How the RTS Bursary Scheme is changing lives

How the RTS Bursary Scheme is changing lives

Tuesday, 29th August 2023
RTS scholars taking part in the Society's summer tour (credit: Paul Hampartsoumian)
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Since 2014, RTS bursaries have helped hundreds of disadvantaged students pursue a career in TV and film. Caitlin Danaher spoke to recent scholars

During her early years at school, Catriona Walsh didn’t speak. It might be a surprise, then, for her teachers to discover that she wants to be a TV presenter. This summer, she’s spending her university holiday working as a studio runner and researcher on Blue Peter, upping sticks from her hometown of Derry, Northern Ireland, for Salford’s MediaCity in pursuit of her dream job.

“It’s just been phenomenal. It has been a life-changing experience. Being from across the water and coming from a working-class background, you never really feel like these opportunities are accessible, and I think the RTS really made them a reality,” says Catriona.

As a member of the 2022 cohort of RTS Bursary scholars, which saw a record-breaking 45 students awarded a bursary, Catriona landed her work experience through her industry mentor, Nicola Benham, who is the series producer of Blue Peter.

It’s a full-circle moment for Catriona, who speaks of the huge impact that children’s TV had on her life growing up. “When I was younger, I didn’t have the best relationship with school and I wasn’t always encouraged to go into school, just because of things that were going on at home. It was watching TV as a child that really taught me a lot of things and encouraged my development,” she says. “So now, I want to keep making programmes that really have an impact on kids.”

Since its inception in 2014, the RTS has helped 288 students from low-­income backgrounds pursue a career in the screen industries, by providing them with an industry mentor, financial support and a host of learning, development and networking opportunities.

Bursaries are offered to talented students who show a real passion for the TV and film industries. One such scholar is Joseph McCawley, who impressed with his short film created at the age of 17 and starring professional actor Jim Sweeney.

When the actor discovered that, far from being a professional production, the shoot would involve a one-person crew based in the teenager’s family flat in East Kilbride, he was ready to back out. A persuasive chat with the aspiring film-maker resulted in Sweeney not only appearing in the film but giving his time for free.

Recognising Joseph’s passion for screenwriting, the RTS paired him up with mentors Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley, two of the writers behind Spooks and the BBC’s recent detective drama Better.

“I honestly couldn’t have asked for better mentors. They have continued to give me so much detailed guidance and advice. They’ve been a continual sounding board for me in terms of career steps and how I move forward within the industry,” says Joseph.

Former scholars have gone on to forge burgeoning careers in the TV industry. One is Lee Hodgetts, who landed a role at Sam Mendes’s company, Neal Street Productions, where he is currently assisting on Armando Iannucci’s upcoming comedy series The Franchise.

Lee reveals that he landed the job at Neal Street due, in part, to the connections he made during his time as an RTS scholar: “During the pandemic, I was working in a care home. Because nothing was really happening in the industry, [former RTS Bursary Co-­ordinator] Anne Dawson organised a Zoom with the All3Media talent managers. I attended a couple of those Zooms and stayed in touch.

Catriona Walsh did work experience on Blue Peter (credit: Catriona Walsh)

“When I moved to London in 2021, a few opportunities started to come up and one of the talent managers kept putting me forward for them,” he says.

Of course, Lee ultimately got offered the job through his own outstanding merits, which include his first-ever play winning a BBC Writersroom competition, and another of his works being shortlisted for a Sky Studios comedy writing contest.

Reflecting on his time on the bursary scheme, Lee reveals that a personal highlight was the RTS Patrons Dinner, where scholars enjoy a meal with TV’s top executives. “I think when you come from somewhere like St Helens, a very working-class town, and then you’re suddenly thrown into this almost upper-class dining experience with the crème de la crème of the industry, it’s an interesting contrast.

“It was definitely a movie moment for me because I was dressed in a suit, having this amazing four-course dinner,” he says. “I had the whole ‘which cutlery do I use?’ experience. I think I just looked around and started to realise who was in the room and I was like, whoa, something’s happening here. It was like winning a little lottery.”

At last year’s Patrons Dinner, bursary alumnus Liam Warden was handed the nerve-wracking task of giving a speech to a room packed full of some of the most influential figures in British TV.

“It was a bit of an out-of-body experience when I was actually speaking… I think public speaking is probably one of the most daunting things anyone can do. It’s like doing an extreme sport,” Liam laughs. Despite the pressure, Liam delivered a superb, seamless speech on the life-changing impact of the bursary scheme.

Raised in a single-parent household in Peterborough, Liam and his brother were the first generation of his family to attend university. Liam was enjoying his journalism course at the University of Sheffield when the pandemic struck, wiping out the practical components of his course.

Using his bursary money, the budding journalist purchased a DSLR camera and a professional microphone and set to make his own high-quality videos from his bedroom. Graduating during Covid, Liam believes his work experience at Sky News, covering the 2019 general election, “was the single most important thing” he received from the RTS bursary scheme. “In our unique circumstances with Covid, if anything was going to give you an edge when it came to getting a job it was work experience – because people had so little,” he says.

After he graduated, Liam landed a coveted spot in Sky’s Content Academy and has since been promoted to junior assistant producer in football at Sky Sports.

This summer, the RTS’s digital innovation scholars took part in the RTS summer tour, a 10-day trip across London and Scotland, where they visited a different production company each day. One such scholar is Haseena Iqbal who is undertaking a degree in cyber security at Aston University.

“My experience so far has been amazing! The summer tour of TV studios was definitely an unmatched experience. Every company was buzzing and had such an exciting energy. I could feel the passion in seeing how ideas were brought to life,” she says.

In September, she’ll be joining a group of scholars heading to the RTS Cambridge Convention to hear some of TV’s top executives and thought leaders set out their agenda for the future of the television sector. Haseena is particularly excited to hear from Channel 4 CEO Alex Mahon. “[Channel 4] is known for instigating controversial discussions and providing a platform for alternative voices,” she says.

Her fellow scholar, Mendii Bala, a film and TV production student at the University of Edinburgh, is looking forward to delving into the hot-button topic of AI. “With AI threatening to revolutionise various industries, I am certain it will also have a profound impact on the film and TV industry,” says Mendii.

How profound none of us yet know. But one thing is clear: the unbridled enthusiasm and extraordinary talent of the RTS scholars prove that, when it comes to TV’s next generation, the kids are all right.