After a decade, liberated from money, a documentary series on ‘Britain’s Greatest Living Woodsman’ grows from broadcast reject to activist innovation
The Man Who Built His House In The Woods
You may not recognise the name Ben Law, but mention ‘The Man Who Built His House In The Woods’ to any viewers of the long-running architectural TV series Grand Designs and they know who you mean.
Audiences, and presenter Kevin McCloud, remember Ben’s 2003 episode ahead of all the hundreds of other Grand Designs episodes, each of which followed the format of documenting people building their ‘dream homes’.
The odd thing is, the Ben Law episode completely ignores Grand Designs’ longstanding and successful format. Grand Designs’ dirty secret is that, much as professional and armchair builders might enjoy the aesthetic appearance and construction ingenuity of the featured houses, for most viewers its appeal is car-crash voyeurism, drenched in schadenfreude.
A standard Grand Designs episode follows deluded middle-class amateurs, often a couple, on their architectural journey from conception to completion. McCloud tops and tails the show, dropping in before every ad break to monitor progress and interrogate the protagonist(s). We’re complicit as McCloud artfully gets his interviewees to set themselves up the jeopardy they unfailingly, obligingly provide.
They all start out confident in their design, engineering and project management capabilities. They all wind up sheepishly admitting that however attractive the final project may have turned out, it came in way over budget and schedule, causing emotional havoc, financial hardship and devasatating stress along the way.
All, that is, except for Ben Law.
Ben’s Woodland House
McCloud and the Grand Designs crew followed Ben, a Sussex woodsman, as he ‘attempts to build his dream home: a handmade, cruck-framed wooden house, totally self-sufficient, with no mains services’.
The first few minutes hint at early jeopardy, in the unpromising form of an argument over planning permission. It’s a mini 3-Act play:
- After years living in a tent, bivouac and caravan, Ben wants a proper house to live at his workplace, Prickly Nut Wood, a coppice woodland in the Sussex stockbroker belt
- Ben applies to his local council for planning permission to build a house from local materials
- The local planning department refuses
- That’s designated agricultural land, object the planners. You can’t build there
- But I need to live where I work, insists Ben. Surely you don’t want me to live in a tent forever
- But if we let you build a house, we won’t let you sell it on its own, point out the planners
- I don’t want to sell my house, says Ben, I want to live in it
- You’ll have to sign a legal document preventing you from selling the house separately from the woodland, insist the planners
- ‘Fine’, says Ben, calmly
- ‘Ah…OK then’, say the planners, as they sign off on his plans, so baffled they barely notice no one’s built a house like this, in this way, for more more than a century
For property-value-obsessed British viewers, this bureaucratic bickering was captivating because it was so deeply subversive. The notion of building a house just to live in, rather than as the biggest investment of your life, optimised for capital growth, was almost transgressive.
Jeopardy-wise, the rest of the episode was a complete bust. The house cost Ben £28K, pretty much what he predicted. Most was spent on windows, and catering for local friends who helped with the labour-intensive bits at weekends.
The materials – roundwood frame, shingles, cladding, straw bales, lime render, stones, clay – all came from within a short walk of the site in the middle of his sweet chesnut coppice woodland. Ben had never built a house before, but knew his materials inside out, and had researched and planned carefully.
Ben’s completed A-frame woodland house looked as if it had been in Prickly Nut Wood for a thousand years, or was built as a set for a fairy-tale movie.
All agreed Ben’s house was profoundly, organically, beautiful.
Grand Designs viewers, and its presenter, still vote it as their all-time favourite episode.
TV vultures gather
Broadcasters soon realised:
- Building was just one of Ben’s broad range of woodland skills – he was one of a tiny number of woodsman making a living from traditional coppicing in the UK
- Ben’s quiet authority, calm competence and deep expertise made sustainable living look more like an aspiration than a sacrifice
- Ben had a real-life Apprentice scheme, picking 2 candidates to learn as they worked with him through the annual woodland cycle. If cameras were there, viewers could learn alongside them
After the Grand Designs hit episode, Broadcasters and production companies besieged Ben with proposals to film his remarkable life as a 21st-century woodsman.
Ben acquired his skills from years prising precious secrets from the reluctant grasp of a dying breed of woodsmen who’d been taught their skills were their livlihoods. Unlike them, Ben is an educator, keen to pass on his hard-won skills to a new generation.
Ben was interested in the proselytising power of TV, but not at any cost. A private person used to his own company, Ben considered the broadcasters’ proposals carefully, but found them artificial and intrusive.
TV executives saw Ben though the goggles of the newly-popular ‘reality’ TV. They thought viewers would only be interested in his life if the stakes were amped up a bit with some contrived jeopardy, confected drama and emotional conflict.
None of which interested Ben. Life for him and his apprentices was challenging enough without any additional stress.
Ben rejected all the TV proposals to film a year in his life.
Real Reality TV
Ben did, however, accept occasional short-term filming requests. He was, after all, a leading practitioner and authority on woodland management, sustainability and biodiversity. His opinions were often sought, even if he always had to be introduced as ‘the man who built his house in the woods from Grand Designs‘.
In 2011 he received one filming request that definitely wouldn’t identify him from his brief, increasingly distant, TV stardom.
Japanese public broadcaster NHK had commissioned a British filmmaker to make a 20 minute documentary on Ben’s life as a 21st-century woodsman.
A Japanese audience knew nothing of Grand Designs, but all about the craft, aesthetics and practicalities of roundwood timber construction and the importance of preserving traditional skills.
Over the few days filming in Prickly Nut Wood, Ben got on with the producer/director, Robert Stern of Litmus Films. He enjoyed Robert’s old-school, unobtrusive filming approach, and his focus on making sustainability appealing.
For his part, Robert was impressed by Ben’s pragmatic approach, quiet authority and the way he quietly made his off-grid lifestyle appear desirable, rather than an act of martyrdom.
Like the broadcasters, Robert realised that in order to fully appreciate the variety and adaptability of Ben’s life as a 21st century woodsman, a few days filming wasn’t enough – you had to film the full range of his activities over an entire year.
When to start was clear. Dozens of aspirant candidates wrote to Ben asking if they could be his apprentice. He’d shortlist six or so, and every September, invite them for a week in Prickly Nut Wood, before selecting the two who’d learn from him over the next year.
Robert approached Ben with his own proposal for a fly-on-the-bark documentary series. It contained no confected jeopardy, no gratuitous intrusion into Ben’s personal life.
Now familiar with Robert’s filmmaking style, Ben watched some other documentaries Robert had made, Robert’s proposal outlined how his Woodland Year could be compressed into a few weeks actual filming days, so Ben weighed the pros and cons of him and his apprentices, whoever he ended up choosing, committing to being filmed over such a long period.
Robert liked how Ben would pause for a couple of beats to formulate a complete thought before replying to any question, but Ben appreciated the way Robert only saw the need to ask him once. He’d experienced TV directors who’d keep asking him the same question in different ways, in an effort to get him to say what their pitch documents had promised TV commissioning editors Ben would say.
Trusting Robert to be content with what he actually said, rather than what Robert thought some TV executive imagined an audience might like him to say, Ben agreed to Robert’s Ben Law’s Woodland Year proposal.
He told his apprentice candidates that being filmed would be one of the tasks they’d be signing up to, during their year in the woods with him.
Ben agreed in time for Apprentice Selection Week, but not in time for Robert to secure funding from a broadcaster.
So, in September 2012, knowing this was a one-off unique opportunity that Ben would only agree to once, Robert took a punt.
He started filming a year in Ben Law’s life at his own expense.
The Reality of making TV
Having a hard deadline that was not appreciated by broadcasters is a fact of life for independent documentary filmmakers. Their accountants advise them not to spend a penny until the contract is signed. Their mates say go for it. We’ll help you out, as it might be us asking you for a favour next time.
So, various filmmaker friends agreed to shoot the first few weeks of Ben Law’s Woodland Year at mates rates, while Robert found the funding.
Everyone enjoyed the experience of filming Ben Law’s Woodland Year. The apprentices were excellent – keen and willing to share their experiences even when it started to get seriously cold, wet, dark and miserable.
Ben did his Ben thing, quietly exuding competence, expertise, calm, thoughtful when questioned, considerate when responding to a filming suggestion.
Robert pitched BLWY, to any broadcaster he could get a meeting with, but none of them bit. Commissioning editors remained convinced that without some extra jeopardy provided by the fashionable ‘reality TV’ format, a celebrity presenter, or some other added externality, the reality of the apprentices’ year in the woods with Ben wouldn’t appeal to their audiences.
Given their proposals that Ben had rejected, this didn’t come as a surprise, so Robert deployed Plan B – crowdfunding.
If the broadcasters were so sure audiences would only stomach Ben’s woodland life if it was pimped up by relality TV manipulations, the only way to adhere to what both Ben and Robert wree convinced was interesting enough on its own, and guarantee editorial independence, would be to find enough individuals prepared to pay a small amount to make it happen.
Robert reckoned there were enough people prepared to back the chance of getting the unplugged, acoustic version of Ben’s life, rather than the studio-produced concept album by some hot-shot LA producer.
Raising small amounts of money from lots of people, rather than one lump of money from one person, was the way to get the unplugged version made.
Robert’s confidence wasn’t entirely misplaced. His production company, Litmus Films, had been one of the earliest adopters of this new alternative fundraising method. As he put together his short video to appeal to crowdfunders, two of the UK’s top five crowdfunded documentaries were Litmus productions.
Others greeted crowdfunding as liberators from the tyranny of TV’s gatekeepers. Litmus’s pioneering success made Robert a crowdfunding guru. Regional arts centres asked him to give crowdfunding workshops. International film festivals invited him to deliver crowdfunding workshops. Media lawyers drafting legislation for equity-based crowdfunding sought his advice.
If anyone could raise the £50K to cover the basic costs, Robert could.
How to fund an independent documentary in 2013
The crowdfunding campaign, so meticulously planned based on the principles he’d been preaching to eager acolytes, bombed.
Years later, Robert realised its failure had little to do with the topic, and lots to do with timing. The first couple of times he’d tried crowdfunding, it was a novelty. By the time he launched BLWY, everyone’s inboxes were inundated with crowdfunding appeals – including no doubt those from the attendees of Robert’s crowdfunding workshops. Scammers had taken advantage. Incompetants hadn’t delivered what they’re promised. By 2013, the crowdfunding well, once so invigorating, was poisoned.
This was quite a setback. It was already March, half way through the filming. Everyone concerned still loved the footage, but who was going to pay? Post-production costs would be at least as much again, but could wait. The filming couldn’t.
Robert kept filming, doing more of the camera work himself, sleeping in the car overnight at Prickly Nut Wood to minimise costs.
Robert hoped he wasn’t throwing good money after bad. He reasoned the footage he was capturing was unique and timeless. After all, the skills Ben was teaching his apprentices have been around for millennia, and would last for millennia. So what if it took a year or two to raise the money to turn this one-off footage into a documentary series?
Denise, a friend who’d edited both Litmus’s successful crowdfunded documentaries, worked gratis to put together a 20-minute ‘taster‘ edit.,
Plan C was to tempt the broadcasters into opening their purses by dressing up BLWY in reality TV clothes.
It told the story of Apprentice Selection Week, the real-life Apprentice reality show Ben had been running years before TV executives had cast Donald Trump and Alan Sugar in the role.
Robert hoped that by giving the footage the shape of a reality show, without it actually being a ‘reality show’, they might convince all those commissioning editors at TV broadcasters to bite.
The Reality of TV Commissioning
You might think that the more risk Robert had removed by paying for the filming himself up front, the easier it would be to convince broadcasters to fund the series. But you’d only think this if you had no experience of the perverse risk/reward calculations of independent documentary filmmaking.
In most areas of commerce, risk and reward go hand in hand. The more risk you take, the more reward you reap. Early investors get big rewards for taking a punt. Late investors accept smaller rewards in return for a safer bet.
Documentary filmmaking, however, operates by its own quantum laws. Regular economic theory doesn’t apply.
For documentaries, the risk/reward relationship is inverse. The more risk you take yourself, the less money any funder is likely to pay you.
The reasons for this are complex, but largely connected to the disproportionate amount of influence wielded by the tiny number of decision makers, the commissioning editors who hold the purse strings.
Commissioning editors, the gatekeepers to broadcasters budgets, as well as their audiences, are paid to have superpowers. Holding the keys to the coffers, and to the eyeballs of their audience, demands superpowers.
This tiny tribe of gatekeepers are paid for their superhuman insights into knowing What People Want. It therefore follows, sort of, that the less prominent their imprimatur on the film, the less glory redounds to them.
It’s why TV producers’ hearts sink when a commissioning editor moves job just after signing off on one of their projects. Their successor will get little credit for something commissioned by their predecessor, so will be keen to look for reasons to either put their own mark on it by renegotiating their hard-earned comission, or finding a way to redirect the money towards something more in their own image. At best, more work for the same money. At worst, back to Square One.
This isn’t unique to the world of documentary – civil servants having to deal with new ministers eager to make their mark will find it wearily familiar.
The bottleneck formed by commissioning editors is particularly narrow. This mean that when it comes to getting broadcast commissions, a dead end with all commissioning editors usually marks the end of the journey.
A decade in the wilderness
Knowing all this didn’t help Robert and Litmus Films in the slightest. There was no Plan D.
No broadcaster, not even a niche cable channel with barely enough budget to cover the cost of a single episode, was interested in paying to get Ben Law’s Woodland Year made.
It was one thing to film for free and sleep in cars, just to get the footage in the can – or in the digital age, stored on the hard drive.
But in 2013 broadcast-grade post-production facilities were expensive, tens of thousands of pounds, as was the expertise of the various professionals operating them: editors, sound designers, composers, animators, audio engineers, graders, online editors.
Imagine the scrolling end credits to any doc, and consider every one of them gets paid a decent professional fee.
And that’s before you consider the time and expense of marketing, distribution, promotion and advertising.
By the end of 2013, Robert and Litmus Films had run out of ideas. Sometimes you have to admit defeat, stop the pain, chalk things up to experience, or chalk them off as bad investments.
So that’s how a year’s worth of Ben Law’s Woodland Year footage spent a decade on the shelves of the Litmus Films edit suite, gathering dust.
Like an oak log, slowing rotting on a forest floor.
Regrowth – Experts
No one could have predicted it, least of all Robert, but those hard drives turned out to be more akin to a sweet chestnut buried by a squirrel, biding its time until Ben and his latest apprentices come along to cut down the timber, clear the canopy, and, for the first time in years, open up the forest floor to sunlight.
In this case, the opportunity to germinate, grow and prosper was created by three significant changes a decade on:
The first was expert filmmakers, who were prepared to work for free – experienced filmmakers volunteering their skills pro bono because they believed in the project.
By 2023, Robert had closed Litmus Films, stopped trying to make a living from filmmaking, and was engaged in the zero-budget climate activism via See Through News.
Not even having a bank account pretty much guarantees the integrity of what you’re doing. See Through News was attracting a rapidly growing international network of like-minded people. They had a wide range of experience and expertise, but shared the See Through News Goal of Speeding Up Carbon Drawdown By Helping the Inactive Become Active and its pragmatic, but subtle, ‘Transparent Trojan Horse’ methodology.
Among these volunteers were filmmakers, and among them was Andrew Stanning, a veteran editor, sound engineer, camera operator and producer/director.
Andrew contributed his skills, for free, to various STN projects, working with other expert volunteers. Andrew directed and edited a series of videos explaining an ambitious AI project in terms a 6-year-old might understand, post-produced Concert in the Key of C, a guerilla gig for ukulele and bagpipes stages on a remote Scottish hillside during COP26, and was among the mentors remotely teaching Kenyan school children in a Nairobi slum in visual storytelling for the Global Reporter Intensive Training (GRIT) scheme.
Ben Law’s Woodland Year came up in conversation. Andrew looked at the crowdfunding video and taster film, and then asked to have a look at the rushes.
Robert blew the dust off the hard drives, fired them up again, and showed him.
Andrew offered to edit the footage for free. The past decade has lowered the technological barrier to broadcast-standard filmmaking massively. For professionals, this has been a mixed blessing. It means the internet is swamped with mediocre material made by amateurs, making it harder to break through the noise and get paid.
But if money’s not a consideration, the lower technological barriers are a huge advantage. 11 years ago, a top Soho post-production studio offered to picture-grade Litmus’s second crowdrunded documetary for free, as a way of training their apprentice graders on state-of-the-art software on their very expensive computer systems.
By 2023, the same software was available for free. The right hands could edit footage to broadcast standard on a laptop.
Andrew offered to do just that.
Regrowth – Environment
Another key difference, a decade on from filming Ben Law’s Woodland Year, is the media environment.
Commissioning editors at TV broadcasters still wield a lot of power, but they’re no longer the only way to reach large numbers of ordinary people.
The growth of social media platforms may have contributed to the decline of traditional broadcast TV documentary filmmaking, but it also opened new doors. One set of doors, crowdfunding, had briefly opened before slamming shut, but there are many others.
And when you remove the requirement to make money, a whole world of low-hanging fruit is revealed. The sociopaths who create social media platforms assume everyone who uses them is also motivated by profit, but it turns out that their ‘free’ infrastructure works just as well if your output isn’t money, but carbon reduction.
Much better, in fact, because there’s hardly any competition. Try to squeeze a living from the Internet jungle, and you’re competing tooth and nail with millions of other seedlings on the forest floor. Make carbon reduction your goal, and do it for zero budget, and you’re a single seedling in a coppice woodland just after Ben and his apprentices have felled all the trees, and you’re the only one drinking in the sunshine.
See Through News is deeply indebted to another key volunteer, a digital marketing, systems thinking, management consultant, and strategic branding veteran behind many fundamental STN projects – including coming up with the brand name.
He prefers anonymity, so we publicly refer to him as The Man Who Won The Internet Three Times.
TMWWTITT has known about Ben Law’s Woodland Year from the start – in fact the first time he got to know Robert was when he cold-called him a few days before the crowdfunding deadline to volunteer his advice and support.
That came too late to save the crowdfunding project, but he and Robert stayed in touch, and TMWWTITT laid the foundations of See Through News developing its own reach, on a budget of zero.
Exactly how is hard to summarise – though in the spirit of radical transparency we attempt to do so in articles outlining how we exploit the free infrastructure of social media giants like Facebook and YouTube, schematics of STN’s knowledge management structure, and the underlying taxonomy that links STN’s apparently disparate projects.
Most people are not that interested in understanding the how, but we can all appreciate the what.
The result of all this social media and branding whizzbottery means TV broadcasters are no longer the only gatekeeper to ordinary people’s eyeballs. See Through News global social media reach had gone from zero to more than 160,000 in less than two years.
It’s been growing exponentially at around 17% per month, putting it on course to be around 250,000 by the end of 2023, and to pass 500,000 by mid-2024, when Ben Law’s Woodland Year is likely to be unleashed.
Regrowth – Endgame
The third, and most important, change in the past decade, figuratively and literally, has been the climate.
More specifically, the urgency with which we need to act as fast as possible in order to mitigate the most damaging impacts of human-induced climate change.
This is, quite literally, the endgame. To mitigate the worst effects of human-induced climate change, we need to make carbon reduction our first, last, and primary consideration in everything we do.
See Through News’s growing network of volunteers share both this sense of urgency, and a determination to move beyond traditional climate activism. Instead of aspiring to vague, unverifiable, unmeasurable outcomes like ‘raising awareness’, ‘informing’ or ‘educating’, they prefer See Through News’s requirement that all of its projects must have a verifiable, quantifiable way of measurably reducing carbon.
The path may be tortuously convoluted, involving many moving parts, some still in development, but the purpose is clear.
See Through News has inherited Litmus Films’ Ben Law footage, and is re-purposing it for its own goal of Speeding Up Carbon Drawdown by Helping the Inactive Become Active.
In this light, the decade-old footage of Ben passing on his hard-won, timeless, traditional skills is no longer an end in itself, but a means to induce ordinary viewers to take action that will measurably reduce carbon.
Exactly how this works is now being carefully planned and executed by the volunteers we’ve mentioned, and many more we haven’t, contributing their expertise in fields as varied as impact marketing, website design, branding, composition, animation and ontological taxonomy.
For anyone curious about the process, all will be explained in further See Through News newsletters, website articles, videos and podcasts.
But the whole point is that you don’t need to know or even care about the underlying methodology, moving parts, and global team of volunteers making it all happen. It’s all designed to appeal to what we call ‘Unwilling Inactivists’.
Unwilling Inactivsts are people who accept the science and reality of human-induced climate change, but who feel powerless to do anything about it.
If that sounds like you, all you need to is enjoy the ride.
Here are links to draft versions of Ben Law’s Woodland Year, to see if you like what you see…
If you’d like to know more, just email: firstname.lastname@example.org