times, a UK media listings magazine, from January 1988. By this time I had been a BBC local radio reporter for 6 months and was thrilled to get my first half hour radio documentary on air - The Ballad of Vickertown. It was lavishly previewed on page 74. Overleaf there was a heading; Whicker Waltzes On. It was letting people know that Living with Waltzing Matilda a series of Whicker’s World documentaries about Australians was coming to primetime TV. I had a little ‘moment’ about that; I never thought I would get closer to the legendary Alan Whicker than a page in a listings magazine.
Our collaboration began in 1998 when the BBC wanted some light touch documentary content to “add luster” to it’s national speech and music station Radio 2. We came up with Around Whicker’s World. It was outrageously simple in terms of budget and concept. All we did was revisit some of the most popular characters that peopled his TV films and continue their stories. Alan, who had also started at the BBC as a radio reporter, took to audio with verve and flair. He said he enjoyed being able to ‘write the pictures’ again instead of ‘writing to the pictures’. We made three series over the next two years.
I was, probably still am, terribly earnest and Alan insisted we start every collaboration with a bottle of champagne. He was on a mission to see what I was like with my guard down. He never had to wait long and, such was his skill as an interviewer, I came away with the heady sensation that I was actually more enthralling than I had realised.
But he was always particularly interested in what women had to say. From footballing nuns, to policewoman on the most dangerous beat in the world, to millionairesses with buckets of diamonds but not the power of the vote, Alan made a point of seeing the world from their point of view.
Before long Alan, now in his late seventies, was standing in as a national DJ and making a major radio series with me about the history of TV. We called it It’ll Never Last, which took some nerve as I could tell Alan was starting to hear the call of TV once more.
All through this period I was wanting him to re-visit aspects of his own remarkable life. I was therefore thrilled when in 2004 he made the two-parter Whicker’s War with director David Hart for Channel 4. It is a remarkable and deeply personal account of his wartime experiences in Italy between 1943 and 1944. He was only 22 years old and thrust into the heart of the Battle of Anzio, one of the most devastatingly brutal and mis-managed campaigns of the war. For me it was the most profound series he made.
EDN: When is your next submission deadline and which advice would you give aspiring candidates? What should they be aware of / focus on?
JR: The next round will open in September and close on the 31st of January 2017. It may be helpful to know that the strongest applicants in the first round did not just have a great idea for a story but also an idea how to shape and develop that story across an hour. The most successful at this had thought about who their audience might be and why they would be glued to their seats for that hour. They had also thought about how to complete their film within the budget and the time constraints we had imposed. It is hoped to showcase the winner’s film at Sheffield Doc/Fest a year after the award so the timeline is tight.
In the spirit of Alan Whicker we treasured those whose passion for their story was evident but not those who wanted to tell the audience what to think. This is what we mean when we say in our criteria (available on the website) that projects should be “personal but not partisan”.
We were surprised that some filmmakers applied to us with big budget, commercially savvy ideas and were really looking for a finishing fund to get their film to the distribution stage. This is not what we are about. Other funds are available for this. We take no commercial interest in the finished film but we do take a deep interest in getting brilliant documentaries to air that would otherwise not have got made.
Compelling teaser (‘trailer’) footage is key. We tend to fall for the images first and then read the detailed synopsis afterwards looking to justify our instinctive choices.
In terms of technical quality we require clear audio and decent lighting. This sounds so basic and yet some entries had crucial scenes that were unfathomable because it was impossible to see or hear what was going on. This is such a waste. On the other hand some teasers beguiled with a moment of observational detail, a brilliant juxtaposition or a fleeting expression that propelled us into another world or simply made us laugh.
EDN: At the recently held Sheffield Doc/Fest you announced the winners of the 2016 awards. How does the award process function and how are the winners decided?
Alex Bescoby, Director of Burma’s Lost Royals
received the £80k Whicker's World Funding Award
(Image courtesy of Grammar Productions)
JR: Although we check each application as it arrives we do not view in earnest until the submission deadline has passed. Then the core team of the foundation view together in small blocks on a big screen, writing our comments against a grid of our criteria, which can also be found on our web site.
We aim never to view more than five projects in any one session. After that the palate can get jaded and it is too easy to miss things. Once all the viewing has been done we create a long list of between 10 and 12 submissions. Everybody pitches in, and the rows can be passionate and prolonged, but ultimately it is my responsibility to decide who goes through.
The long list is then sent out to the five judges and they have three weeks to digest all the applications. Then we all meet at our office in central London and I lock them in and refuse to feed them until they have agreed on a shortlist of five.
We try to ensure that the judges all bring something different in terms of their background, outlook and experience. I mix practitioners with commissioners and always have someone in the mix who knew Alan and what he stood for.
Once a draft shortlist is created we have a period of ‘due diligence’ where we check the applicant’s references more thoroughly. The process for the audio and over 50s awards then differs slightly but with the big Funding Award the judges meet the applicants for the first time at our Doc/Fest pitching event.
Here each candidate has 7 minutes to pitch their project and show their teaser clips and then they are grilled for 8 minutes by the panel in front of an audience of industry delegates and supporters.
Then the judges are spirited away to a private room to decide the winner and the runner up. There is a media lawyer on hand to ensure fair play. This year the judges met in Sheffield Cathedral. In this inspiring location it took the judges 90 minutes to reach a unanimous conclusion. The announcement came that same evening at a big, starry event in the Crucible Theatre.
EDN: Who were the winners in the different categories and what made them stand out?
JR: 28 year old Alex Bescoby from London won the main £80k Funding Award for Burma’s Lost Royals. His story centres around a forgotten monarchy and a quest that threatens to tear a family apart. It had an epic and yet intimate quality. Our founder and Alan Whicker’s partner Valerie Kleeman said: “Alan would’ve loved this story, he would have jumped at the chance to make it himself.”
The runner’s up prize of £10,000 went to 29 year old Adam James Smith from Scarborough, UK. His film Americaville is about the pursuit of happiness in Jackson Hole - an exact replica of an American town built just outside Beijing.
The other three finalists included the most personal and forward thinking of the Syrian entries. Safwon Suleyman is filming his father’s quest to build a school for refugee children in Turkey. Another finalist was British and Canadian duo Jennifer Chiu and Jessica Parsons proposal about a little plant called Inga that may save the rainforest. The fifth finalist was Ricky Norris from the US who gave us Mukesh. This was a proposal with heart breaking honesty and unique access to the UN’s representative for Sudan who tried to save the people of Darfur by blowing the whistle on their genocide.
The winners of the other two awards were Keith Hoult, in the Over 50s category, for Fluechtlinge – Refugee. A fan of Whicker’s ‘gentle approach’ to interviewing, Keith was inspired to create a ten- minute film about refugees living in a disused airport used for the Berlin Airlift.
The second prize went to former UK cabinet minister turned reporter, Norman Fowler, for The Truth About Aids. Both winner and runner up showed a courage and determination to get their story told despite attempts by others to stop them.
Meanwhile the winner of the first prize Audio Award of £4,000 went to Little Volcanoes, recorded, written and produced by Cathy FitzGerald. It is the first time a podcast rather than a radio documentary has won a major award in the UK. It follows the rhythms of a day at Pilgrim’s Hospice in Margate. We loved it for its deep humanity, brilliant scripting and the way Cathy’s insightful interviewing coaxed the human spirit into revealing itself in astonishing ways.
The runner up in this category was The Dhammazedi Bell, produced by Francesca Panetta and David Waters for BBC Radio 3. It is a highly innovative telling of the quest to rediscover the largest bell in the world.
EDN: And last but not least what lies next for you and the Whicker’s World Foundation?
JR: We are going to grow the funding side of the operation and have increased the age limit on our existing funding award from 30 to 35. We realised that although we saw great, immersive footage from student proposals the richest development of ideas tended to come from those who were already experts in other walks of life; anthropologists, forensic scientists, aid workers or parents for example, before moving behind a camera. There will be further exciting announcements in September when the second round opens. We just need to ensure that we have the online technical backup fully in place before we announce our expansion.
EDN Member of the Month takes a summer break in July and August and will be back again in September.