The 50 Greatest Documentaries, Channel 4

by | Oct 9, 2005 | All, Reviews

What to say if you liked it

An awe-inspiring reminder of some of the amazing, painstaking work done by the world’s documentary makers

What to say if you disliked it

Another bloody list show.

What was good about it?

• Although the positioning of the programmes on the chart was the usual futile exercise, the choices reflected the breadth of documentary making – providing entertainment, righting wrongs, analysing history, exploring the world, revealing the good, bad and the ridiculous – and the stories behind the documentaries were often as interesting as the films themselves.

• The reminder that some documentaries have changed the world, including John’s Not Mad (helped us understand Tourette’s), The Secret Policeman (uncovered racism) and World In Action (exposed the wrongful conviction of the Birmingham Six). And the sad reminder that Farenheit 9/11 failed to change the world because George Bush survived as president.

• The inclusion of updates on the subjects of memorable documentaries such as John Davidson (enjoying a good life despite his Tourette’s Syndrome), the black teenagers featured in Hoop Dreams (didn’t make the NBA but have succeeded in life) and the participant in Wife Swap who now sports a tattoo of the programme’s logo

• The range of colourful characters who came to prominence via TV documentaries, including Fred Dibnah, crusty old Colonel Harry Hook, even Lizzie Bardsley

• The revelation that Noel Edmonds was asked to present Around The World In 80 Days. The fact that he didn’t is a mercy.

• None of the usual, annoying, pointless talking heads (eg Gina Yashere, Paul Ross, that girl from The Sun). Well, okay, there was one: Donal McIntyre.

• The inventive presentation of the chart positions

• David Attenborough

What was bad about it?

• While the inclusion of Wife Swap and Faking It was justified because of their talkaboutability, there was no merit in Driving School, especially as it spawned hundreds of other cheap docusoaps

• Peter Bazalgette’s lofty justification for his intrusive programmes

• It was wise to include Louis Theroux’s views throughout, but he deserved more than just one placing – at number 50 – with his encounter with Jimmy Savile, which wasn’t even one of his best documentaries. And it certainly isn’t, as Jimmy claimed, “the most repeated TV show in the history of TV.”

• Too many of the talking heads were situated in loft apartments, suggesting documentary making is the preserve of the Metropolitan elite

• The Boy Whose Skin Fell Off should have been number one

Click here for the complete Top 50…

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles


Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!


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