I'm Mandy, film me

Wednesday 24 November 2010, 12:44

Charles Miller Charles Miller edits the College of Journalism blog and produces documentaries for BBC History and Business. Twitter: @chblm

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We knew in advance that BBC4 considered Hannah Rothschild's Mandelson: The Real PM? an important film because it was allowed to run at 75 minutes, just 15 minutes short of a movie and a length that causes chaos to the BBC channels' coordinated junctions.

And the months the film-maker was allowed to spend trailing round with Mandelson did indeed produce some choice moments:

- Mandelson spills yogurt on his smart tie, and is irritated. 

- He watches himself on the BBC's News Channel.

- Wearing his dressing-gown, he plays with his dog.

- He falls asleep in a chair in his office.

- He takes his trousers off to change into a dinner suit in his office.

All good fun, and believable. Very much the world of The Thick of It, without the jokes though not without the laughs.  

Along with the mundanities of the life of the great man, the film included a second kind of interesting moment that appeared to be fly-on-the-wall - but I wasn't so sure. These were when we appeared to be given insights into the political process.

So, for instance, at a meeting with his advisers to discuss Labour's election manifesto, Mandelson is told of a £3.5 billion 'black hole' in the social security budget. "That's very unfortunate," he replies coolly. Would that have been all if there'd been no camera present?

Finally, there were the scenes where one felt a genuine sense of eavesdropping. They were only when Mandelson found himself busy with something more interesting to him than the filming process.

So, seeing Mandelson and Alastair Campbell eating sandwiches next to each as they watched the first TV election debate was a treat. As was hearing Mandelson's feedback to Gordon Brown afterwards on the phone:

"The format works for you. That's the main thing for you to take away from tonight ... There are certain adjustments you can make in tone or style or whatever, and all those can be programmed in."

So what was the status of Rothschild's access? Several times Mandelson or others referred to it being "his" film. I imagine it was Mandelson who argued for, or at least sanctioned, Rothschild's presence at many of these events. Indeed, Campbell was seen to be irritated to find Rothschild following him into the inner sanctum for the TV debate, and later tells her to "put that camera away".

Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair's books in a shop.

George Osborne asks Mandelson when he expects the film to be shown - "June, July?"

That would have been convenient: Mandelson's book came out on 15 July.

Mandelson's willingness to be filmed was evident at the end of the film, in one of the few moments of tension between Rothschild and her subject. He wanted to be asked some more questions, but she told him she didn't think he was "in the zone" that day.

Mandelson didn't exactly storm off in a huff, but he and his aide were seen to walk away uncomfortably. 

Tom Sutcliffe in the Independent decided it was "less fly-on-the-wall than lady-in-waiting", and that "what was slightly surprising was how interesting it was given how little it revealed."

Sam Wollaston in the Guardian came to a similar conclusion: "There are lots of good moments" but the problem is "the lack of probing ... too many questions go unasked."

Andrew Billen in the Times (behind a paywall) was more impressed by what he called this "extraordinary" film, although "Mandy never for a moment forgot Rothschild's camera". But never mind, because "he still behaved appallingly".

Documentary filming access always comes with certain rules of engagement, which are not usually disclosed by film-makers (who want their subjects to disclose all). To be fair, Rothschild's edit gave us some insight into moments of discussion about what could and couldn't be filmed.

It's a pity she didn't have a camera on Mandelson as he was watching the finished film for the first time. My guess is that he was pleased with it: he dropped his trousers but he never dropped his guard.  

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