Docs Dose: Alan Hall on “flourishing” radio docs and the importance of brushing your teeth

This week we speak to multi-award winning radio producer Alan Hall, who has developed a global reputation for long-form documentaries. He has also agreed to be one of our judges of the first Whicker Audio Award, and this is something we are going to crow about SHAMELESSLY.

In anticipation of the application deadline for our funding and recognition awards, we have asked five leading lights in the world of documentary making to answer the Whicker’s World Foundation questionnaire. We hope ‘Docs Dose’ will serve as both inspiration and light relief as you perfect your applications ahead of the January 31st deadline (…It’s getting close now).

Alan joined the BBC as a clerical assistant in 1985 to fund his prog rock musical career, but fell in love with radio production. He became a staff producer for BBC Radio 3 in 1990 and won two Prix Italias and Sony Gold during his time there.

In 1998 he left the BBC to establish Falling Tree Productions, a world-renowned company which has continued to win major awards. Falling Tree has established its illustrious reputation by providing a wide variety of programmes, not only across BBC networks but also to broadcasters across Europe, North America and Australia. Falling Tree Productions has also produced programmes for podcasts and audio tours for cultural institutions including the Tate Modern. The Observer has described them as “a hallmark of excellence when it comes to radio documentaries”.

Hall has not abandoned his musical background, indeed he is particularly acclaimed for music features and the ‘impressionistic’ style of his radio. He thinks of radio producers as composers who “take words and sounds and make music out of them”. Nonetheless, Hall has also made documentaries about a variety of subjects including the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the bombing of Coventry by the Luftwaffe. Speaking to the Sunday Times about documentary makers, he said “we’re neither journalists nor artists”: he regards documentaries as lying somewhere between reporting and pure imagination.

Hall’s latest production, Laura Barton’s Notes from a Musical Island, is an exploration of the shifting character of the British Isles through the prism of music listened to in various regions: it will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in February.

1) In three words I became a documentary maker because…

I couldn’t sing.

2) What changes have you seen in the last few years?

Not just the survival of feature-making and the documentary discipline (which I feared might fade around the time I left the BBC in 1998) but that it is flourishing and, dare I say, ‘in fashion’ (which worries me only mildly).

3) Where would you like to see the documentary genre going… why?

I’d like to see a continued evolution of critical thinking about documentary/feature/true story-telling forms as well as a continued growth in popular listenership, with more cross-border appreciation. There are styles & traditions in Europe which don’t get the recognition they deserve, partly because of language issues, partly because of the current dominance of linear US modes.

4) What was the last thing you saw on screen or through the lens that made your skin creep or tingle?

Gogglebox. I love the humanity and wit it reveals on important things. It makes Britain seem more nuanced and empathetic than older media. I am less taken by the ‘staged’ aspects.

5) Which moment in the whole documentary process makes you the most happy?

Sitting back, away from the software controls and the shavings of the cutting room, and listening – just listening – to the first pass of a mix … then making it more elegant.

6) Who in the industry do you think is underrated? Why?

One Dane, Rikke Houd, and one Englishman who settled in Denmark, Tim Hinman of Third Ear. They are both touched by genius and they are both selflessly supportive of others.

7) Who in the industry do you think is overrated? Why?

Not a person but a school or style: the story-telling formula that’s prevalent in (way too) much US speech podcasting.

8) What’s the most surprising encounter of location that triggered a story for you?

Visiting a French teacher to talk about civic education to find he was best friends with Charb, the murdered Charlie Hebdo cartoonist.

9) What’s the best tip you have inherited?

Never say ‘no’; don’t be ill and always ask for more money (advice from Geoffrey Smith of BBC Radio 3). Plus, book holidays in advance and honour them!

10) What’s the best tip you’d like to pass on?

Trust your instincts, then put the best bits in the right order. And from the pianist Keith Tippett: open your heart to all the beautiful possibilities this world has to offer and remember to brush your teeth.

We would like to thank Alan for answering our questionnaire and agreeing to serve as an award judge. As a member of the judging panel for the Audio Award, his responses are especially relevant to those who are intending to apply for that recognition prize.

The deadline is approaching fast so make sure you submit your application now for a chance to win the £4,000 prize money.

Next week, Singaporean documentary filmmaker Mak CK will tell us what moved him to tears whilst filming on location in Tanzania.

If you would like to find out more about Falling Tree Productions you can visit their website or follow their Twitter feed @FallingTreeProd for excellent listening recommendations.

Words by our researcher Curtis Gallant