Neighbourhood Watched: Behind the scenes of a social housing documentary
Published by Jon Land for 24dash.com in Housing
Neighbourhood Watched: Behind the scenes of a social housing documentary
Neighbourhood Watched, the popular BBC documentary series that shines a spotlight on the work of housing officers, has been back on our screens this spring.
In a 24housing exclusive, David Rigby, communications consultant and series adviser, provides a unique insight into how the programme is put together and how the social landlords involved had to put aside some serious doubts before agreeing to take part.
Inviting a television crew to film you for six months is not immediately appealing to many social landlords. Most press officers in the housing sector worry that 'when repairs go wrong' is all the local media interest themselves with. Yet the reason most of us work in housing is because each day brings something new and often immense satisfaction. There's a rich seam of stories in this business.
"Neighbourhood Watched" is back on BBC One this month, following a successful first series shown in August 2009. Successful certainly in attracting viewers – almost 2.5m watched each episode, a good market share at the time it went out – and, as much as I can tell, successful with the sector. Though thinking back, 'brave' was actually the most common adjective I heard...
The second series shows the work of New Charter and Housing Pendle, two landlords who appeared in the first series. They are joined by two Oldham landlords, Aksa Housing Association and the recently-converted First Choice Homes Oldham. That they are all based in a relatively small area of the North West helped award-winning independent production company Raw Television with the logistics of filming. But there's nothing in the water round here; none of the landlords are bulging with staff desperate to appear on national television.
Series producer Nic Blower thinks the series could only have been commisioned by the BBC. "It's quite something for a documentary series about social housing to get primetime coverage," he says.
I managed both series for the main landlord featured, New Charter. Against a backdrop of initial concern from the NHF, series one was a process of feeling my way and establishing a relationship with Raw which would be good for the sector and make programmes people wanted to watch.
Back in 2009, New Charter tenancy enforcement officer Pam Hollingsworth shared the NHF's concern and chose not to take part. But she's featured in several stories in series two. Why the change of heart? "Obviously, I had seen the first series which felt like a massive step into the unknown," she says. "But it was a fair and accurate portrayal of our work. It showed there's more to our jobs. I felt the film crew could be trusted. And as everyone says, you quickly forget they are there."
Trust crops up in most conversations about the observational documentary. Housing officer Sandra Proctor appears in both series for Lancashire landlord Housing Pendle. Although filmed by different crews, she felt relaxed with them all. "There was no pressure, and the crews blended into the background. They are professional, and from the start respected how much time and effort I put in to get the right results for tenants."
Ms Proctor says she was picked accidentally; her casework attracted the attention of the crew while in her office. There was more planning at the larger landlord. I used New Charter's team brief meetings to get groups of staff talking about their jobs, with the crew as silent observers. Exchanging notes at the end helped draw up a list of staff who interested us. There was no obligation to take part, but I confess to grooming a few staff whose competence I knew.
Like Sandra Proctor, New Charter Lettings Manager Shonna Hildersley appears in both series, providing important continuity. "It was easy to agree to be in another series. The film crew were different personnel, and it took a bit to get to know them. Once we'd got a story developing, they could be quite persistent - but if I really didn't have the time that day, I could be equally blunt! Even though I know how things turn out, I can't wait to see the programmes."
The style of documentary gathers material as it goes along, rather than having a clear agenda. It wasn't quite a blank sheet of paper, though. I had set out a list of opportunities which series producer Nic Blower explored. He says: "The best stories are very personal and need characters who will provoke a reaction with viewers. But they need to be typical of landlords and tenants. I did not simply want the outrageous. The BBC commission was clear that it did not want another 'neighbours from hell' series. And it's not an early evening-type documentary – there's room to develop, let the stories breathe."
On the treatment table
Some elements are the result of planning, however. Reviewing series one, I was struck by the lack of black characters, which reflected neither the staff or customer bases of the landlords. I did not want this to happen a second time. My discomfort was acknowleged by Blower, and we addresed this by extending the second series to include Aksa Housing Association, a BME specialist provider. This guaranteed us more representative filming; although the crew also chanced upon a strong story inside New Charter featuring a black Zimbabwean.
If there is to be any demarcation, this has to be clear before filming starts. For series one, I 'redlined' some areas of New Charter's work; for series two I didn't. One area I had hoped would feature was Family Intervention, but we couldn't reach agreement with New Charter's partners. Common work such as evictions was trickier to cover, as we could not film court bailiffs. Other partners were readier to be filmed alongside housing staff, and throughout, the series had great cooperation from both Lancashire and Greater Manchester Police.
The TV deal
I was honest about sharing my wider objectives about representing the image of the housing sector with the producer. But I didn't have editorial control. The crews are not there to film a corporate DVD.
Although I would prompt some opportunities, you have to let the TV professionals tell the story. I have a particular worry about storylines involving pets - and there are some included - as it is easy to stray into being shown as an uncaring landlord. I wrestled with topicality too, trying to assess what would be relevant by time of transmission. Housing benefit changes and latterly the affordable rent regime were big news during filming, but were difficult to portray. Making best use of stock (overcrowding and underoccupation) seemed more constant, and the filmmakers got some good material. They had a few environmental challenges to contend with – the General Election, World Cup and even Remembrance Day could have provided unwelcome visual time references. Those
Even just five years ago, we were dependent on press releases being picked up by news organisations, usually the local press. Now, a characteristic of our public relations is editorial control. Bruised no doubt by past maulings, we rarely provide a rounded picture of challenges and achievements. The rise of social media and e-news sites such as 24dash means we publish what we want and push the stories we choose. But this can mean we turn news into Annual Report-speak - and who wants to read those? I think this has a danger of self-congratulation, and the sheer volume of mass media can swamp our efforts. But television, especially the main terrestrial channels, itself generates instant public response. Follow "Question Time" on Twitter if you are in any doubt.
I know from other landlords that television is seen as scary. Press officers doubt their Chief Executives would take the risk. But it's taking that risk which will give the public a better understanding of social housing. I was lucky to be employed by someone who could see the bigger picture. Group Chief Executive at New Charter Ian Munro gave me two rules (he wasn't to be in it, no staff to be forced to take part) and his support. "Reputation matters, so I used our risk management on the proposal to film. But the sector is conservative about this sort of thing, which leaves it open to unfair portrayal on such productions as Tower Block of Commons (Channel 4) and The Duchess on the Estate (ITV)", he recalls. "Just as TV can give a poor perception of social housing, so it can help show the truth."
All the stories filmed are genuine, and if there are happy endings, that's what happened. Nothing occurs differently because the crew are following a story, apart from the timing of some appointments to avoid clashing with other filming. I recall watching a rough cut of the first series and being relieved that at least one story (an applicant who'd move out of owner-occupation and back with her elderly parents) didn't end neatly with an offer. We achieve a great deal in housing, but trying to conceal the challenges and unmet needs won't help our case for greater investment and more homes.
Most staff admit to to being self-conscious about what they say on camera, although I had a recovery protocol agreed with Raw in case of genuine mistakes. Pam Hollingsworth says she was careful what she said, but not guarded: "I'm conversing with the customer, and it's essential they understand me. But I was very aware I was representing my company and my words would be replayed."
Post-programme recognition was another area of early concern for staff, but most enjoyed it. Sandra Proctor recalls feeling conspicious driving round her patch with a camera strapped to the outside of her car. "And I was stopped by a stranger in Asda, who was certain they knew me, but couldn't quite place where from." New Charter's Alan Kibble also appeared live on BBC Breakfast to promote series one and was identified in his local chippy, although his fame didn't produce a free lunch! And one member of staff received a romantic proposal by email after appearing in the first series.
Undoubtedly finding and filming good news stories is more difficult than those 'neighbours from hell' examples. Sometimes this is down to staff modesty, but more often it's about getting the film crews in at the beginning of a tale. Many of the interactions we have with customers don't feel special – we regard them as just part of the job. But it's sometimes the ordinaryness which can attract the filmmaker.
Consent can be a tricky area, and we lost two good stories as tenants withdrew consent at the last minute. "Most customers are happy to be filmed," says Shonna Hildersley. Pam Hollingsworth thinks the rise of reality TV shows helps. "Some tenants see it as glamorous, their 15 minutes of fame. Others such as witnesses and victims were initially less ready, but they had stories to tell. The film crew could put their minds at rest."
Once filming finishes, there's still much to do before transmission. Editing started a few weeks before footage was finalised, so a first cut was available quite quickly. The BBC wants everything independently validated, so voiceover generalisations like 'overcrowding is increasing' have to be proved. One story affected by a subsequent court case had to be replaced. And as transmission nears, each story is checked for updates; a changed outcome may need a caption card inserting before the end credits.
For me, the key test for the series is 'where will the viewers' sympathies lie?' I'm confident the second series takes our image forward. This is not being over-protective about landlords; I'm as concerned about the many good customers who appear.
Just as landlords perform differently, so there are production companies and production companies. You can do all the checks and balances, but some judgements come down to personal relationships. It was the right decision to work with Raw Television, whose ethical stance on programme making I've grown to admire.
But as series two transmits, I'll be measuring on two counts. Will the series attract viewers? All the care taken in production is wasted if no one watches, and this time the series is going head-to-head with the fictitious "Shameless". And will it help show those viewers who will never be our tenants that social housing is caring, friendly, businesslike and worth investing in? I'll be watching.