The making of The Riots: In Their Own Words

Friday 13 July 2012, 15:11

Nicola Cutcher Nicola Cutcher Assistant Producer

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The riots across England in August 2011 should need no introduction. Following the police shooting of Mark Duggan, a peaceful protest in Tottenham developed into explosive violent disorder.

Over five days trouble spread across the country with people looting, setting fire to property and attacking the police.

Actor Youssef Beruain playing a rioter

Actor Youssef Beruain playing a rioter

Five people died and over 2,500 shops and businesses were damaged. To date 1,290 rioters have been sent to jail.

After those shocking days the media erupted with politicians and commentators discussing what had happened and why.

But nobody was hearing from the people directly involved in the disorder to find out what they had to say about their behaviour. Why had they acted like they did? Were they sorry or would they do it again?

One reason for this silence is that those who had been caught were mainly in custody. Those who hadn't been caught didn't want to appear on camera for fear of public judgement, reprisals or arrest.

There was no government inquiry into the causes and consequences of the unrest. Into this void stepped Reading The Riots.

Conducted by the London School of Economics and The Guardian, this social research project interviewed 270 people who were involved in the disorder.

The interviews were conducted anonymously to allow those involved to speak more freely.

The BBC didn't get involved until after the interviews were completed, so the production team played no role in the decision to grant anonymity to those the researchers spoke to.

As a TV production team, we were faced with the decision whether to use this important and illuminating piece of work, even though it granted anonymity to criminals.

In our view it was justified because of the insights it provides into why and how the riots had happened. Even we, the programme makers, were never to know the true identities of the people featured in the research and subsequently, The Riots: In Their Own Words.

As the assistant producer I worked with my colleagues to think about how the research could be brought to life on television and accessed by a wider audience.

The original interviews had been recorded as audio files and this led us to approach the dramatist Alecky Blythe.

Actor Youssef Beruain and Acky Blythe

Youssef and Alecky Blythe

Alecky creates plays from real interviews - mixing journalism with drama to create what is called verbatim theatre.

She uses a performance style called recorded delivery, requiring actors to wear earphones.

The cast don't learn any lines. Instead they listen to the recording and talk a few seconds behind, mimicking the tone and pace of delivery so that they capture the essence of the person and the intention of the words as they were first spoken.

The result is a very naturalistic and believable performance.

We were excited about the potential of this delivery for television because we felt it would give veracity to our dramatisation.

Working with Alecky, we selected 11 interviews to recreate extracts of. Hopefully viewers would experience the original interviews in a manner as true-to-life as possible, while we could maintain the anonymity of the interviewees.

The dialogue is startlingly candid and confiding because neither the interviewer or interviewee are presenting themselves to the public, but engaging in a conversation protected by anonymity for the purposes of social research.

Whilst we are able to listen in to these accounts to garner fresh insights, viewers may feel frustrated or even angry because the tone of the interviews is very different to what we might expect from BBC TV: as journalists we challenge our interviewees and ask them to justify their words, but we can't here.

Similarly we can't elucidate what our characters say or ask them to explain references that they make.

Some speak in a street vernacular that is likely to be unfamiliar to many BBC Two viewers and some of the nuances and context of what they talk about are in danger of being lost.

To balance viewpoints over the two-part series, episode two features testimony from police officers who were on the frontline during the riots and offers a very different perspective upon what happened on those nights.

Alecky's method presented a new challenge to us in translating this technique from stage to screen.

Actor Calum Callaghan wearing an earpiece

Actor Calum Callaghan wearing an earpiece

On stage the headphones can be visible and accepted as a stylistic device. On screen we wanted naturalism so camera, sound and make up all worked together to ensure the earpieces were invisible at all times.

Each actor was given one tiny earpiece that could be disguised by hair and make up and one larger earpiece that would be hidden by the camera angle.

Many of the actors thrived using the technique and if anything, the challenge will be reminding the audience that they are watching actors and not documentary footage.

The actor Calum Callaghan said to me: "It felt fresh and was such an electric way of working. It's also surprising how informative someone's voice is - I could imagine how he would sit and what he'd be doing with his hands. You just let go and trust what you hear".

Nicola Cutcher is the assistant producer of The Riots: In Their Own Words.

The Riots: In Their Own Words was originally scheduled for Monday, 16 July but was postponed after a judge overseeing a riot-related trial in Birmingham issued a court order preventing it from being broadcast.

The trial has ended and the first programme will now be shown on Monday, 13 August at 9pm on BBC Two and BBC HD.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    The reason there will be no public enquiry is the results will show government, police and communities at fault.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    I understand that the riots are an important social issue and that you are probably not in charge of the scheduling. Do we really need to be brought back to earth with such a bump the night after everyone has been feeling buoyed up by the Olympic effect ? Could it not have waited until after the Paralympic Games to get back to real life?

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Jack Sparrow, you're so wrong it's untrue.
    It's a shame that the BBC went over the top with the naturalistic theme of the show, how they used actors mimicking the real interviews (somewhat) was good, but adding in things such as drug usage was just damaging to teenagers, which, if every teenager had been involved in the riots, would be great. But there are millions of teenagers who weren't involved, and, thanks to the riots (which lead to this), the damaging stereotype, which was partially a reason for the riots, has only got worse.

    Also, some of the people interviewed were so dumb it's amazing. What was that man thinking when he said "it's like a story to tell your grand kids - like world war 2"!? And how that women encouraged attacking the police. I'd rather not have this show, and give them some intelligence instead.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Having just watched this programme (regrettably so) I can't help but question the timing of it. The day after the conclusion of the greatest show on earth. A time when every Londoner couldn't be happier or prouder to be part of this city. When the riots of last year couldn't be further from most peoples minds. The BBC think this would be a good moment to remind us all of it and rid us all the good feeling the Olympics has left?

    I'm not suggesting last summer is something that needs to be forgotten or that lessons still don't need to be learned. i just don't think today was the time to do so.

    And the less said about the portrayal of some of the people in this programme the better!

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    I agree the police tactics were definatly partly to blame, a water canon & bulldozer could have instantly stopped the riots.

    I also think media coverage showing people getting away with 42" LED tv's made it irresistible to the freeloaders and others.

    Prison is not enough to sort these people out, hard labour & REAL discipline army style. Why should we pay up to £60,000 a year to house these convicts. Put them to work and pay their debt to society!

    Phew... I'm done.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    We're these thugs paid for their interviews? I can not believe that 1 of them was not only proud to tell his grand kids of his involvement, he actually compared it to the horrors our brave heros had to go through during WW1 and WW2.

    I feel a small amount of blame towards the government. But only because they have allowed such a society where thugs can do as they like and be protected by idiotic human rights laws. They should have no rights.

    An that's coming from someone who's stupid brother served time for this.

    Give more powers to the police. That's what I say.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    I just finished watching the first series of The making of the Riots: In their own words. I found the programme frustrating because throughout the programme we heard often how middle class people were involved in the riots, however the programme focused on the black characters mainly. The key issue for me was why were the producers showing most of the black males smoking weed and the real riot footage mainly focusing on black males looting too. This isn't going to show anything but just incite further racial tension across the country. I would like answers to why the programme was produced this way? I read that the producers interviewed 250 rioters and therefore why were these people chosen?

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Oh yeah, another thing, rubber bullets, water cannons and everything else should of been used. After the first day, if the news showed the police using rubber bullets, the riots would of stopped instantly.

  • Comment number 9.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    This docu-DRAMA portrayed (incorrectly) that the rioters were created and caused by "gang" members, apart from the token middle class woman, who apparently was a school governor. This program was irresponsible in its portrayal, as some viewers may believe that this is a factual account of what happened in the London riots, when really, it's the program makers perspective and opinion on what they want you to believe. The riots were a mixture of people, class, gender, race, etc etc. Don't push all of the blame on the people from underprivileged background, because it is a false account.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    I watched the programme this evening--the words self discipline were non existent. Two wrongs never make a right.--The thoughts of these criminals to me were abhorent being born during the war. To hear an aggrieved mother declaring war on the police-wanting black people to fight the police but not break the law in other directions is naive in the extreme. Police officers black or white have families as well--if this was in china many of the rioters would now have "been disappeared" --bring back some old fashioned disciplines-- I grew up with rationing shortages, smog, no central heating refrigerators cars ice inside the windows--childhood friends with rickets etc. Yes every one should be part of society--the true culprits are the succesive politicians and short term popularity to win the next election. Politicians make the laws not the police,politicians withold the money and spend it in ways not benefitting our home communities. Suddenly it is "politic" because of the success of the Olympics to talk about the legacy. Why were school playing fields sold off-why subjects such as music sport and religion sidelined--the answer of course money----the real answer--stupidity! The riots were the tip of the iceberg--do not think this has gone away. Our society today is sick--unemployment--too much health and safety rubbish-too much interference from Brussels--too much something for nothing attitudes--banking fiascos---above all a lack of firm leadership in old fashioned morality and self disciplines and reliance. Do not give people money--food vouchers-utility vouchers etc are far better, and would save in the long term. I could say more-much more-but I would lose credibility!

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Can't believe you gave these people a platform to try and 'justify' their actions. I expected more from the BBC.

    These people look to blame everyone for their actions apart from themselves.

    The interviewers didint ask any tough questions like do they want murderers, paedos, rapists and thieves on the street amoungst their families?

    There is no way that the police can do their job without offending people along the way or they would never catch anyone. The police work their bottoms off doing rubbish hours away from their families to try and keep us all safe. They deal with unspeakable things on a daily basis.

    What have any of the rioters ever done except complain. We have a country without bias where equal opportunity is what we stand for. What more do these people want? When will people be grateful for our safe, loving society and stop being angry about their own failures.

    The BBC are wrong to show this programme at all - let alone after such a happy olympic period. Shame on you!!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    @giorgia, over 50% of the rioters were black. Less than 30% were white.

    The chances of a black person being centre of the show are obviously greater, or should that be ignored?

  • Comment number 14.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    It angers me that the individuals interviewed have not been brought to justice. And, to that middle class, middle aged, wine swilling mother who thought the riots fabulously exciting and thought it such a good idea to go and join the riots with her daughter and watch the police get brutally attacked, YOU SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF YOURSELF! You came across as the most idiotic of them all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    I take the points that people made about the timing so soon after the Olympics maybe leaving it a week or so would have been better. The programme was well made. I agree with Giorgia it focused slighty too much on black rioters where it was all social groups at it, that in itself would have made interesting TV or would that aid in further shattering the left and liberal reason that it was all down to student grants, unemployment and poverty. What was clear from this programme was that for some education has been a failure.(even though billions has been spent on it) and no matter what class or social group you think you belong to; the something for nothing society, no fear of social shame and destroying your community for personal gain is the thread that binds them all. They are out of step with modern Britain and unless they turn their lives around by admitting their wrongs by coming to terms with it and accepting punishment for what they done their social outcasting will increase. I am looking foreward to part 2 as I hope your programme has aloud Police officers to speak very frankly

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    What a poor attempt of acting as rioters, why oh why would you disgrace such a great Olympic week with this fictional tale of of what the riot would have said and acted like. There are so many people who would and could tell you of there real experience but yet you have young actors smoking drugs and is what you really saw.........really. I hope you get actors to act as police so you give a balanced programme. What a disgrace look for a new career as this one isn't working for you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Having just watched tonight's show I am completely disgusted by the way BBC2 showed the apparent perspectives of the rioters. Firstly I think that if your going to air a show on such a sensitive topic at least tell the full story. Tonight's show was absolute nonsense all it did was portray black people both young and old in a negative light making them (the black community) look ignorant and unintelligent. I believe that a wider selection and a better cross section of the black community should of been selected as opposed to those who were seemingly pleased that the riots took place and the damage that was caused as a result. Also the show concentrated on predominantly black people taking part in the riots, However i distinctly recall their being a large number of individuals from other ethnicities such as Jewish, Asian, Turkish as well as Caucasian. I feel the show was edited in order to depict the black community as the main perpetrators of the wanton destruction that took place. One of my reasons for suggesting this is the way the young Caucasian girl was portrayed in a remorseful manner but each of the black people featured were depicted in a stereotypical way suggesting that all black people dress as thugs, smoke and do not care about society or the impact that there actions had. This is simply not true and I am highly offended that the BRITISH BROADCASTING CHANNEL would willingly air such a biased and in my opinion racist perspective on a show that was supposedly intended to portray a range of opinions across those involved and effected by the riots, and although actors were used i was shocked to see that all but two actors playing these roles were black and were acting in an embarrassing and stereotypically negative manner. THIS IS NOT ACCEPTABLE!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    This programme was outrageously stereo typical and had no depth or credibility due to the heavily loaded acting. It was the most overtly racist TV programme i have ever seen and reminded me of Brass tacks more than Horizon for sure. The rucksack of weed scene, as he said" they stop and search us for nothing" was awful. Are you suggesting someone did this during research ? Tipped out a hundred bags of weed ? i very much doubt it. The BBC is capable of much more analytical and durable work than this. The timing of it was shocking too, just one day after the Olympics joy. Everyone knows that the system and successive governments have caused the riots (more than anything). The riots were genuine outrage at our governments lack of preparation for Globalisation going back to the 60s. To try to pin it on one race, as this programme clearly did, is propaganda extraordinairre. Most people see it from both perspectives POLICE and RIOTERS. This programme had one agenda. PEACE believe in the future 2012

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Congragulations to the BBC... If it was your absolute mission to increase racial tension across the country and the world as we know it then I'm sure you've been successful. HIPPOCRITES doesn't even begin to describe the makers of this show and the BBC the same advocates of the Olympics, "inspire a nation", instead try adopting the phrases "corrupting a nation" or "disheartening the youth". Your Biasm and one-sided journalism is second to none. When I watched live coverage of the riots I saw people of all ages, nationalities and genders and NOT JUST YOUNG BLACK MAILS. You should be disgusted with yourselves.


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