The road from television documentary to feature drama is a well-trodden one. Paul Greengrass began his career on World in Action and has just released his latest Bourne film; Kevin Macdonald made documentaries for Channel 4 and the BBC before winning awards for The Last King of Scotland. Dave Nath, whose excellent series Bedlam and The Murder Detectives both won Baftas, will this week join their ranks with The Watchman. This claustrophobic, intense and deeply absorbing drama – filmed in one room as a virtual single-hander – relates one eventful night in the life of CCTV operator Carl (played by This is England’s Stephen Graham) who, having alerted the police to drug dealing on an estate, becomes increasingly frustrated by their inaction and decides to intervene.
Oddly enough, a sense of powerlessness lay behind Nath’s decision to move into drama. “What frustrated me about making documentaries is not having control of the story during filming,” he says. “I’d been doing them for 25 years and got to the point where I wanted to do something I didn’t know how to do at all, to be scared by it. No one was going to give me a million-pound budget for a drama, which was a relief because there’s an expectation and way of working that goes with that. You can break a lot of rules on low-budget drama because you have to.”
It’s no surprise that a seasoned documentarian should choose to make his dramatic debut a film with a contentious issue at its heart: CCTV has long been a battleground for civil liberty campaigners and those who believe it essential for the nation’s security. “Sometimes it can be good and sometimes there’s a bit of overkill,” says Nath, “but I’d rather be watched than not, particularly in the current climate.”
Estimates vary wildly, but there are believed to be between 4.5 million and 6 million CCTV cameras in the UK – one of the largest number per capita in the world. Nath was keen to avoid making a statement about the real or perceived growth of a surveillance society, in spite of one discombobulating sequence in which Carl talks directly to someone contemplating suicide through CCTV speakers. “It was piloted in a dozen or so councils,” explains Nath, “but only three or four have it now – people felt it made the Big Brother side of things feel very overt.
Instead, the drama examines the emotional impact of CCTV both on the watcher and the watched. One of Nath’s key inspirations was Hitchcock’s Rear Window, the blueprint for any film exploring the implications of voyeurism; during his research, Nath discovered several examples of CCTV operators going rogue. “I’d never written a script before, so as a documentary journalist I had to ask: has it happened? Yes it has, and we don’t know if it’s happening elsewhere. We only know if they get caught.”
Some men, he learnt, had watched women in “compromising situations”, while Scott Thompson, a 43-year-old from Surrey, was convicted of stalking in 2014 after using council cameras to spy on his wife and family. Guidelines around CCTV in the UK are advisory rather than legally binding, making such incidents hard to regulate.
The fictional case of Carl and genuine one of Thompson are of course exceptions, but it’s hard to deny that the lot of a CCTV operator is an increasingly unhappy one. Nath describes Carl as “a good man who loses his way, who forgets the boundaries and the rules”, left alone in the office after cost-cutting. Most state-owned CCTV stations are run by local councils or contracted out by them to commercial companies. With austerity biting deeply, many are now staffed by one person, while increasingly stretched police forces aren’t able to respond to every alert. “Five years ago, you’d have had two or three people in there acting as a check on each other,” says Nath. “Where is the accountability if there’s no one else in the room? It places a massive onus of responsibility on one person.”
For Carl, that responsibility proves too much, with far-reaching consequences. “It’s all about misinterpretation. What you see on screen doesn’t necessarily have context, so what you’re watching isn’t necessarily the truth,” Nath warns. “Whatever the paranoia is at the moment, whether it’s about paedophilia or terrorism, does that mean a CCTV operator is always looking for something that’s not always there? Carl’s become sanitized to that world, so his interpretation of everything is less objective. You could easily have a situation where someone wants to stop bad things he’s seeing, but every time he reports something nothing happens, week after week until there’s a tipping point. A certain sort of person might take the law into their own hands.”
That urge to “take back control” again? The Watchman wrapped before the EU Referendum, but Nath agrees its themes are unavoidably timely. “There are people who feel impotent. Morally good people can be corrupted by the context of the world they’re in.”
The Watchman is on Channel 4 at 9pm on Wednesday 24th August