August 23, 2020

Dispatch from the UK: How TV Execs Are Handling the Pandemic

From the BBC 2 series 'Hospital' (Prods.: Label 1).

With a nation in lockdown, documentaries in every form have never been as important to the UK’s rich public-service broadcasting system. 

As I wrote in this magazine more than 20 years ago, British television has long focused on the documentary genre. With the ethos of public-service broadcast being to “inform, educate and entertain,” documentary programming has always been at the heart of television schedules. The public has been raised on a diet of factual programming, from the most earnest subject-driven fare to lighthearted lifestyle programming, and everything in between. 

The last few months has witnessed a profound shake-up of production schedules, as well as deep soul-searching: How can the broadcasters best meet the public-service ethos of informing, educating and entertaining the public, during this unprecedented crisis affecting all of us? The question is very much at the fore of commissioning decisions made by two of the UK’s biggest public-service broadcasters: the BBC, which is funded by the licence fee and Channel 4, which is ad-run but with a strong public-service mission

“It’s such a strange time for documentary filmmakers, isn’t it?” says Clare Sillery, Head of Commissioning, Documentaries, at the BBC.  “Normally we are filming someone else who has fallen through the floorboards, bringing light onto their stories. But now we’re all in the story. It’s like we all fell through the floorboard at the same time. It’s an extraordinary, extraordinary time.”

Impact of Crisis on Operations and Production

Of course, documentary productions have been profoundly affected by a lockdown that prevents travelling around to explore and observe the world. According to Danny Horan, Head of Factual at Channel 4, “COVID-19 has had a huge delay on our productions. I would say more than 90% of the current productions have been affected.” The long-running series 24 Hours in A&E, which uses an extensive rigged camera set-up to film in one hospital’s emergency ward, was due to start filming in May. The channel has also had to postpone completion of a natural history series that had three months still to film in Kenya. “The list is huge,” Horan says, but notes that they are able to continue completing a number of productions that were already in post-production. 

As Channel 4 Director of Programs Ian Katz noted in an online session for the Edinburgh TV Festival, “We very suddenly got a sense of the scale of the hole in our schedules.” But he praised the channel for showing ingenuity in moderating some productions so they can go ahead. The extremely popular factual entertainment series Gogglebox, which shows a crosssection of the British public watching a selection of the week’s programs from their living room,has continued throughout with contributors who are already isolating together. Instead of a small crew holed up in the kitchen, they now operate from vans on the street, maintaining social distancing protocols. A Channel 4 cooking program featuring perennially popular chef Jamie Oliver was commissioned on a Thursday and ended up being broadcast the following Monday evening

From the Channel 4 series '24 Hours in A&E.'

The BBC has also had its production schedules blown up, with Sillery noting that “Production has been hugely affected. But there are some people that are lucky enough to have shot their material and those things are still in production. The edits are slow but people are cutting remotely and it’s amazing what people are managing to deliver.”

After the nation went into lockdown in March, commissioners quickly had to scramble to figure out a way forward in very uncertain times. According to Sillery, at the BBC the documentary team’s short-term focus has been to integrate the crisis into existing brands. A two-episode special of the award-winning Hospital series, made by Label 1, was shot at the Royal Free Hospital in North London and was broadcast at primetime in May. The program emphasised from the outset that it was made in compliance with new COVID-19 protocols. Among these protocols, Sillery notes, was ensuring the production crew did not use up the hospital’s valuable PPE equipment (but contributed their own), maintaining of social-distancing and heavy disinfecting of equipment. In addition the filming crews self-isolated from their families during the shoot.  

The series, made by Label 1 has been running since 2017 and relies on open access to National Health Service (NHS) hospitals to document how they make decisions to allocate their limited resources. British television documentary makers have a long history of filming the NHS in action—the intersection of public-service broadcasting and a beloved public health system. Label 1’s relationship with NHS England allowed the production to hit the ground running, albeit in a different hospital than they normally film in. Filming started the first day of lockdown, with a handful of self-shooting producer-directors working across two North London hospitals. The two-part special followed the stories of a few critically ill patients (not all of whom survive)and hospital administrators. The latter were confronted by two major problems that they had never faced before: an overflowing morgue and lack of oxygen. As always with observational programming, the team captured small, unexpected moments with big impact: in one scene two nurses enter a deceased patient’s room to prep the body for the morgue—and speak soothingly to him as if he were still alive. Reviewswere  breathless, with Rachel Cooke asserting in the New Statesman, “These extraordinary films should win all the prizes, and everyone in Britain should have to watch them, by law,” while the Telegraph called it “important, unmissable television.” 

From the BBC 2 series 'Hospital' (Prods.: Label 1).

While Hospital takes viewers straight into the pandemic’s heart of darkness, most of the immediate focus at the BBC for the documentary department has been to help the British public through the crisis through feel-good programming. With the news department reflecting how lockdown is affecting people’s lives, the documentary department is looking to provide inspiration, comfort and distraction. “You look at those pieces that are going to be a place of solace and diversion and a place of entertainment,” noted Patrick Holland, Channel Editor, BBC Two, in one of the Edinburgh sessions.  

One such example is a special short series from perennially popular presenter Gareth Malone, a choir director, who is working remotely with people throughout the UK to develop a lockdown choir. Malone has made a number of uplifting choir series, the most recently being The Choir: Aylesbury Prison

The production has been at pains to install mini-rigs into Malone’s and choir members’ homes. “We’re trying to make a really high-quality piece that really is about music and self -expression in lockdown,” says Sillery of The Great British Home Chorus. “It won’t look like lockdown telly and the music won’t sound like we’re doing it on Zoom.” More than 160,000 people  joined Malone for the first rehearsal

Over at Channel 4, the documentary department has set in motion a range of COVID- related films, tackling different aspects of the crisis. “I was keen we tried to tell stories that were more layered and provided more context through documentary characters, storytellers and techniques, rather than a presenter, for the most part,” says Horan. He says he wanted to step back and focus on the emerging behaviors in people and response to COVID-19, including “a deeper love for the NHS, a blitz-strong community spirit, a spike in domestic violence, and where pressure points would emerge in the NHS.”

The channel has commissioned independent filmmaker Paddy Wivell to make a film about his own community and the impact of lockdown. They have also commissioned a series with the West Midlands ambulance service, a film inside an ICU and a user-generated content film told by NHS workers at the frontline . 

Like his counterparts at the BBC, Horan is also seeking out more escapist fare: “I have also been keen to commission some more light-hearted content—- after all, we also commission Dog House and First Dates,”  he said. “So I ordered a 90-minute wedding-in-lockdown special, which will see a couple have a ‘ceremony’ who were due to be married this summer.”

Future Commissioning

Commissioners at both broadcasters agree that the longer-term projects around the crisis are tricky to figure out. Mandy Chang, commissioning editor of BBC’s flagship feature documentary strand Storyville, is moving forward carefully:  “I had lots of COVID stories pitched to me by filmmakers who were trapped in Wuhan. And I’m interested in looking at that but I’m also interested in a deeper analysis,” she says. “It’s on the news every night:

We are getting blow-by-blow accounts of what is going on all over the world. And that’s already covered so I’m not really interested in that. I’m interested in what’s going on beneath the surface that might come out later. I don’t know what that is at the moment but I will know it when I see it.”

Chang points out that she has been looking for a while for projects in which directors build their films remotely, something that  lends itself perfectly to the current crisis. She points to the recent films Saudi Runaway and Mating as examples of “game changers”— in both, the directors collaborate with their subjects who are self-shooting. 

“I would love filmmakers to bring more of those kinds of films, especially during these times,” Chang says. “This is now the perfect way of making a film and we have all of this new media in our fingertips and social media and I don’t think filmmakers are using it enough in very creative and innovative ways. They are just two films which are really good examples of how it can be done in a really exciting and revelatory way and the way in which the median becomes part of the story.”

Sillery is also proceeding with caution in terms of longer-term commissions.

“Documentary has to do more than hold a mirror up,” she says. “We all know what lockdown looks like. I don’t know how useful it is to show people what lockdown is like in a documentary. Documentary is about is about bringing perspective and light and insight into something that you don’t already have. That may take a little bit of time.”

The BBC recently announced a new commission, Britain vs. Coronavirus, which as Sillery told Televisual, “demonstrates our on-going commitment to films of scale that bring new perspective to timely subjects.” The Televisual article describes the film as a “‘forensic’ retelling of the events of a seismic year in UK history when the Coronavirus Pandemic struck.”

For both Channel 4 and the BBC, their public-service missions underpin commissioning decisions more than ever during the pandemic. “The crisis has reminded the audience just how powerful and just how meaningful public-service broadcasting can be in every element of their viewing lives,” BBC Two Controller Patrick Holland told the Edinburgh TV Festival audience. He noted that viewing figures were through the roof, and that people were communally watching during lockdown in a way they couldn’t have thought possible. “That sense of being able to bring people together through huge great shared public moments. It’s really brought the strength and purpose of public-service programming right to the heart of the debate.” 

Sillery agrees: “It’s what the BBC is here for. I have worked for the BBC for a long time and I’ve never been prouder to work for the BBC. This is the purpose of it. It’s to inform, educate and entertain.” She notes that for the documentary department, holding up a mirror to society is not good enough. “It’s not about just reflecting; it’s about giving people information that allows them to make the best decisions.”

Horan says that the crisis is a great test for the relevance of all public-service broadcasters: “We have a huge responsibility to offer different viewpoints, challenge the received wisdom and of course, the government. We also have a responsibility to document the journey of science at this time and tell the stories of people’s experiences, both good and bad,” he says.

“But, when I step back and think about the future, we have an even greater responsibility to tell more varied stories about different communities in Britain, told by a greater, more diverse range of people. We have to challenge more and innovate more.” 


Carol Nahra is a London-based journalist and documentary specialist. She blogs at www.docsonscreens.com and hosts the new podcast DocHouse Conversations

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