Now that’s what I call binge-drinking

Never mind the alcopops: Paul Watson's film Rain in my Heart showed that alcohol abuse is rarer and more complex than some people think.

Dolan Cummings

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British director Paul Watson is known, among other things, as the filmmaker who brought the ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary technique to the public consciousness, especially with his 1974 series, The Family, in which he intimately documented the life of a working-class British family. The technique has been much emulated, criticised and parodied. TV critic Christopher Dunkley once dubbed it ‘the elephant-on-the-floor’, since it was fanciful to imagine people simply went about their normal business despite the hulking presence of a camera crew at every turn.

Watson’s approach was always about more than turning up and pointing a camera, though. Instead, he has got to know all his subjects, cultivating relationships over time before even beginning filming, so the impact of his presence is minimised, or at least used in service of the film and what he and the subject hope to get from it. This aspect of Watson’s filmmaking was foregrounded to an unprecedented degree in Rain In My Heart, which was broadcast on BBC2 last night. In it, he followed four alcoholics in and out of hospital in Kent; he is often seen on camera as well as behind it, and the film is cut with his occasional commentary on the making of the film itself.

On one level, the film could be seen as an investigation of the blight of alcoholism, and indeed it was followed by a Newsnight discussion that focused on this, and especially the idea that the government should move to deal with the problem by increasing tax on booze. But really Rain In My Heart is an intimate portrait of its four subjects, Mark, Vanda, Toni and Nigel, and through this it becomes clear that their alcoholism is inseparable from other problems, including personal tragedies, mental illness and ultimately the depressingly run-down character of the Medway towns where they live.

The subject Watson seems to get closest to is Vanda, an unhappy fortysomething woman who appears to be overcoming her drink problem only to relapse in front of Watson’s, and our, eyes. There can be no pretence of detachment here. He doesn’t actively try to stop her drinking – others make it clear in the film that this isn’t possible anyway – but he does tell her he doesn’t want her to drink; he is disappointed for her, if not disappointed in her, as she suggests. (Vanda clearly values Watson’s opinion of her.) In the midst of this, the elephant on the floor accidentally spills Vanda’s drink. ‘I wish I could say that had been deliberate,’ he says in commentary. ‘Stop getting in my way,’ she complains.

Watson compares the experience to that of watching a wounded animal and not being able to help. Someone wrote to the BBC’s Points of View programme last week to suggest that it would have done no harm if the makers of the documentary Planet Earth had shot just one walrus to help out a starving polar bear shown in the programme. As a fan of polar bears, I have some sympathy with that, but clearly it’s not really what documentary-making is about. Watson’s frustration is palpable when an already very sick Mark downs a glass of wine in front of him. ‘Wouldn’t at least sipping be a good idea, if you must drink?’ he implores. ‘I don’t sip,’ replies Mark.

I’m reminded of fictional recovering alcoholic Leo McGarry, the president’s chief of staff in The West Wing. In one episode someone asks him why he can’t allow himself even just one drink. ‘I don’t want one drink’, he replies. ‘I want 10 drinks.’ The same desperate reality of alcoholism is apparent in Rain In My Heart, but its subjects are a world away from the White House. We know that alcoholism affects people in all walks of life, but it is not a disease that strikes randomly. It emerges from particular life stories – in particular social circumstances, which is why people in places like the Medway towns suffer disproportionately.

Paul Watson responds compassionately to Vanda’s revelation that she was abused as a child, but he does not rule out the possibility that her story is the product of her current despair rather than vice versa. The film is not about explaining alcoholism, least of all by identifying single root causes, but rather about depicting it in all its grim complexity. By contrast, the Newsnight discussion about raising the price of alcopops as one way to counter alcoholism (did they even watch Watson’s film?) was depressingly glib.

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