Power to the People – a documentary maker’s view

Alistair Pegg is the Executive Producer of “Power to the People”. We asked him to write a short blog on why he decided to make “Power to the People”

Energy companies have been under fire like never before in the last two years. Bills, complaints, mis-selling, price rises – one “big six” chief executive was branded a ‘fatcat’ and ‘scaremonger’ and had his head squashed into a lightbulb on the front page of a tabloid newspaper.

So I knew that if we could film an observational documentary inside a “big six” energy company, it could make for a sparky series. But then I had my own lightbulb moment. Surely all this media onslaught wasn’t the whole story? What was life like if you worked inside one of these utilities, getting on with the job of providing power to the nation – whilst under attack from all sides? Could we make a series from inside – that would make viewers think again? If we could follow workers at all levels of the business, it would add up not just to a portrait of a hidden world, but also raise big questions facing us all: how to keep the lights on when we’re closing down power stations; how to green up our electricity supply; what we should pay for our power.

I met with SSE’s press team, and with chief executive Alistair Phillips-Davies. At Blast! Films we’ve made documentary series with privileged access to organisations ranging from Transport for London to the police to hospitals, so we understood the natural concerns and questions. But SSE decided they wanted to go ahead, and embarked on the adventure with us. BBC FOUR commissioned the series, with the Open University, and were keen that it was counter-intuitive and surprising. 

Those first meetings with SSE were a long time ago. Now, eighteen months after we first started talking, I’m pleased to say that our series, Power to the People, will be on BBC FOUR this evening (Tuesday 17 Nov) at 9pm. 

We’ve told the story of a battle to prevent blackouts, revealed the hidden transformation of our remotest landscapes to make our energy renewable, and told the tale of the campaign to change customers’ hearts and minds. Along the way our directors and producers have met and filmed with everyone from watermen digging ditches high in the hills above Loch Lomond, to control room staff tentatively turning on turbines again after the fire at Ferrybridge C, to linesmen down on the ground, plugging customers back in after power cuts.

Most of us who rely on electricity don’t have a clue that these people are working all over the country every day, doing their bit to keep the power flowing. I hope viewers will be surprised and engaged to find that a big energy company employs its own freshwater biologist to help young salmon spawn in remote rivers; that Filipino builders are the world experts in pylon construction; and that traders buy and sell our power in a kind of giant eBay every 90 minutes. Now we can all make up our own minds about what these companies do.

Power to the People starts Tuesday 17 November at 9pm on BBC FOUR