Our Friend in Leeds: John Whiston

Our Friend in Leeds: John Whiston

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John Whiston hails a TV doctor like no other – and still finds time to dance the coronavirus two-step

I have had a few cool titles in my time – head of youth, head of the north, the pope of soap. But none quite compare with that of Dr Paul Litchfield, formerly titled surgeon commander, in charge of Royal Navy nuclear, biological and chemical defence.

He’s now an independent medical adviser to ITV and a great guy to have on your side – or, indeed, on a Zoom call during a pandemic. That’s exactly what the discussions needed: level-­headed rationality to chart a way through all the lockdown fear caused by the nightly news beat and to get the soap teams back to work.

In a way, the infrastructure changes were the easy bit. Once ITV’s health and safety gurus had plotted out a set of guidelines, together with other broad­casters, Pact, the unions and the Government, we just had to apply them.

Luckily, we are good at making things. We have amazing construction shops, which can whip up a courtroom or a hotel bar if we need one.

Making a few Perspex screens and inventing a see-through camera shield and separating our buildings into colour-co-ordinated zones was a breeze. Our gallery partition screens are now much in demand all over ITV, not least for their clean, aesthetically pleasing lines – Covid cool, if you will.

We also have brilliant editorial teams and writers. Adapting our story­lines to take out all our clinically vulnerable cast (the over-seventies) and the kids (too many add-ons, such as chaperones and tutors), and all the snogs and slaps, and yet still have scripts that crackled with the usual levels of high tension was hard work. But achievable with the application of some serious creative thought.

It was satisfying to be getting on with stuff when, all around, the country seemed to be moribund with despond. We knew that, once in the studio, our directors and crews would throw themselves into plotting out scenes where the characters could do the two-­metre anti-mating dance around each other – the coronavirus two-step – without it seeming weird or unnatural.

With such clever staging and crafty lens work, my real fear was that we’d get complaints from the audience that our actors didn’t look like they were properly two metres apart. The social-distance poles helped. Some people are born to wield a two-metre pole. In another age, they would have been a samurai warrior or a merry man of Sherwood. These days, they are called cohort managers and they ward off evil spirits.

When you are used to making nearly two feature films’ worth of drama a week on both soaps (Coronation Street and Emmerdale), you would expect us to have a well-oiled and adaptive production machine.

Which is why the toughest challenge was overcoming our collective anxiety about going back. This was early May and that invisible, deadly enemy was very much out there. And in here, lurking in our minds as much as in the air.

That’s where Dr Litchfield came in. In Zoom call after Zoom call, he listened patiently to the concerns of over 500 soap cast and crew, all in different places on their Covid journey. And, like the GPs of your TV youth, Dr Finlay or Dr Cameron, calmly and sensibly talked through the risks and the mitigations.

We may all have worked on medical dramas, but it turns out that we aren’t actually doctors. Having one of those to deliver impartial reassurance and hard-and-fast advice is a producer’s secret weapon against both fear and complacency. Get yourself one before you start up again. The longer the title, the better.

John Whiston is managing director, continuing drama, and head of ITV in the north, ITV Studios.