Channel 4 documentaries tend to fall in to a few distinct categories. First you have the standard ones which resemble films you might find on other channels, with a signature Channel 4 twist to remind you where you are. Then you have the ones which take an unsettling subject and try and make out it’s actually something fairly normal that we all might be doing in a few years time (Secrets of the Living Dolls definitely qualifies, as does the equally unique Dogging Tales). Following this, you have the films which are factual but fun and hosted by an enthusiastic someone who most people would struggle to dislike (Speed with Guy Martin, for example). And, finally, you have the random films (or random/unsettling films, as you get with the true one-off about extreme creative dog grooming, Doggy Styling). 4OD is littered with these, and with titles exploring everything from social media to the politics experienced by professional delivery truck drivers, you know what you’re getting: a look in to a strange new world of obsession, adoration or just plain nonsense. With the return of The Undateables and Dave: Loan Ranger, Channel 4 has been on a roll recently. Which brings us to Don’t Look Down…
Don’t Look Down, which aired last night at 9pm and had me holding my breath for what felt like a full hour, was a difficult one to classify, and somehow managed to include itself in all of the aforementioned categories – and none of them at the exact same time. The similarities between Man on Wire might have seemed undeniable at the out-set, but as the minutes elapsed, a few things became clear to me: the footage we were seeing was just as fascinating as that of the iconic Twin Towers wire-walking film – if not more in places – and, in truth, there was little in common between the two. In fact, by the time we reached the end, I struggled with relating the two films to one another at all. Both featured young men pursuing something unimaginable to most of us, but that seemed to be about it. Man on Wire was all about a man obsessed with an idea – a man who planned things down to every last detail. A story about ego, leading and following. Don’t Look Down was very different. More familiar, more normal. It was about just going and doing something because you want to. In 2014, over-thinking danger isn’t cool any more.
This documentary crept up on me. Until I started seeing the adverts, I’d never heard of 23-year-old James Kingston, and although I was familiar with parkour and other urban street past-times – I feel really fucking old just writing that sentence and I plan not to write it again any time soon, I can tell you – I didn’t really have a clue about these people who were climbing the massive structures above our skylines. Which made me feel like a bit of a wally, really. The adverts showed terrifying glimpses of young men doing things which took boyhood pissing about to a whole new level of extreme irresponsibility. I was hooked instantly, and from the time I saw the first advert to the start of the documentary, I kept asking myself the question: how has all this managed to pass me by?
What didn’t pass me by – and what didn’t pass anyone else by, if what I saw on Twitter is anything to go by – is how great a part technology played in the making of this film. Maybe it was down to a lack of fearless cameramen, or it could have been something to do with Channel 4 not being too chuffed about having their employees get caught trespassing. Either way, thanks to GoPro cameras mounted on James and his mates, we got to see exactly how it looks to be one-hundred metres up a crane, dangling and looking straight down. All the way down…
And I was scared. Genuinely scared. As so many others have already said, it had my palms sweating, my body shivering and my mind firing out all kinds of questions, answers and statements – most of which were at odds with one another, and more and more began to feel like things which weren’t really very me. This response to fear is unsurprising, of course, seeing as the brain is quite capable of evoking the kind of fear in a viewer that someone else may actually be experiencing first-hand. Which is the really strange part, and where the disconnection between viewer and subject enters the frame: James and people like James don’t appear to process fear in the same way as people with more normalised psychological processes. It’s not their fault – you could say it’s a gift, even. Then again, that’s just a theory…it could be that these young men – I keep saying young men, but who knows, there could be a lone sixty-five-year-old hanging off a bridge somewhere, why not? – feel fear, but have simply conditioned themselves not to feel it. To ignore it. To push past it. Whatever the case, I doubt anyone could say it wasn’t thrilling, compelling, incredible TV entertainment. One of the most thrilling things about it, I thought, was the strange juxtaposition between how relaxed James was – or appeared to be – almost all the time, and just how worried his mother was about it. While it captivated me, it was also desperately sad on so many levels.
It’s been a while since I saw a documentary that made me think so much about what it means to be alive. In this case, Julie, James’s mother, was an enormous part of that equation. I personally feel that Julie agreeing to feature on the programme was a very brave thing to do. Here’s a mother who other adults have asked: why do you allow your son to do this? At first it seems like a reasonable question. Hanging off the edge of a very high structure is clearly a dangerous thing to do, so in a way, you’d expect that, sooner or later, James and his friends would wake up and realise that doing so is stupid – for obvious reasons. As such, Julie, being James’s mother, is the obvious target for criticism even more than James himself, in some ways. People can put James’s behaviour down to youthful stupidity or simply just an urge to rebel. They can explain his actions easily away, however they like. But for Julie, the judgements are harder: people will and have accused her of being a bad mother. Some will almost certainly draw conclusions from the fact that James hasn’t had a father around for a very long time, and hypothesize that this has a direct connection with what he’s doing now. None of which James himself seems particularly bothered about. If I could climb the things he climbs, I think I’d probably be the same.
But there is another possibility. One which sits far less comfortably for most. It is that James isn’t afraid in a conventional way, and that, due to this, his ability to function while climbing very tall structures isn’t impaired as it normally would be, meaning that he is just as capable and safe as someone walking in a straight line upon the ground. If this is true, and James’s fear responses are genuinely capable of over-riding fear, then that could mean something very interesting indeed: he isn’t in as much danger as we originally perceive him to be, and what he’s doing isn’t actually putting him at such great risk as we naturally assume. Blame the Amygdala.
That’s just a theory, though. I didn’t say I wasn’t worried. As we saw James hang off a crane with one hand and swing nonchalantly while not freaking out at all, I saw the obvious possibilities: a spasm in the hand causing him to become a smaller and smaller dot…a dislocated shoulder at exactly the wrong moment…a sneeze or a piece of metal failing. All things which could never have been predicted, and yet the result is precisely the same. The fact that James refused his mother’s request to stop climbing made me feel conflicted, as it should have done. It was obvious to me that James needed – needs – to continue what he is doing. That without it he wouldn’t be able to better himself in the way in which we should all be free to. Yet the consequences of his death were also impossible to ignore and remain with similar gravity. It does beg the question: is it someone’s fault for being born with the brain they have?
There are reasons why I sympathise with James. These same reasons probably also make me more biased to believe that he is safer than he looks. As a BMX rider of nineteen years, I’ve deliberately put myself in risky situations numerous times. I’ve trusted my own abilities and, like base jumpers or other people who live with risk on a daily basis, felt fear and deliberately ignored it, telling myself that I am capable of achieving my goal. Do this enough times and you can convince yourself that the dangers aren’t as real as they might be. With every success comes a maintained confidence. The problem is, this pursuit of achievement breeds over-confidence. While someone who is more confident is more likely to succeed, they are also at risk of not knowing when to stop, or being blinded to dangers which others may easily see.
I also believe that one of the reasons why people dislike what James is doing is more primitive: jealousy. One some basic level, it feels like James and people like him are taking the piss out of all of us. We’re all panicking about things in life which represent nowhere near that level of danger, while James and co are doing what they do with such simple nonchalance. Is it irresponsible for Channel 4 to cover such things? That depends on where you’re standing. You could argue that balanced people aren’t generally coerced into doing things that jeopardise their own safety – but then again, you could also easily disprove this: balanced people are capable of doing silly things and frequently do so.
The other obvious argument is that unbalanced or easily influenced people will be coerced into following in James’s footsteps. This is more tricky. But just take a look at YouTube. There are plenty of silly things for people to get involved with already, and all carry a large degree of risk. Blaming one 23-year-old man for everything seems a little premature and naïve to me, especially when he’s just one of a number of people involved in all this.
The only thing I didn’t like about Don’t Look Down was how Channel 4 billed urban free-climbing as a new kind of craze. To my mind, calling something a craze is the same as calling something a fad – a flurry of activity which gathers momentum and notoriety quickly because of its appeal to a certain group, then dissipates and vanishes (my own definition). Given that parkour wasn’t a fad, and many other so-called extreme sports have been proven to be viewed as legitimate pursuits, it’s very possible that this might just be the beginning of urban free-climbing. Which is even scarier, because if this is where it’s starting…where will it end? If you thought the end was people dying, then this documentary proved that we’re already past that point.
I also feel that James’s honesty should be considered and applauded. He could easily have appeared on-screen saying that he was a professional and entirely free of risk. He could have come across as arrogant, self-centred and incapable of feeling emotion. Yet we saw one scene where James assessed a risky situation while being asked to hold his new friend Mustang Wild from the top of a block of flats. This wasn’t the decision-making of a moron or a nut-case. First we witnessed James stand his ground, citing the situation as unsafe, and then we saw him keep to that reasoning when it would have been far easier to be pushed into doing something he didn’t want to do.
James also made no secret of the fact that he’d had a difficult childhood and time as a teenager – something which explained a lot about where he is now and what he is pursuing. For me, this represented a maturity and understanding of where he had come from. You may not agree with what James is doing, but you can’t say that his passion isn’t enviable.
When asked if he would feel responsible if someone died as a result of copying his actions, James struggled to answer the question – clearly unable to form the right words. Personally, I found the bit when he ate a raw parsnip more freaky. I mean…who actually does that?!