[2 January 2012]
PopMatters Associate Books Editor
Is Molly Dineen Dr. Frankenstein? I mean, others did a similar thing before her but she really zapped the monster that is the reality TV documentary into life. In this collection she takes on one of the more larger than life figures of ‘90s culture: ‘Ginger Spice’ Geri Halliwell. Monstrous, indeed. The juggernaut that was ‘Girl Power’ ground to a halt with Halliwell’s departure from the Spice Girls in 1998.
Within hours of the announcement she had engaged Dineen to start recording her experiences as a free woman. One of the first instances where a clash of expectations is evident is on the Eurostar train to Paris, where Halliwell is hoping to hide out from the publicity. She is speaking to ‘her people’ on the phone reassuring them that she will have creative control over the material that Dineen shoots and edits and final say as to whether or not it will ever be shown. Dineen soon puts her straight on this! What the ex-Spice Girl misunderstood is that the documentary was not about her. It was about Dineen the film-maker’s interface with her.
This collection of work from the turn of the century to 2008 not only records some crucial and historical events in UK popular culture and politics, it also marks the full transition of Dineen’s work. From possessing the status of observer, who occasionally intervenes when necessity demands it (such as interviews in her earlier work), and the person who stays true to the documentary philosophy of allowing the subjects to reveal events, this strand of her work marks her firmly out as an actor in her unique dramas.
Those dramas also become steadily more and more political. Arising from her reinvention of the Party Election Broadcast for Tony Blair’s New Labour campaign in 1997, she established more of a celebrated status in her own right. If she hoped to proffer the anonymous voice of the documentary maker after that then she could forget it! Helping the new Labour machine into power was just the first of her influential involvements in public broadcasting.
Her film for Blair depicts him as the newly-electable face of Labour; and literally lingers on his face for long moments. As one of the extras on this set, it is the most chilling and significant film: in its brevity and propagandising. Accepting the commission to make a film for a political party is a hands-down agreement to take a specific point of view; and the way she manipulates that point of view is very cunning indeed. It shows Blair as a man of the people, and as a family man, as well as activist and voice of the poor and down-trodden; but in such a way as to seem natural and unaffected.
You can see the style, now so often used, being invented in this film. That of the politician as ordinary man, and gives us her filming the press filming him. However, there is a difficulty with this. Blair is a really bad actor and despite her best efforts she could not make the rigid smile he displayed so regularly show in his eyes! He just could not fake sincerity. Much of the image making in this film was later used against him as his popularity slumped and the New Labour deal failed. It offered substantial fodder for parody and satire, carried out by Michael Sheen in more than one outing as Blair, and culminating in the biting cynicism of Armando Ianucci’s TV series The Thick of It (2005-2009) and film, In The Loop (2009).
By way of an apology for her championing of New Labour, Dineen’s other documentaries in this collection are The Lord’s Tale (2002) and The Lie of the Land (2007). In these she offers a distinctly conservative tone to her work and opinions. The first deals with the reform of the House of Lords and she shows her trademark sympathy for the doddery, charming old gentlemen (who of course think she is gorgeous!) and their plea for the place of the aristocracy in the 21st century.
She showed more balance in The Lie of the Land which takes up the position of the rural workforce in Britain at the time the ban on fox-hunting had just gone through Parliament. Dineen felt she was making a shock revelation: that country people in the UK are not all port-swilling, fox-hunting toffs who live in large houses. They are very hard-working, modestly resourced people who as farmers find themselves subjected to price fixing from supermarket purchasers. But this comes as no surprise to most people. It’s not social status that people objected to when they supported the ban on hunting with dogs. Someone’s income, or lack of it, does not make cruelty any less obnoxious.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the more hard-hitting and mainstream material she handles in this set of films Dineen seems to have lost some of her balance and that worthwhile quality of allowing the subjects to speak for themselves. These images are very much mediated through the eye of the documentary maker; and her presence is everywhere. It becomes quite incongruous and ludicrous at times in Geri, when the singer tells Dineen she thinks of her as a friend. A desperate symbiosis developed between the two and it is not edgy or interesting – just a bit pathetic. The one feeds off the other to generate this non-event. Interestingly, on the extras Halliwell is interviewed but not with Dineen and no longer talks of her in such glowing terms.
Dineen does not achieve the heights she did with Heart of the Angel (1989). She might need to go back underground, for a while.