Vikkie Taggart gives the lowdown on her new normal, running Belfast indie Stellify Media from home
March 2020 was by far the most surreal month of my working life. For the safety of our staff, we decided to close our offices on 18 March, the day after St Patrick’s Day, which usually means mass celebrations here in Belfast and one hell of a hangover. This year, it brought only an eerie silence.
I will never forget calling the staff together and telling them it was going to be our last day in the office. We all packed up, laughing and joking, but when it came to saying goodbye, the realisation hit us that we didn’t know when we would all be together again.
At Stellify, we are very much a family, so this felt unbelievably emotional to us all. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I drove home that night crying.
Over the next few weeks, we set about adapting to our “new normal” lives. As a single mum, it involved home schooling my 10-year-old son, Alfie, and eight-year-old daughter, Izzy, being a full-time cook and cleaner (it still amazes me how often my kids ask for food), and maintaining my day job, running a TV production company. Also full time. My days have never been busier.
We are very much a regional indie. To maintain our success remotely, we had to learn how to create and pitch shows without being in the room to deliver the pitch.
We were fortunate that, fundamentally, our working practices didn’t have to change. This gave us something of a head start. Our development team took that and ran with it. They have always worked at an incredible speed, but they have been turbocharged since lockdown. The sheer amount of creativity, pitch material and general craic coming from them has astonished me.
We have pitched more in the past 10 weeks than we had in the preceding six months. Part of that is due to greater access to the commissioners – diaries can be lined up much more easily for a Zoom call than for a flying visit – but, mostly, it’s been about the team having their foot on the gas.
Since lockdown, we have had three series commissioned and two pots of development funding provided for early-stage ideas. So we have seven series in various stages of production.
We’ve paused two – our property format Goodbye House and Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? – until we have a better sense of how the lockdown is developing. The other shows are in pre-production and we are casting, researching and planning schedules.
One of our series, Snoop Dogs, is being produced during lockdown. In the show, the dogs give guided tours to the houses of their celebrity owners. This will be our first commission for Channel 4 and our first ever remote production. This is as exciting as it is daunting.
The whole sector in Northern Ireland has pulled together. We have regular calls with other indies and all share our experiences and dilemmas in what has become our new world of TV production.
Life at Stellify has continued to remain as close to normal as possible. We still have our weekly staff meetings, with everyone on video, no exceptions, even if it does include cameos from our kids.
We have our usual Friday drinks, again via video, and this helps us to feel like a unit. Everyone, from the operations and development teams down to production, myself and the two managing directors, takes part.
Staying on brand, we are currently taking turns each week during these drinks to play the Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? board game. Surprisingly, I’m in the lead, having won a whopping £125,000. Fingers crossed that, when you read this, I’ll still be in pole position.
Vikkie Taggart is director of operations at Stellify Media and Chair of RTS Northern Ireland.