BBC Two’s acclaimed documentary Hospital has been reordered for another two series. Tara Conlan talks to the people behind the show
Describing it as having, “nail-biting twists and powerful emotional pull”, the Daily Telegraph said BBC Two’s recent timely medical documentary series Hospital “could pass as a top-drawer medical drama”.
The fledgling production company Label1 that made the stylish, six-part series has its own twist. Unusually, the firm was set up in 2015 as a “quasi-indie” within ITV Studios. The two people behind the venture were experienced programme-makers Simon Dickson and Lorraine Charker-Phillips.
From this month, Label1 is going completely independent – just as the headline-hitting and timely Hospital wins a two-series recommission from the BBC.
Called “extraordinary” by the Times and “brilliant and brave” by the New Statesman, Hospital’s insight into London’s Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust averaged around 2.5 million viewers a week. But what made this series so different from the glut of hospital documentaries?
For a start, it was edited and broadcast just a few weeks after filming was completed. Dickson claims that it is “Britain’s first fast-turnaround, blue-chip documentary series”.
Arguably, it challenged the traditional arena occupied by news and current affairs and their regular investigations into the state of the NHS.
The medics portrayed in Hospital were all too human, often exasperated and at breaking point. There were moving surgical scenes but also valuable glimpses into such hot issues as health tourism and bed shortages as the health service struggled to meet patient demand.
And, given the winter crisis in NHS hospitals, the series was remarkably prescient.
The BBC Two show emerged after a meeting in the summer of 2016 between new channel editor Patrick Holland and documentaries commissioning editor Danny Horan.
“The relationship is where the genesis lies,” explains Dickson. “When Lorraine and I were pitching a more conventional medical surgery idea to Danny and Patrick, we did that thing that is crucial to good ideas being born. We just sat down and talked to see if we could find a way of making it bigger and more substantial… something that was like a modern take on the classic, system-focused documentary series of the past.” He cites BBC Two’s The House, an insightful look at the Royal Opera House, as an example.
“Patrick reminded me of a series that I had commissioned at Channel 4 called Seven Days, made with Studio Lambert. It was the first fast-turnaround docu-soap of its type.
“Patrick asked, wouldn’t it be great if you could do that in a hospital? Funnily enough, Lorraine and I had had the same idea, but wondered whether it might be in any way achievable.”
Holland explains: “Simon and Lorraine’s documentary skills had found exceptional contributors, whose daily dramas all connected.
“The world they found was one where the decision to operate on one patient meant another patient had to be bumped off the list. These dramas played out on a daily basis.”
Such things are not cheap and the BBC funded extended development. The team concluded fairly quickly that weekly filming in a hospital while the patients were potentially in mortal peril posed problems. So, they decided to turn the films around as quickly as possible for broadcast in early January, having finished filming in December. Editing, which went on until close to broadcast, was another hill to climb.
“I’ve got lots of experience of doing really fast-turnaround films… but to juggle six films simultaneously, trying to achieve a hitherto unseen connectedness between the different parts of the NHS and the people who work within it was an almighty challenge,” says Dickson.
He pays tribute to the “great team, who all have different strengths, which helped make this show a success”.
Holland says of Dickson and Charker-Phillips that they “have an exceptional ability to think the most ambitious thoughts, get excited about them, and then realise them.
"It is rare to find people you can work alongside while pushing each other creatively, through good times and bad."
“Many doc-makers may have been sniffy about rushing to transmission, but Label1 persuaded the team that this was in the best interests of the audience and of the contributors.”
Dickson and Charker-Phillips met when she was running the second series of Channel 4’s One Born Every Minute and he was a commissioning editor at the broadcaster. He had begun his TV career as a BBC trainee, risen to become Channel 4 deputy head of documentaries but then left when he was appointed creative director of Dragonfly, maker of One Born Every Minute.
After producing the hit show The Plane Crash, in which a Boeing 727 was remotely crash-landed in the Mexican desert, he was promoted to Managing Director at Dragonfly.
He returned to programme-making 18 months later and went freelance. Among other things, he relaunched First Dates for Channel 4, turning it into a ratings winner.
Dickson injected the show with more warmth. He says that those taking part “had the right to be paired up with someone we thought stood a chance of liking them”. He also introduced a European maître d’, Fred Sirieix.
Meanwhile, Charker-Phillips moved to become a commissioning editor at Sky, where she was responsible for shows such as the Greater Manchester Police series, The Force.
Then, Dickson had a phone call from his old friend and Channel 4 colleague Julian Bellamy, now running production at ITV Studios. Bellamy thought the pair would prove invaluable for his in-house factual arm Shiver, which also made The Job Interview for Channel 4.
Although, in effect, Dickson became the creative director of ITV in-house factual or documentaries, “the way in which we decided to present to the wider world was unique: I wasn’t going to be called creative director of Shiver docs, I was going to be given a framework, at least in terms of how we presented to the outside world, that would suggest that Lorraine and I were working, to an extent, independently of the mothership.
“That was a conscious decision by Julian, which seemed like a good idea because we knew that the more we presented as nimble and self-propelled, the more likely we would be to win business. And so it proved.”
Like Hospital, The Job Interview has been recommissioned. Both shows will be made by Label1, but distributed by rights owner ITV.
Label1 is wholly owned by Dickson and Charker-Phillips and has a licence to make both shows in perpetuity.
“It is, on the face of it, a tiny bit complicated, but Julian should get the credit for giving us the platform to build on,” explains Dickson.
Charker-Phillips says that what makes the new venture exciting is that it is “rare to find people you can work alongside while pushing each other creatively, through good times and bad, keeping each other in check and challenging each other. We want to make mainstream, popular shows that people talk about but which are not complacent.”
Dickson adds: “Hospital’s been a great calling card… and the BBC is asking us to contemplate whether or not we can take that same unique approach… into other spheres.”
Hospital will return this year, looking at maternity and mental health-care provision, among other things.
Dickson lives in Hertfordshire with his wife, while Charker-Phillips lives in west London and the pair’s new office is in Soho.
Holland, who worked with Charker-Phillips on BBC Two’s Modern Times series, says that they “are an impressive pair, who marry the ability to think big, with a real understanding of the nuances of documentary storytelling”.
He adds: “They have married the innovative and risky with exceptional film-making. You can’t ask for much more than that.”