A new BBC Two series from Leeds-based Wise Owl Films takes viewers inside a modern fire service, offering a revealing picture of the men and women keeping their communities safe during the coronavirus pandemic.
Series producer James Knight explained how the four-part Yorkshire Firefighters was developed and filmed at the latest RTS Yorkshire Talks, shortly before it began its run on BBC Two in late July.
The origins of the series lie in the first Covid-19 lockdown of 2020 when productions around the country were paused or cancelled. “Last spring/summer, we were in a massive development frenzy because a lot of existing commissions had been parked,” recalled Knight, who was in conversation with RTS Yorkshire Chair Fiona Thompson. “We were thinking about what was possible to make as things started to open up.”
A blue-light series, a “perennial favourite”, was the frontrunner. “Firefighter strands hadn’t been as prevalent of late,” explained Knight, who’d also read about diversity campaigns in the fire service: “We thought that was a really interesting angle to come from in a traditionally white, male profession.”
Wise Owl approached West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service, which was keen on the indie’s angle of focusing on female and black and ethnic minority firefighters.
Aisling O'Connor, Head of TV Commissioning at BBC England, green-lit the series, and the indie developed the series with Leeds-based BBC commissioning editor Tony Parker.
Blue-light series are at the tricky end of the observational documentary spectrum, requiring access to dangerous places and involving many compliance issues. Therefore, Wise Owl recruited a production team with a strong track record: series director Ben Sheldon had worked on BBC One’s Life and Birth and Ambulance, while producer-director Hannah Blackwell had shot BBC Two’s Hospital during the pandemic.
Filming began last November, with streamlined production teams joining fire crews on shift, and filming with a Sony FX9 camera, rig cameras at the station, GoPros in engines and helmet cams on firefighters.
Covid-19 filming restrictions, said Knight, meant the series was made with “crews out on location, a bit of production management in the office and edits done remotely… It’s been a bit strange, but satisfying and rewarding as well.”
Thanks to safety campaigns and smoke alarms, modern firefighters deal with fewer fires, so the series shows them assisting ambulance crews and making “safe and well visits” to vulnerable people, as well as relaxing at the station as they await the next emergency call.
“It’s a more authentic and intimate portrayal of a job that perhaps the public don’t fully understand,” explained Knight.
But it also includes up-close footage of a tyre fire in Bradford, which saw some 100 firefighters tackling the blaze: “It was a huge story and we were right at the heart of it.”
The interview with James Knight can be watched here and below.