Andrew Billen on a film

Legend has it that once upon a time reporters called the photographers who accompanied them on stories "monkeys". They even referred to them as their monkeys, as in the tale of the photographer who fell off some steps in a terrible press scrum, provoking his partner to observe mildly: "My monkey's broke." The old snobbery continued in some quarters until quite late. There is a story -- surely apocryphal -- of Paul Johnson, being interviewed for a glossy magazine and suggesting to the writer that the rude mechanical find his own way to a cafe while they lunched at his club. Johnson had not cottoned on to the fact that the photographer was Lord Snowdon.

Andrew Billen on a film Fame, Fashion and Photography: the real blow-up (10 August, 10pm, BBC2) documented the decade when the photographer became more famous than the writer and, in many cases, the subject, too. In 1964, Francis Wyndham identified the phenomenon in a Sunday Times article entitled "The Model Makers", in which he named the "terrible three": David Bailey, Terence Donovan and Brian Duffy. This triumvirate were at the centre of Saturday's programme, although it also celebrated Twiggy's image-maker, Barry Lategan; Lewis Morely, who took the famous naked-chair portrait of Christine Keeler; Gered Mankowitz and Snowdon (Tony Armstrong-Jones). The last two, being, respectively, foreign and posh, did not quite fit the argument that behind the lens the working-class lads created a "new popocracy", succeeding, as the relentlessly hackneyed script insisted, "not only in chronicling the decade but shaping it".

The changes these lads made to the way we look at the world were real enough. Like the naked ladies in the old Windmill Club, fashion models in the Fifties were meant to look as motionless as sculptures. When, in 1960, Bailey took a photograph for the Daily Express of the model Pauline Stone with her bum in the air and a squirrel in the foreground to remind readers that autumn was in the air, it was, said Mary Quant, a "great slap of excitement". Before long, she was making her models twist and jiggle down her catwalks.

The photographers were happier still taking their models out of the studio and into "gritty" situations such as gasworks or the mean streets of east London, often accessorising the shots with real flat-caps skulking in the background. Felicity Green, the fashion editor of the Sunday Pictorial in the early Sixties, and one of the programme's most illuminating (and least bizarrely dressed) wrinkly contributors, said Bailey had taken Vogue down several social pegs. The documentary took it as read that it was all a democratic exercise, rather than a ruse to emphasise the gulf between the beautiful haves and uncool have-nots, and to terrify the readers into spending their way to salvation.

What the new snappers brought to the photographer's studio was heterosexuality, which meant the girls began to look sexy as well as beautiful. The matrons of Vogue were so concerned that they warned Bailey not to use Jean Shrimpton just because he was sleeping with her. Triumphantly, Bailey, apparently for some kind of bet, succeeded not only in bedding but marrying the exotic Catherine Deneuve. Yet the red-blooded oiks treated their models no better than had the old queens they had supplanted, and quite possibly worse. Celia Hammond, muse to Donovan, called him "a naughty boy", and Veruschka complained that Thomas, the David Baileyesque character in Blowup, the film by Michelangelo Antonioni, made the girls look "stupid".

There were far too few such insights in a film that, despite managing to track down every last participant (save for Duffy, who now restores antiques in north London and is rumoured to have destroyed all his negatives), was over-reverential, intellectually below par and, like the decade it hymned, far too long, even boasting, after the first of two hours, its own intermission.

The producer, Elaine Shepherd, should have used Blowup not just as her starting point but as her template. Shown on BBC2 in the early hours of Sunday morning, it turned out to be much better than expected. Thomas, played by David Hemmings, was indeed a misogynist bully and, intriguingly, although his models stripped for him with alacrity, he had no discernible sex life, just an unhappy wife and children off-screen. But just as he had swapped real relationships for pictures, the film showed a society that had mistaken surface for reality. When Thomas discovers a murder buried in one of his pictures, no one is interested. He returns to the park in which he has identified the corpse but it has gone, and he becomes distracted by a game of tennis performed by mime artists. Keeping his eye on an invisible ball, he ends up bringing professional attention to, literally, nothing.

The brave new snappers objectified women like mad -- even though Twiggy, the Shrimp and Keeler were equally as important in shaping Britain. They aided the cult of indiscriminate celebrity (both Ken Tynan and the Kray brothers made it into Bailey's Box of Pin-Ups) and accelerated the triumph of form over substance. Blowup presciently critiqued all this. The BBC's The Real Blow-Up did not. For a more astringent commentary on Sixties photography, may I refer you to Austin Powers?

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times