The director, producer and polymath Roger Graef, who has died aged 85 after a short illness, stands as one of Britain’s most accomplished filmmakers. Like a handful of our cinema artists and a larger number drawn to our television industry, he was a non-native talent, who penetrated his adopted country with both his outsider’s eye and a seemingly tireless energy.

Born in New York in 1936, he moved to the UK in 1962 as a theatre director, but already had his eye on the new art of observational documentary, and over the following six decades he would direct or produce over 160 films and programmes. Most notably, he adapted the model of Direct Cinema as what would be termed ‘fly-on-the-wall’ television, though he also worked across other styles and formats. He became a British citizen in 1995 and was awarded an OBE for services to filmmaking and broadcasting in 2006, as well as becoming the first documentarian to be awarded a BAFTA Fellowship for Lifetime Achievement, in 2004. 

In his Sight and Sound obituary of his hero D.A. Pennebaker in 2019, Graef wrote of having been an observer at Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio in New York, “fascinated by the task of conveying a sense of reality on stage”; seeing the first handheld, sync-sound, commentary-free films of Pennebaker and his collaborators Robert Drew, Ricky Leacock and the Maysles brothers “made me realise that this was the best possible way of capturing reality, and conveying it to an audience”. 

For Graef, that second part of the equation was always the point: he believed in “capturing reality” not as a big-game hunt but as a public service, a means of demystifying the world and expanding awareness. His access was his audience’s access, while the ‘direct’ observational style – open, “unmediated”, with minimal direction or editorialising – was about getting out of the audience’s way. Traditional documentary staging “implies that we know more about what’s typical than the participants do. And what we’re saying is that we know all along that we don’t,” he explained in a S&S roundtable in 1975. Or as his editor Dai Vaughan would later write: “We wished to leave people free to draw conclusions from the films as nearly as possible in the way one draws them from life.”

One of Them Is Brett (1965)

Throughout his life Graef would champion the audience’s keenness to be challenged. Graef’s first British film, One of Them Is Brett (1965), got close to individual children affected by the drug thalidomide to show their unhindered intellect (he revisited his subject in 2015’s Brett: A Life with No Arms). In the Name of Allah (1970), the first full-length study of Islam shown in the west, followed daily customs in Fez, Morocco. In between he made portraits of luminaries from John Huston to Pierre Boulez and Walter Gropius. 

His first pure observation work was the five-part series The Space Between Words (1972), a BBC commission on the subject of communication (they were films “of communication”, not “about” it, he stressed to the New York Times) in spaces from family and school to a factory, politics and diplomacy. The latter two episodes offered unprecedented filmic records of work inside the US Senate and the United Nations.

He continued in this vein for Granada, negotiating access to the UK’s Department of Trade and Industry with State of the Nation: A Law in the Making (1973), the European Commission with Inside the Brussels HQ (1975), British Steel, Occidental Petroleum and Hammersmith council in the three-part Decisions That Matter (1975), and the British Communist party in Decision: British Communism (1978). The observation of institutions is comparable with Fred Wiseman’s work, but Graef’s method was more scrupulous: he won his subjects’ consent by agreeing what discussion topics his cameraman Charles Stewart would film (and gave those subjects first right of response), and edited to chronological sequence in pursuit of a transparent summary. 

He set up his own production company – Films of Record – in 1979. And in 1982 he made the 12-part Police (1982) amid the Thames Valley Police, including A Complaint of Rape, in which three male detectives, filmed over the shoulder of an unidentified rape complainant, harass her into dropping her testimony. Graef said his film was later used in police training as a how-not-to manual. 

Feltham Sings (2002)

Graef continued to open doors. His interest in criminal justice, pursued across 30-odd programmes, including the young offenders musical Feltham Sings (2002) with Brian Hill and Simon Armitage, led to several books and a visiting professorship in criminology at the LSE. He directed three Amnesty International benefit galas, including the first The Secret Policeman’s Ball in 1979, and co-produced the first Comic Relief gala with Richard Curtis in 1984. He was a chair and trustee of theatre company Complicité, and a founding board member of Channel 4. As a board member of the ICA in the 1970s he launched its Architectural Forum; in 2016 he became an honorary fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects. The list goes on, from advising the Met police on race to redesigning the London bus map. 

Graef’s work was an expression of common purpose and an assertion of social justice. His loss amid a redoubled assault on our public-service broadcasters is bitter timing. A fitting tribute would be to republish some of his many films.

  • Roger Graef, 18 April 1936 to 2 March 2022