Those who say the genre is in decline couldn’t be more wrong, argues Hamish Mykura.

This year, Sheffield Doc/Fest has moved to the summer. Instead of hurrying from screening rooms to steamy bars in the blustery dark, delegates will sit on the grass and ponder the future of their craft on long summer evenings.

But not everything changes. Back again are the annual cries of woe that documentaries have lost their way and are not supported by broadcasters. In The Guardian this month, Mark Lawson talked of a “last stand” of documentary against the diluting effect of new approaches and technologies.

But docs are thriving as never before, and at the very centre of the TV schedules. They’re more diverse, innovative and stronger than ever. You’ll find real quality in Strangeways on ITV and Our War on BBC3. And on Channel 4, documentaries have had a bumper year. Big Fat Gypsy Weddings was a dizzying phenomenon and a national talking point, while the fixed camera rigs came of age.

Southampton Hospital maternity ward, Kings College A&E and a Lake District hotel were rigged with dozens of remote-controlled cameras, and material was recorded by teams in OB vans monitoring and mixing feeds 24 hours a day. Like Springwatch with human beings, these series capture the tiny, telling moments and the big dramas.

They are popular - One Born Every Minute was C4’s most successful documentary series of 2010 - and durable. The intimacy and humanity of the stories that emerge can sustain long series of up to 14 episodes with the potential to return. These are quality factual soap operas for our time.

For some, that’s the problem. For Kevin Macdonald to say of fixed rigs “surveillance is not the same as documentary” is to miss the point. Observing these series being made, it’s clear that the relationship between film-maker and subject is as strong and as thoughtful as in any single-camera doc. Directors like Jonathan Smith (The Family) and Anthony Philipson (24 Hours In A&E) hone and construct their narratives in the cutting room. They reveal structure and emotion within the huge mass of material.

Assembling rig series well is documentary-making at its finest. Don’t be fooled by the panning and zooming of the dinky cameras - this is a million miles from CCTV surveillance. The uses of the fixed rig will evolve but the technology is established as a part of the modern documentary-maker’s toolkit.

This has not been at the expense of more traditional documentary. I’ve never known a period when so many approaches were all working at the same time: formats like Secret Millionaire, observational series like Coppers, single films in Cutting Edge. True Stories is British TV’s premier showcase for theatrical release and festival documentaries, showing 40 new films a year, while new directors can make their debuts in First Cut.

What links all these programmes together is a driving curiosity to see and explain the world and to change it for the better. They are public service delivered to broad and substantial mainstream audiences and give a voice to the key workers who keep society moving.

With new feature-length docs coming to C4 from Nick Broomfield, Kim Longinotto and Werner Herzog, it just might be that the golden age is now. And if you don’t agree, come and argue the toss with me in Sheffield, sitting on the grass.

Hamish Mykura is head of documentaries, Channel 4

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