Keeping production safe during the Covid-19 crisis

Keeping production safe during the Covid-19 crisis

Coronation Street (Credit: ITV)
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The RTS takes a detailed look at the new working methods that have got programmes back into production.

Unprecedented times demand creative thinking. An RTS webinar heard that shows as different as ITV’s Coronation Street, the BBC’s Top Gear and Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch have all learnt how to adapt their production routines to keep cast and crew safe in the age of Covid-19.

The so-called pope of soap, John Whiston, managing director of continuing drama at ITV Studios, explained how Coronation Street and Emmerdale have streamlined their filming schedules. In the process, they have complied with Government-approved producers’ guidelines on social distancing and hygiene protocols.

Four key phrases have been introduced: “Keep your distance”, “Keep in groups”, “Keep it simple” and “Keep away”. Film units are kept in their own studio spaces, avoiding shared areas. “The only people who move around are the actors,” said Whiston.

The number of people involved in filming is kept to a minimum. Camera assistants and other crew members’ assistants are banned; cast members aged 70 or over and children (because they come with tutors and chaperones) are excluded from the soaps’ storylines.

Location filming is out. If a court room is needed for a plot, the soaps’ carpenters can make one. As Corrie gears up for its 60th anniversary in December, expect fewer pyrotechnics than usual for an anniversary special. “Normally, we blow everything up,” said Whiston. “We will be doing something, but it won’t be quite on the scale that audiences are used to.”

Scripts (paper scripts are no longer allowed on set) have been simplified. Rather than the normal 21 scenes per episode, 16 or 17 is the new norm. “We can no longer have half the cast fighting at a wedding. We’ve been reduced to the essence of soaps – fantastic scripts and great performances,” stressed Whiston.

As for sex, a steamy romp is left to the imagination. “A lot has to be done with smouldering eyes rather than touching,” said the executive. He hoped that Corrie would be back to its full six episodes per week by autumn.

For Top Gear, a show famous for its spectacular stunts filmed in exotic climes, executive producer Clare Pizey told the RTS that Bolton was the new Bogotá. Half of the footage – including sequences filmed overseas – for the next series of Top Gear was already in the can before lockdown. But filming had to resume in the UK.

“It’s a huge change that we can no longer go abroad,” admitted Pizey. “But, sometimes, when you forced into a constraint, it makes you think differently. One of the films we’re doing is a direct result of having to think more creatively.”

Following a difficult patch, critics agree that Top Gear, being promoted from BBC Two to BBC One for its 29th series, has got its mojo back, thanks to the chemistry between presenters Freddie Flintoff, Chris Harris and Paddy McGuinness.

Top Gear (Credit: BBC)
Top Gear (Credit: BBC)

“With Paddy, Freddie and Chris, we know what we’re aiming for and the performances we’re looking for. All we do is set up a playground and off they go,” said the executive producer.

Money that would have been spent on travel has been diverted to enhancing production values.

“We’ve done a film in Bolton that I would argue is one of the funniest films we’ve ever made,” said Pizey. For one item, to ensure social distancing and avoid having two people sat in a car, one person was strapped to the top of the vehicle.

Even before the health crisis, health and safety were, according to Pizey, “on speed dial”, since men driving fast cars is inherently dangerous. Coping with the threat of coronavirus, therefore, does not require huge changes to filming. “They’re quite often two metres apart in normal times,” she noted.

But the logistics of accommodating and feeding 35 people on location is more challenging: “At the moment, we’re in a hotel in York – but if key workers need the beds, we have to get out.”

Travel, too, is something of a headache, with spaces in minibuses being left empty and cars accommodating only one person.

The studio part of the show is, inevitably, more problematic than filming outside. Pizey conceded that having 700 people indoors was impossible. “We’ve got a couple of ideas that would give Top Gear a sense of scale but, as with every other production, costs are spiralling,” she said. With luck, the new one metre-plus rule may help.

For studio-bound series Sunday Brunch – three hours of live TV, transmitted 52 weeks a year – Susan King, head of ­production at the show’s producer, Remarkable, explained how they had kept going throughout lockdown. “We did the show remotely for about eight weeks, while working on a plan to return to the studio as quickly as possible,” she said.

Pre-lockdown, Sunday Brunch depended on having guests remain in the studio throughout the broadcast.

That was no longer possible. The number of guests and the size of the crew have been scaled back, but presenters Tim Lovejoy and Simon Rimmer have returned to the studio, albeit with only one guest present at a time.

Video calls have become commonplace and have given Sunday Brunch access to guests who would have been unlikely to agree to appear on the show in person.

Whiston said that one of the biggest barriers to resuming production was overcoming his staff’s fear of contracting the virus. King agreed that this had been a problem: “A lot of people are desperate to get back to work – it is important for everyone’s wellbeing – but, interestingly, some people are still very nervous.

“People are happy once they get to the office. They know the office is going to be very well set up, with all sorts of measures and protocols in place. But they are nervous about using public transport in London and other big cities. We’re spending more money – we [consider using] private transport to travel to productions – to ensure people are comfortable.”

Pact CEO John McVay said that, on average, extra costs, including medical checks and longer production schedules, have added between 10% and 30% to budgets.

He said: “Indies, where margins were already slim, [when] trying to soak up those additional costs [face] a bit of a challenge. That may change with new health and safety guidance, but that is what the initial analysis is looking like.”

For many freelancers working in TV, the crisis has been a severe setback. However, there was some hope from King. She said that, so far, Remarkable had no plans to employ fewer freelan­cers in future: “We’ll be working really hard to ensure we’re able to employ people as much as we were before [the lockdown] at level market rates.”

Pizey added: “As long as we’re making Top Gear, we’ll be using freelancers. One difficulty is that some of our directors make car ads. The bottom has fallen out of that market.

“It’s really tough. We can supply work, but there’s not the same amount of work out there.”

Report by Steve Clarke. The RTS webinar ‘Back in production – unlocking the TV production industry in a Covid-19 world’ was held on 17 June. It was chaired by Broadcast deputy editor Alex Farber. The producers were Tessa Matchett, head of press, ITV Studios, and Sarah Booth, director of communications, Endemol Shine UK.