Matthew Bell learns how Waddell Media is riding out the coronavirus storm
Little on TV cheers up audiences more than seeing animals brought back to health, so Waddell Media’s new series Work on the Wild Side is coming to screens at just the right time.
The 20 one-hour shows will be stripped across the daytime week on Channel 4 from mid-May. They follow vets and volunteers who have given up their jobs in the UK and moved to South Africa to rescue animals, and reintroduce them to the wild.
“It’s good timing for it to go out now, because we all need a bit of escapism, and to get back in touch with nature,” says Jannine Waddell, series executive producer and MD of the Northern Ireland indie.
The idea for the series came to Waddell when she visited a number of animal rescue centres while filming Francis Brennan’s Grand Tour of South Africa for RTÉ. “It took about a year to convince Channel 4 – you have to be a bit of a stalker to get anything made,” she recalls. “Eventually, they gave me some development money to go out and see if the cast existed, and we found these amazing people devoting themselves to saving animals.”
Waddell Media shot Work on the Wild Side with a combination of local and UK crews. “It was a real mixed bag. We sent out producer/directors and some cameramen, but I also met amazing camera people in South Africa who went out to shoot for us as well.”
She describes the financing as “a challenging daytime budget”, although 7% top-up funding from Northern Ireland Screen “really helped – it is very supportive of the TV industry”. Nevertheless, “we had to use every shot… to make our stories. We simply couldn’t afford to sit there for weeks [waiting for the perfect picture].”
Channel 4 recently ordered a 10 x 30-minute cut of the series for peak time – a huge bonus for the Holywood-based factual and entertainment indie during these tough times. BBC Northern Ireland has also just commissioned Waddell Media to make a 3 x 30-minute series, with the working title Suzie Lee Home Cook Hero, to be shot this month..
“Before coronavirus hit, the production sector was growing – there’s lots of great creative companies here in Northern Ireland. I think we’re going to see quite a lot of them collapse now,” fears Waddell.
Her company has had to postpone a number of productions, including Francis Brennan’s 5 Star Training Academy, for RTÉ and BBC Scotland, and Northern Ireland travel series Getaways. Post-production and reversioning of Work on the Wild Side has been done remotely and some filming, largely outdoors and by drone, is continuing.
“We follow a safe-filming protocol,” says Waddell. “Filming is very limited. We’re not doing interviews; we’ll pick those up later on.”
“It’s really tough for freelance staff. We’ve had to stand down freelancers and furloughed quite a lot of our staff. There was no alternative. It’s a hand-to-mouth industry where cash flow is critical.
“We’ve been hounding broadcasters to get money out of them; normally, we can be more lenient.”
The local TV community needs to work together during the crisis, says Waddell, who chairs Women in Film & Television in Northern Ireland and sits on the RTS Northern Ireland Committee.
Northern Ireland Screen has made extra development funding of up to £50,000 available for production companies working in factual/entertainment, feature documentary, TV drama and independent film.
“We are a tight community and work very collaboratively, and we’re going to try to support each other,” says Waddell. “We need to work together as a sector, because it’s going to be really bad.”