British documakers, like those in other territories, face a dilemma: How to satisfy the demands of local broadcasters and make a program that can sell abroad.
This is further complicated by the fact that a strand of documaking referred to as “soft patriotic” has become popular with U.K. commissioners. These projects celebrate certain aspects of national life, like its culture, history or landscape.
One way to overcome the limitations of country-specific programs is to look for an underlying format, says Tobi de Graaff, director of global TV distribution at ITV Global Entertainment.
In ITV’s “Britain’s Favorite View,” for example, celebrities share their favorite landscape. “View” was licensed as a format to Spain’s regional pubcaster association Forta, which produced its own version, and a different view for each region.
ITV sold “Pride of Britain” as an event format to several countries, including four in Eastern Europe, so they could celebrate their national culture.
“A country format appeals to a mass audience because most people can relate to their country and have some emotional attachment,” says de Graaff.
Some shows, such as DCD’s “A Poet’s Guide to Britain,” which explores six works of poetry set in the British landscape, sell as finished shows and can be licensed as formats as well, says Nicky Davies Williams, CEO of DCD Rights.
For the finished shows, a lot rests on the appeal of the presenter. “Poet’s Guide,” for instance, is presented by poet Owen Sheers, who is “not well known but credible, young and good-looking,” says Davies Williams.
Outright Distribution’s “Mastercrafts,” which looks at British craftsmen such as blacksmiths and thatchers, is presented by Monty Don, a man of rugged good looks and charm. It is also available as a format.
There have been a spate of celebrity-led British travelogues, like “Martin Clunes: Islands of Britain.” Such shows can find a home on niche channels that focus on travel, but having a celebrity presenter usually only works if they have an international reputation, such as Michael Palin, or a passionate interest in and expert knowledge of a subject, like RDF’s “Extreme Fishing With Robson Green.”
British history can be a tough sell abroad, unless it is about ancient history or monarchs, says Mark Reynolds, director of factual for the indie unit at BBC Worldwide, who points to “Edward VIII: The Nazi King” — which mixes archive footage with dramatic reconstructions — as one show that has sold to several territories.
For docus with British characters set in the U.K., the best markets are the English-speaking territories, Scandinavia and Benelux. It helps if the country has heritage links or a cultural affinity with the U.K., such as Oz, New Zealand and Canada.
Docus focusing on the less typical aspects of British life can also cross borders.
Human interest tales, such as those in which ordinary British people are seen coping with an extraordinary condition, like DCD’s “Tourettes & Me,” sell widely.
Then there are those series that look at a particular community, but draw out universal themes. RDF’s “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” ticked a number of boxes.
“That’s voyeuristic television but a well-crafted documentary,” RDF Rights chief operating officer Jane Millichip says. “It crosses cultural boundaries because you don’t need to be part of that culture to find it fascinating because, ultimately, it is about weddings.”
There have also been a number of shows that are hybrids, in which a group of British folk are seen first in their domestic setting and then transported to a foreign locale.
One such is Outright’s “Blood, Sweat and T-Shirts,” in which a group of fashion-conscious teens are taken to an Asian clothes factory to meet the textile workers and see how they live. The series taps into the current interest in ethical living, although shows about green issues have to work harder than they once did.
“They have ridden a high wave. People are looking for a better narrative in those than initially,” says Chris Bonney, Outright’s managing director. “Previously, people got away with a series about a green issue because it was about a green issue. Now they have to compete storyline-wise with anything else that is up for grabs.”
Crime is also popular, such as the BBC’s “The Force” — which follows a provincial police force in the South of England — as are shows that look at animals, such as “Pedigree Dogs Exposed,” about elite British canine breeders’ group Kennel Club.
Other docs simply depend on the power of the narrative and the skill of the helmer.
“At the end of the day, the reason these films sell is the fantastic storytelling — the great human interest element to it that captures people’s imagination,” says Reynolds.. “And they are just beautifully and sensitively told by the director.”