New ways to learn your craft

New ways to learn your craft

Wednesday, 1st February 2023
Nima Elbagir gives a masterclass in journalism
Nima Elbagir gives a masterclass in journalism (Credit: RTS/Paul Hampartsoumian)
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Television distils a day of expert advice from top talent at the RTS Student Masterclasses 2023.

Four of the industry’s leading practitioners talked about their careers and offered first-hand advice on how to make a start in television at the RTS Student Masterclasses in January.

Drama Masterclass with Lewis Arnold

Lewis Arnold addressed the first session, devoted to drama. The director-­producer told the students that, despite the restricted state-funding of education in today’s harsh economic climate, they had one advantage that he had lacked during his formative years – tech.

“There are ways to learn your craft that didn’t exist when I was starting out, although I did get financial support from the state,” Arnold said. “You all have phones in your pockets. We’re all able to make films on our phones. I don’t use TikTok, but it’s a great tool for aspiring film-makers.”

The award-winning director of such high-profile series as Jimmy McGovern’s Time, and Des, about the serial killer Denis Nilsen, recalled that he had always wanted to be a director.

An early mentor was Coventry-based writer Geoff Thompson, who went from being a nightclub bouncer to a Bafta-winning film-maker. “He was a big influence,” recalled Arnold, who began his career making short skateboarding videos.

On graduating from the National Film and Television School in 2013, he directed two episodes of Channel 4’s Misfits, followed by such shows as ­Russell T Davies’s Banana and ITV breakout hit Broadchurch.

“Some film-school graduates are a bit snobbish about working in TV, but I took anything I could get, even if it was earning £100 a day as a first assistant director,” he said.

Later, he co-created Des for New Pictures and ITV, starring David ­Tennant as the serial killer, and Jason Watkins as Brian Masters, the author who wrote a biography of Nilsen. The students were shown a clip featuring Tennant and Watkins. Arnold played down his own role in the production: “When you’ve got two brilliant actors like that, I just get out of the way.”

Asked what makes a good director, he didn’t hesitate: “You surround yourself with brilliant people.”

Journalism Masterclass with Nima Elbagir

Nima Elbagir is no stranger to RTS events, having been named RTS Television ­Journalist of the Year in 2020. CNN’s chief international investigative correspondent was interviewed by another high-profile investigative ­journalist, David Harrison, currently working at Al Jazeera. Elbagir gave the audience a searing insight into her acclaimed reporting of human rights abuses across Africa.

Born in Sudan, she comes from a family of journalists – her father and grandfather were journalists, and her sister works for Sky News – but she said that being a black woman without a British passport didn’t make for the easiest of starts in her chosen profession.

She recalled: “I went to university here but started working in Sudan. If there is one lesson I try and pass on to young journalists, it’s to try and get out of where everyone else is. I was very lucky to go to Sudan, as I was one of the few people who spoke a good standard of English and was available to work for international organisations based there, which allowed me to find a way back to London.”

She worked for Reuters in Sudan, and returned to the UK on its graduate training programme before working for a Channel 4 News “subsidiary satellite channel”. Twelve years ago, she joined CNN.

“Our work takes a lot of time and has to be meticulous,” said Elbagir. “Thorough research is essential.”

In three clips, she demonstrated the challenges she faced in the field. One of these, filmed in Libya in 2017, showed undercover footage of a slave auction in which men were sold for $400. “It was my first long-term investigation,” she said.

However, it was the final clip, Predator Priest, that generated the ­biggest reaction from the students. In the report she confronts a Belgian Catholic priest accused of sexually abusing children. “I was so angry,” Elbagir said. “I hadn’t realised I was slowly losing control.”

Entertainment Masterclass with Sohail Shah

Sohail Shah was set on journalism as a career before he appeared as a teenage reviewer on the CITV video game show Bad Influence!. “I’ve never done it since and I’ve got no wish to appear on camera ever again,” he said. But he had been bitten by the TV bug.

As a student, he worked at Granada in the holidays and then, after university, as a runner and researcher on Channel 4 music show Planet Pop. Shah became a series producer, then joined the BBC as an entertainment commissioner, becoming responsible for huge series such as QI and The Graham Norton Show. Now he is his own boss, as MD of Manchester indie King of Sunshine Productions, where his shows include Channel 4’s Jon & Lucy’s Odd Couples.

Looking back over a varied career, Shah said he had always avoided being pigeonholed. “Until I became a commissioner I’d never done a second series,” he said. “I consume lots of different kinds of shows when I’m coming up with ideas.”

He added: “[With] factual, factual entertainment and entertainment programming, the lines are very blurred now… I do ‘jazz hands’ shows, but I do lots of other things as well.”

Shah recommended working in development and producing. “If you can do both, it’s absolutely brilliant. It enriches your skill set and certainly gives you a more rounded career, and probably a longer one,” he said.

On pitching, Shah advised: “You need to have a clear proposition so you [can] say what the programme is in a line or two, and immediately follow up with why you think it should be on and who’s going to be watching it. Those are the three things a commissioner wants to know.” Attaching talent to a pitch can help too.

Addressing the audience, he concluded: “Don’t wait until you’ve graduated to start contacting people… get a head start.”

Documentary Masterclass with Tanya Stephan

Tanya Stephan’s films address major issues through people’s personal stories. In 2022, she won an RTS Television Journalism Award for her feature-length film The Missing Children, about a mother and baby institution run by Catholic nuns.

Stephan started out in radio, with an internship at Radio Scotland. “That was a really good way to go because I learned how to tell stories in five minutes – and only with audio, which has been amazing preparation for making documentaries,” she said. A few years later, she went to the National Film and Television School.

Learning how to self-shoot is a key skill. “Really, that was the only way into TV – if you could film your own stuff,” she said. “The technical stuff is not really the most important thing – that’s the stuff that’s easy to learn. It’s how do you shoot a scene… not only to cover [it] but to make that scene more interesting and dramatic?”

Casting a documentary, she said, is “probably the most important part of the whole process.… You need to find people who have a sort of charisma and communicate well and will help you to tell the story… but [they’re] not always the loudest or most obvious person.”

The majority of Stephan’s work involves directing films initiated by others. “It’s really hard getting your own projects off the ground… and you’re not necessarily going to be paid while you do it,” she revealed.

Currently, she is working on a film about the Ukraine war: “It absolutely wasn’t my idea, but I was brought in so early that I was able to develop it and was part of getting it commissioned within the BBC, which is an ideal sort of situation.”

Stephan concluded: “You might not always be doing the films that you most want to make, but you’ll learn so much from each one. At the same time… keep an eye out for where you really want to be – don’t lose sight of that.”


Reports by Steve Clarke and Matthew Bell. The RTS Student Masterclasses 2023 were held on 26 January and chaired by Matt Pritchard (entertainment session), David Harrison (journalism), Toby Earle (drama) and Helen Scott (documentary). the producers were Helen Scott and Diana Muir.