Trawlermen Tales is a documentary about commercial fishing which was first shown on ITV in January 2016. The series consisted of three one-hour episodes and followed fishermen working out of Newlyn in Cornwall. All three episodes were narrated by the actor Sean Bean.
The first issue with the programme is the title. The BBC have already broadcast a (vastly superior) show called Trawlermen which ran for four series and one special between 2006 and 2010. In a deeply unoriginal move ITV have simply added the word ‘Tales’ to the title of the BBC programme to create the name of this show. Such unoriginality is symptomatic of this series. The first episode beings with the usual series of clichés which are typical of these types of programmes. We are told that we will hear “the stories of the men who risk their lives to catch our fish” that they will “fight the weather” and even “battle the monsters of the deep” and of course they “do it all for their families back home.”
The episode beings with the Filadelfia, a beam trawler, although it is not explained what a beam trawler is. The skipper and his son are the two crew members who feature most, although we do hear from other crew members. We are told that they are mostly targeting monkfish and sole and will be out at sea for five days, sleeping in four hour shifts. It soon becomes apparent that this show has much lower production values than Channel 4’s The Catch which aired just a few months earlier. There are no fixed rig cameras and generally much less footage of actual fishing. Indeed, this programme gives over a massive amount of its running time to the personal lives of the crew. While this is mildly interesting at first it soon becomes monumentally tedious. In the first episode we see one crew member who is going to be a dad shopping with his partner in Mothercare and attending the scan of the baby, and one crew member who is getting married choosing wedding clothes from a catalogue. There are also extensive interviews with wives and girlfriends back home. Any viewer watching Trawlermen Tales hoping to see most of the show depicting actual footage of commercial fishing will be disappointed as a lot of the programme is about the completely boring and mundane aspects of the crew’s family life.
In the second episode we see the crew sorting fish on the deck of the Filadelfia and complaining that they do not have the more advanced conveyor belt systems of more modern vessels. The viewer is told that they do not want the little fish and we see small fish and other sea creatures being thrown back into the sea but there is no mention of discards, the damage that trawling does to the sea bed, reduced fish stocks or any other conservation or environmental issues.
The second episode also features yet more scenes of the home lives of the crew including moving house, putting up flat pack furniture and painting rooms. Presumably this is meant to make the show more appealing to a mainstream audience by moving the focus away from fishing, but it really does make for some very boring television and slows the pace of each episode considerably. In addition to this there are some very strange editing decisions. In the second episode the fifty year old trawler William Sampson breaks down while out at sea. However, this potentially exciting and dramatic development happens off screen and the viewer is retrospectively told that it has happened and that the crew are working to fix it. Similarly the third episode sees one crew catch a very large bluntnose sixgill shark. Again this happens off screen and the viewer only sees the shark when it is already caught (after taking photos with the shark they haul it into the air and release it back into the sea). We are also told how much the crew earn. For five day trip and a catch which raised disappointing prices at auction the skipper gets £850, crew get £650 and trainee gets £250.
There are also some rather irrelevant scenes in this programme. In one we meet a fisherman who works alone on a small boat. He is using a handline with twenty-five feathers on to try and catch mackerel but not having much luck. After spending a few minutes telling the viewer about this method of fishing he is never mentioned or seen in the series again.
By episode three viewers may have noticed that the opening sequence of this programme is quite long. This, combined with the addition of irrelevant scenes and a bizarre focus on the utterly mundane aspects of the fishermen’s home lives, appears to be an attempt to mask the lack of actual fishing footage, which is presumably much more expensive to film. Channel 4’s The Catch was, despite its many flaws, a much better programme in terms of production values and the footage of fishing. Indeed, Trawlermen Tales suffers badly from a lack of key moments being caught on camera and the absence of other features which were present in The Catch such as fixed rig cameras and underwater footage of the trawls and fishing gear in action.
However, one thing both programmes have in common is an utterly reverential attitude to the commercial fishermen which feature in them and a complete lack of acknowledging the damaging and destructive practices of the commercial fishing industry. In Trawlermen Tales we hear from a Scottish skipper who made a living catching scallops in his own boat for fourteen years. He had to stop when EU regulations limited his days at sea and he was forced to put his boat up for sale and become a skipper on boats owned by other people. He complains bitterly about only being able to do his job for limited number of days and is presented in a sympathetic light. There is however no acceptance that scallop stocks need to be protected and if he and other fishermen were able to catch scallops for an unlimited amount of days per year the stocks would soon be exhausted and they would be out of a job.
Overall Trawlermen Tales is a strange series. It feels perfunctory, as if ITV (or the company which made the programme for ITV) had to make a show about commercial fishing and then put the minimum amount of time, effort and resources into it. There is a serious lack of footage of actual commercial fishing and a weird emphasis on the domestic lives of the fishermen which feature in this show. Each episode feels somewhat cobbled together and all episodes feature boring and irrelevant scenes which should really have been left on the cutting room floor. Overall this is a strangely unsatisfying series and anyone wanting to watch a good documentary about commercial fishing would be much better of finding a DVD of the BBC’s Trawlermen (unless they are big fans of Mothercare).