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Viewpoints from the frontline of content.

Risky business

By Harry Marshall 31-03-2017

You’ve gotta ask yourself one question: “Do I feel lucky?” Well, do ya, punk?

So how do you do it? To give the semblance of something being dangerous but remove the actual risk? Well, the answer is you can’t – unless you are making fiction.

And that is the whole point about documentaries: they are real and so too are the risks that they bring.

We are fascinated by risk and calculating risk is embedded in human DNA. We are, as a species, pretty good at it and at judging its key corollary, reward.

Taking risks defines success and failure; it makes and breaks us. It’s the basis of all competitive sports and underpins every bet by every entrepreneur or gambler. The dice rolls every time the chicken crosses the road or the tightrope walker sets off across the Grand Canyon. It’s just a question of the odds of getting to the other side.

Hardly surprisingly then, that risk and its outcomes are embedded in the language. Pioneers get scalped. Fortune favours the brave. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Faint heart never won fair maiden. Who dares, wins.

The pack of platitudes is pretty evenly balanced, some inviting derring-do and some warning of the dire consequences if it all goes tits up. But we admire risk-takers more than scaredy cats – particularly if their risks pay off.

And if they don’t pay off? Well, you don’t hear much more about them, do you? They are quickly swept under the carpet.

The first question Napoleon would ask about a new general was: “Is he lucky?”

History is about winners, and winners are risk takers, right? Well, up to a point – especially in the factual documentary business, where audiences want to see authentic action and jeopardy but nobody wants to clear up the mess when it goes wrong.

A commissioning editor summed it up when he said to me: “We want real stakes. We want it to look real dangerous. But we don’t want to take any stupid risks.”

Stupid risks. There’s the rub. When it comes to managing risks in documentaries, there are always several perceptions of what a stupid risk is and who is prepared to call it.

There are different kinds of risk. There’s actual risk, of the breaking-your-neck kind. There’s financial risk, of losing your shirt or being hung out to dry by a lawyer. And there is political or cultural risk.

BBC1 controller Peter Fincham paid for the ‘Queengate’ scandal (in which a doc misrepresented Queen Elizabeth as having walked out of a photoshoot) with his job. So did presenter Jonathan Ross when he allowed his mate Russell Brand to be horrid to Manuel (Andrew Sachs) on live radio. Each knew they were taking a bit of a risk, they just misjudged it.

It’s always a bit of a knife-edge and, inevitably, the meat is sweetest nearest the bone – as Ricky Gervais demonstrates year after year at the Golden Globes. Or the late writer AA Gill showed in his reviews. He once described a national treasure as a “three-flush floater.” Both Gervais and Gill seemed similarly unsinkable. And that was their charm. We always admire those who ‘get away with it… just’ and the same applies to taking real risks with television that we watch through our fingers, just as audiences used to do at the circus.

So what can you do to square the circle, risk-wise, in TV documentary production?

For a start, make sure everyone is aware of the risks. Update them as the risks change and make sure everyone involved – talent and crew, commissioners and production company – are all aware and remain signed up.

Risk is dynamic and fear is contagious. And in the end, it’s an act of faith, as Lev Wood said recently, it’s all about trust – and he knows better than most, having been a paratroop officer before making his series Walking the Nile and the Walking the Himalayas. It’s about trusting your team and trusting yourself to have done everything to make it as safe as possible.

But never forget there is no such thing as risk-free. You can eliminate as many of the risks as possible, but what’s left is left and these are known in the business as ‘residual risks’ and can’t be eliminated. Not even if you’re Donald Trump surrounded by bodyguards and wrapped in cotton wool.

And that is why people will turn on to watch real people taking real risks. It’s a primal appetite for learning lessons in survival and doing so from the safety of your sofa.

Having overseen over 50 expeditions downs the Amazon or up the Congo for River Monster’ – a fishing show – Icon knows about risks. The host, Jeremy Wade, needs to catch a fish at the end of each show and that’s an unfakeable event; you either do it or you don’t. And I think that clarity is part of the success of the series.

The audience can see Jeremy taking real risks as he plunges into icy cataracts or piranha-invested rivers in pursuit of his quarry. These were calculated risks of course, but after nine years of River Monsters – the highest rating show in Animal Planet’s history – we decided we better stop while we were still feeling lucky and this week we announced the final season.

But risk is addictive and Icon and Animal Planet have also just announced a new series with Jeremy. The title? Monster Rivers. What could possibly go wrong?

today's correspondent

Harry Marshall Creative director Icon Films

Harry Marshall, creative director of Icon Films, was born in 1960 and grew up in India where he learnt how to catch elephants using binoculars, tweezers and a jam jar. In 1978 he won an open scholarship to read English at Oxford University. During the 80s he worked at London Weekend Television on the South Bank Show, with Border Television, Channel 4 and at various independent production companies.

Over the past 22 years he has overseen Icon's original production and has won national and international awards (Emmy, Grierson, Telluride, Jackson Hole, Missoula, Wildscreen) and nominations for his work as director, writer and executive producer. When not running Icon Films he enjoys off-road cycling, dabbling with paints and living off-grid in a folly.