Britain in a Day

Saturday was filming day for Britain in a Day, the UK version of Life in a Day which is being produced for the BBC by Ridley Scott’s Scott Free company, and directed by Morgan Matthews. Like Life in a Day the project will be made from content shot by the public drawn in through You Tube. The idea is to create, “the definitive self-portrait of Britain today, filmed by you”, which will be broadcast just prior to the 2012 Olympics. According to commissioner Charlotte Moore, all the content uploaded to You Tube will be kept as an archive, a time capsule of Britain 2012.

The BBC has worked with the public in a number of content collaborations designed to capture everyday life over the years. In 1986 over a million volunteers contributed to a snapshot of Britain for the Domesday project, recently revisited as Domesday Reloaded. As Charlotte Moore explains on the BBC blog Britain in a Day has a direct precedent in the BBC’s Video Nation,(the project I co-founded and produced for BBC 2 with Chris Mohr between 1993-2000, and which then continued on BBC online in various guises until March this year.) Looking further back both Video Nation and Life in a Day / Britain in a Day owe a debt to a much earlier British collaborative self-portrait, the remarkable Mass Observation, which began in 1937, and, among many other activities, undertook a number of day surveys,.

With digital tools and the web the early 2000s saw a variety of participatory initiatives at the BBC, projects like Blast, Audio Diaries and the Capture Wales/Cipolwg ar Gymru Digital Storytelling project that I oversaw. Then the mood changed and questions arose about why the BBC should get involved in these initiatives. The projects might be powerful for participants but how did they serve the wider audience? What was the BBC’s role in quality and editorial control in so-called “user-generated content”? More pragmatically, why should the BBC invest in what You Tube seemed to be taking care of?

In the face of these issues, and with commercial criticism that the BBC was doing too much across too many spheres, there was a retreat in the later 2000’s from investment in participatory work. BBC programme makers have gradually become fluent at drawing on social media for audience input and comment, but apart from as witnesses to news events, the BBC seemed to lose sight of its audience as content creators.

So I welcome Britain in a Day as a sign of a renewed curiosity about what might be possible when the BBC and the public work together in documentary. Saturday Nov 12th was an interesting day in an interesting year – the Remembrance commemorations coinciding with the leak about Armed Forces redundancies, with ex-soldiers at Occupy London, a gloomy economic picture contrasting with sublime Autumn weather. Having shown in making The Fallen how he can build a powerful whole from multiple stories, Matthews is just the director to work with the video material that people will have generated.

Putting audience created content into the hands of a professional director is one response to the possibilities of participatory culture for documentary. Projects like Highrise, Man with a Movie Camera; the Global Remix and Global Lives offer alternative approaches and show how collaborative and participatory modes can lead to new forms of documentary experience. I look forward to seeing Britain in a Day. Meanwhile I hope that this commission heralds more experimentation with participatory documentary by the BBC, including non-linear work which can compare with what the National Film Board has been doing in Canada, or Arte in France.