Reality shows and quizzes would be nothing without the extraordinary ordinary people who appear on them. Finding contributors and contestants is the job of casting directors and, at an RTS West of England event in late April, leading practitioners discussed their work.
“We’re looking for people who are going to surprise us... humour is a huge thing on First Dates... especially the teenagers’ [show]. Teenagers are so funny, even when they don’t mean to be,” said Rosie Smith, a casting producer at Twenty Twenty Television who has worked on Channel 4 series Teen First Dates.
“Relatability” is also important, as are “layers”, she added. “You want some one’s story to unfold on screen.... Finally, [you want] someone who’s keen on your programme.”
Jo Somner from Plimsoll Productions, which makes Channel 4’s Handmade: Britain’s Best Woodworker, agreed, adding: “For us, it’s quite specific – they have to be amateurs... good enough at the skill so they’re not going to come on to the competition and look bad – but they can’t be too good.”
Diversity is important, she added: “Are we getting people of colour, LGBT+ people, different ages, accents and social status... and, at the same time, not falling into tokenism and putting some one on just for the sake of it.... It’s a massive juggling act.”
Alastair McMullan is now casting for RDF West on Tipping Point. His biggest challenge is to sift through huge numbers of applications for the long-running ITV quiz.
“This series... we’ve had about 9,000 applications, plus another 50,000 from the last series,” he said.
When it comes to selecting contestants for a quiz, McMullan leans “towards personality and people who are nice, because that’s who everyone at home relates to”. He added that auditions involve general knowledge tests to ensure no one is going to struggle unduly.
In contrast, Somner has to go out to find her cast, a process she described as like finding a needle in a hay stack. She said about 150 people applied for series 2 of Handmade, but most were sixty-something white men.
“We have to do a lot of outreach, so we are all over social media... posting on every Facebook woodworking group.”
Managing contributors’ expectations is a big part of the job, said Claire Parry, from Five Mile Films, which makes Channel 4’s The Dog House.
“We overshoot so they might not make it on to the telly and... we might not be able to find a dog for them,” she said. “Things can happen that are out of our control – dogs can become poorly.”
Smith revealed that there was a 50% dropout rate during the last series of Teen First Dates, for which she was casting 20 episodes and two Christmas specials.
“Post-lockdown, we found that a lot of teenagers had been through an absolute wealth of challenges, particularly linked to their mental health... we had to cast [the series] twice over. There was no other way forward because the schedule couldn’t change... so we had to cast for 40 episodes instead of 20.”
Series producer Cherry Sandhu (BBC Two’s All That Glitters: Britain’s Next Jewellery Star) chaired the RTS event.