Man Alive was a popular documentary and current affairs series that ran on BBC Television from 1965 to 1981. During that time there were nearly 500 programmes tackling a range of social and political issues, both in the UK and abroad. It was often accused of trying to sensationalise its subjects or interviewees.
British television journalist and presenter Esther Rantzen worked on Man Alive in the mid 1960s. She went on to marry one of the programme's most prominent reporters, and executive producer Desmond Wilcox. Wilcox contributed directly to about 50 Man Alive programmes. The series was commissioned by Sir David Attenborough, who was the controller of BBC Two from 1965 to 1969.
The very first Man Alive programme, "The Heart Man", was broadcast on 4 November 1965. It focused on heart surgeon Michael Ellis DeBakey in the Methodist Hospital, Houston, Texas. There were a further eight programmes that year - Wilcox was also the programme's executive producer. Man Alive became a strand with each programme called 'Man Alive' followed by a sub-title that reflected content.
Man Alive returned in 1966 with 48 programmes followed by 51 in 1967. The documentary strand covered several stories on sex, the sex industry and exploitation, and in 1967 it broke new ground by showing the first ever bare female breast on British television (Daily Express). For its time, Man Alive had thought provoking titles for many of its programmes. The programme also faced accusations of sensationalism. Writing in The Times in 2005, Paul Hoggart said "I had not realised that BBC Two's landmark 1960s documentary strand Man Alive was accused at the time of cynical sensationalism, with producers rejoicing when they got some poor sod to weep on camera..."
Man Alive began to push the boundaries further. In 1966 a programme called "Lift up Your Skirt" explored the Playboy club scene with Malcolm Muggeridge. In 1971 sex education was the subject for scrutiny in "Sex and Common sense" followed in 1975 by "X-ploitation" which looked at the seedy side of the film industry.
At a time when television was still a relatively new medium sex, class and religion were still seen as controversial issues. This was in an era long before reality tv shows that are now commonplace throughout the world, and long before 24 hour rolling news channels existed. The ITV company Granada Television was also an emerging force in documentary and current affairs television including its own long running anthology series World in Action, although its remit was similar to the BBC's Panorama programme, which started in 1953 and is still running in 2007.
Many of the films now can be seen as invaluable snapshots of British life in a bygone age. In the early Seventies, episodes ranged from "The Other Woman", which looked at mistresses, to "The Office Party", with all that comes with it. "The Alternative Press" looked at not just Oz and IT but also small independent community newspapers that were appearing all over Britain to challenge the fat cats of Fleet Street with a more moral and intimate attempt at bringing relevant news to people. "Don't Call Us" looked at out-of-work actors, "The Possessed" was an astounding look at suburban housewives involved with the occult, and "Soho" was a leisurely trek around a fast-changing corner of Bohemian London. "The Fallen Idols" looked those who had been to the top and back, two of its subjects being Bill Maynard and the tragic Anthony Steel.
"Twinkle Twinkle Little Star", filmed in July, 1973 and broadcast on Wednesday, October 24th of that year, dealt with the British record industry's efforts to find a new pre-teen (or weenybopper) boy singing star to rival Americans such as Donny Osmond. Although it featured, among others, eleven years old Ricky Wilde (son of Marty Wilde), the programme primarily concerned itself with the beautiful and talented, although ultimately tragically ill-fated eleven years old Darren Burn, an ex-choirboy from Southgate in north London and the son of EMI executive Colin Burn. EMI spent a lot of money promoting him and, although his initial record releases in 1973 were wonderfully produced by Eric Woolfson and superbly sung by Burn, his record career failed to take off....although his first single, "Something's Gotten Hold of My Heart", backed with "True Love Ways" (EMI 2040), did manage to get to number 60 in the charts. The programme contains an interview with Darren Burn by reporter John Pitman in which Burn, sat on his bed, comes across as a far more intelligent and sophisticated eleven year old than many other boys of his age. He is so full of hope for the future and it's upsetting to see this 1973 interview now, knowing that Darren Burn was to take his own life in 1991, aged 30.
One of Man Alive's finest, but least known films is "Alone", which was broadcast over Christmas 1970. Looking at loneliness through a range of candid interviewees, including a widower who was desperate not to burden anyone else but could find no solace in his life since the death of his wife, a man who had found himself gradually losing touch with his family, and a girl who dwelt at busy railway stations to feel a sense of company, it was a heartbreaking and beautifully simple production that resisted techniques that might manipulate the viewer of over-sentimentalise the subject.
By 1975, there were fewer Man Alive programmes being made: 28 that year, followed by one in 1976, eight in 1978. The number of programmes commissioned did go back up to beyond 20 a year for the last three years; the final series was in 1981. Overall, the film which perhaps best sums up the series' strengths is "Gale is Dead", the story of Gale Parsons, who died a drug addict on 11th January 1970, during the making of the film. She had been brought up in no less that 14 institutions and was convinced that she mattered to no one. Her story was told mainly through the eyes of Mrs. Nancy David, a teacher who became a key figure in her life.
Beyond Man Alive
There were a further 10 Man Alive Debate programmes in 1982, but the strand was to be dropped by the BBC. It was replaced by 40 Minutes, the new programme, without presenter or reporter, marked another new direction, towards the so-called fly-on-the-wall documentary. The new replacement for Man Alive was edited by Edward Mirzoeff. (The Times 1989).
Wilcox set up the Man Alive Group, an independent production company formed with original Man Alive producer Michael Latham - he died in January 2006.
Desmond Wilcox continued to make television programmes as an independent producer, in 1983 his film, "The Boy David" for the BBC's The Visit strand earned him critical acclaim (Observer obituary). It centred on David Lopez, abandoned as a baby in Peru, who had a disease eating away at his face. Desmond Wilcox died in September 2000.
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