Just as they say you cannot lie on Twitter – 280 characters is enough to let your essential character show – it seems the same is true for television documentaries you make about yourself and your family.
This is the major lesson to take from The Pandemic at No 47 (Channel 4), a film made by the award-winning director and producer Paddy Wivell about living under lockdown. Unable, by definition, to go much beyond his house and street, Wivell posted notes through residents’ doors, inviting them to stop and chat whenever they went on their legal excursions to shops or out for a walk.
What happened next amounted to little more than you would expect if a TV director and producer pointed his camera out of the bay window of his house on a leafy north London street and waited for people to pass by. A lot of people nodded politely and kept on going. Some engaged and gave non-valuable insight into how the pandemic had affected them. One couple had taken to sherry at six, and filled their days with watercolour painting (her) and planning sailing trips to be taken once things returned to normal (him). A man with an effortful hairstyle advised Paddy to make a will. Another was able to “completely enjoy” the experience of watching MasterChef without feeling that he was wasting his time.
There is nothing inherently bad or wrong with this, of course, though I would like to state, as a south Londoner, that the effortful hairstyles and the likelihood of being embroiled in a fly-on-the-wall documentary by underemployed media folk was exactly why I didn’t go north of the river until I was 25. It is thin stuff from which to fashion an entire hour.
What luck, then, that Wivell remembered there was “an estate” nearby. A Kenyan-born handyman, Mohammed, at first seemed a little unhinged. Gloved and masked in his own home, he refused to go out or talk to Wivell from anywhere closer than his upstairs window. As lockdown wore on, however, he started taking night-time walks and allowed Wivell to accompany him. It produced a rare moment of emotion and insight, as Mohammed calmly explained his initial reaction stemmed from bringing up two severely asthmatic children. “When you have held someone in your lap, gasping for air, saying: “Dad, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe”, and 12 years down the line you hear of something like corona – what do you think goes through someone’s mind? How easy is a breath, sitting here. We inhale, we exhale … But there is someone in a bed right now who cannot do it. It’s a bad one, Paddy. This virus is a bad one.”
A fellow estate resident, Lisa, was a force to be reckoned with. No, the pandemic had not brought people together. “You say neighbourhood, but you don’t live where we live.” A bit later she adds with a half-grin: “This is your whole house, isn’t it? We’re going to come round and rob your house. Have a nice day!” She isn’t threatening – she’s making a point. Just as she does in his final visit to the estate. “Got used to you now. You can make me some banana cake. Ha ha. Joking. God bless and hallelujah.”
Given that there was such prime material – a council estate literally abutting the leafy street he lives on – something on the socio-economic aspect beyond Wivell’s single comment: “It’s clear the impact of the virus is not equal” (44 minutes into a 47-minute film) would have been welcome. As it was, the real interest and insight lay in the glimpses of Wivell’s life. His utter disengagement from any – even his most immediate – neighbours until now (his wife, Jodi, knew more because of the children and school). The lack of warmth, true communication or development in any of his relationships with the neighbours as time went on – thrown into sharp relief by a local teenager, Sebastian, who established more rapport with a stranger on camera than Wivell had with anyone. The exchange with his tearful wife when home-schooling was announced. “I think I’m ill-equipped to teach our children anything,” said Jodi. “Don’t,” he told her. “That’s a really negative attitude to start off with.” When this didn’t seem to help, he asked: “What do you expect me to do in all of this?” “All of it,” she said hopelessly, jokingly. “I’ve got a job!” he snapped.
I know who I’d give the camera to next time round.