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Whicker's World Foundation: Interview with Artistic Director Jane Ray

05.01.2016

Whicker's World Foundation is a brand new player in the field of documentary funding and sets out to award directors and producers whose projects focus on high impact stories that need to be told. Three annual awards worth £100,000 in total will be dedicated to the best film, audio and TV projects that continue the compelling legacy left behind by the foundation's patron, Alan Whicker, former British journalist and television presenter.

Artistic Director Jane Ray during the official
launch of Whicker's World Foundation
at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015
(Image courtesy of Sheffield Doc/Fest)

In order to find out more about the foundation's motivation and to learn about the role Alan Wicker played in the creation of the new funding body, we invited Jane Ray, Artistic Director at Wicker's World Foundation, for an interview. Continue reading below for more information about the award categories, the founding history of the new fund and the recently launched call for projects of Wicker's World Foundation.

 

EDN: For those who have never heard about your foundation before, how would you describe what Whicker's World Foundation is and what you are trying to achieve?

JR: We are a non profit making organisation funded by Alan’s generous legacy to empower and provide for documentary makers who may not otherwise see their work get made. What differentiates us from other available awards is the size of the fund. As far as we are aware our top award of over €100,000, is more than another European fund is offering to an individual documentary pitch. We were concerned that brilliant ideas and fresh new talent were getting lost as the bigger hitters fought more effectively for diminishing slots and commissions and we wanted to make all the difference to one applicant rather than a little difference to several.

Another key difference is to not require the documentary maker to adopt a noble cause. It was important to Alan that this money should come without strings that could potentially skew the editorial. Instead we are just looking for authored work that takes us on surprising journeys and exemplifies courage and professionalism. It is great that there are funds that will increase social or scientific awareness or expose injustice but one might say our only agenda is curiosity.

 

EDN: The name patron of your foundation is obviously an essential part of the story: Alan Whicker was a renowned British journalist with a popular show on BBC featuring reports that baffled and impressed the world due to their investigative and "behind-the-curtain" character. Could you tell us more about Alan Whicker and his involvement in the world of documentary?

JR: 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, charmingly 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. 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. Written journalism encouraged painting pictures with words and this skill he took with him into BBC radio broadcasting which is where I was working with Alan in the 1990s.

Alex Graham, Chair of Sheffield Doc/Fest
and Jane Ray during the launch event 2015
(Image courtesy of Sheffield Doc/Fest)

However, it was of course TV 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.

Another thing I learnt about Alan from working with him was that his iconic neat clipped moustache, military bearing, serious glasses and impeccable navy blazer was disguise for a maverick mind that would never be told what to think and saw subtle satire wherever he looked. It’s been said Alan was the first travel journalist of the aeroplane 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: The documentary landscape has changed over the years and the environment today is much different than that in which Alan Whicker experienced his successful years at the BBC. What were his thoughts about this major change in the media landscape including the many new platforms and devices with their fragmented audiences?

JR: Alan saw, before I did, that the era in which he flourished, where there was plenty of encouragement and few constraints, was coming to an end. Now we are at a point where interest from the public in documentary has never been higher but the means to reach an audience has never been more tough. Alan never had to attend a Meet Market or competitive pitching session. For him commissions were generally sorted out with a fax and phone call. Budgets were comparatively large and prime time audiences in their millions guaranteed. He was very aware of this and talked a lot about ‘Whicker’s Luck’. He knew the TV business was fragmenting and he wanted to pass a little good fortune onto the next generation once, he joked, the next generation were no longer in a position to pinch his slot. As to new platforms: Alan’s number one concern was the audience and he had no fear about moving to wherever the audience happened to be. He was an early investor for example in commercial television. At a time when other broadcasters were snobbish about this crude upstart rival to the BBC Alan helped build Yorkshire TV’s international reputation. What he cared about was reaching the general public and it is quite likely that he knew audiences were moving to YouTube or interactive TV documentary that is where he would go. He always had a shrewd eye for business and I suspect that had he still been alive he would have secured a really good deal on Netflix by now.

 

EDN: How would you describe the main objective of Whicker's World Foundation and how do you plan to support documentary filmmakers and other professionals from the audiovisual sector?

JR: Alan prized wit, intelligence, knowledge and freedom of thought. By supporting documentary makers with cash and honouring them with recognition we aim to support these ideals, especially freedom of thought. But our objectives are not just for the audio visual sector. We care greatly about audio too.

One of our prizes, the Audio Award, gives £4,000 for the best factual radio broadcast or podcast of the last 12 months. We also recognise that talent can emerge at any age and so we have another award of £4,000 for someone making factual content for the first time over the age of 50. We call it the Vets Award. By vets we mean veterans, any wanna-be documentarians can apply, for example, frustrated production managers or PAs who have thought for years; “I could do better than that”.

 

EDN: Regarding your first call for proposals, which closes on 31 January 2016, could you briefly tell us how the awarded filmmakers would get access to the financial support, especially with a view on the timeline of their production. Can they access the money early on in the process?

JR: Our first £80,000 award will be announced at Sheffield Doc/Fest in June 2016. The winner will receive £30,000 immediately. A further £20,000 will follow once the principal filming has been completed, another £20,000 will be released on completion of the rough cut and the last £10,000 at the fine cut stage.

 

The foundation's name patron & journalist
Alan Whicker in an interview with Cassius Clay
(Image courtesy of Valerie Kleeman)

EDN: Documentary financing is critical, not only for producers to actually get their projects on the road, but also for society on the whole. Solid financing schemes guarantee that audiences are increasingly exposed to factual content, which is then again also desirable for policy-makers and and official institutions with a public service mission. Such schemes may be under threat due to fragmented audiences which can less and less be targeted via traditional mass media and due to the digital agenda which might make current business models - that depend on territories - obsolete. EDN is undertaking an extensive research on the state of documentary financing in Europe which includes a major conference in 2017 called "Media and Society: European Documentary in a Changing Media Landscape". Are there plans of Whicker's World Foundation to be involved in these activities?

JR: Yes, absolutely. We have already been talking to EDN Director, Paul Pawels, about getting involved with the research and taking an active part in the conference itself. This is something we care about very much.

 

EDN: What is your personal view on the development of the documentary sector in general? Do you feel this is a time of great opportunities? Or do you also have concerns regarding the evolution of the industry?

JR: Well that’s a big question and I have gone on quite enough already. Suffice to say: I have just emerged from 29 years at the BBC and where I come from the bald logistics of financing mean that self promoting long running TV formats have become the holy grail of broadcasting. What we are offering at Whicker’s World Foundation is a very modest alternative. The good news, as I see it, is that new technologies mean that production costs are tumbling and it is very rare indeed now to meet a young filmmaker who is not entirely self shooting and mostly self editing. I have also seen entire broadcast quality programmes made up from mobile phone footage and I love this new, inclusive access. The flip side of this is a concern that deep editorial understanding and craft skills that take a lifetime to perfect are being sidelined, then lost. Going back one last time to Alan Whicker, the documentary maker Dick Fontaine recently said of Alan that the reason he was so very popular was not just the obvious fact that he was vastly entertaining but also because audiences trusted him to give them the truth on any given subject. Trust is still key.

 

EDN: Thank you very much for taking the time for this interview.

JR: My pleasure!

 

Interview Partner: Jane Ray, Artistic Director, Whicker's World Foundation

 

The 2016 Funding Awards

Whicker's World Foundation provides new funding opportunities for the documentary sector and aims to support talented content creators from across the globe. The funding scheme is worth a total of £100,000 and entries can be submitted until 31 January 2016.

We already reported about the first call for proposals a few weeks ago, more information about the 2016 Funding Awards can be found here.

 

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