It is a brave screenwriter who takes on the task of squeezing a Booker-prizewinning doorstopper of a novel into six hours of television, even if that writer is the book’s author herself. It took Eleanor Catton seven years to adapt her 2013 novel The Luminaries for the screen (after a relatively brief five years writing the book), and plenty of playing with both form and story that another writer might not have dared.
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.
Gifted a captive audience, television has seen its ratings soar during the coronavirus crisis. “People are spending much longer in front of TV sets,” Justin Sampson, CEO of ratings body Barb, told an RTS Zoom event in June. During the first nine weeks of the lockdown, people spent an average of five hours seven minutes in front of the box, a third more than during the same period in 2019.
Property shows have long been an essential part of many broadcasters’ schedules. They’re ubiquitous in both daytime and peak time and have made celebrities of presenters such as the seriously posh Kirstie Allsopp and her charming Location, Location, Location co-host, Phil Spencer.
My idea of heaven is Monty Python’s Whicker’s World spoof, Whicker Island, where our hero wistfully waters whisky while wantonly waxing words with W. For me, hell would be a post-lockdown lock-in in a dodgy pub full of TV pundits.
Brexit and football have taught me not only to distrust these people, but to despise them as they fling unsubstantiated opinions around like the proverbial brown stuff hitting the fan. It is messy, unpleasant and the odour stays with you for ages.
The coronavirus outbreak has left much of the television workforce idle, with most TV production suspended since March. Freelancers, who account for 100,000 of the total TV and film workforce of 180,000, have been dealt the rawest of deals. They have been hit hardest by the lockdown – 93% are out of work, according to The Film and TV Charity.
Over three series, The A Word has been widely praised for its honest portrayal of autism and the tensions this unleashes on a family. But The A Word is also laugh-out-loud funny and joyful – and, given its Lake District setting, beautiful to look at.
The BBC One drama, which finished its third series in early June, tells the story of Joe, a young boy with autism, and his fractious, larger-than life extended family.
Some BBC director-generals are a reaction to their predecessor. After the remorseless strategising of the John Birt years, Greg Dyke was chosen to bring the human touch to staff who felt unloved. When Dyke turned out to be a little too populist and freewheeling for some, the governors opted for a more cerebral traditionalist in the form of Mark Thompson.
Another day, another Black Lives Matter protest. Another day, another testimony by a black figure in the industry about all the direct and systemic racism they have faced working in the industry. Another day, another statement by a British broadcaster about how it is responding to the current crisis.
When I was first approached by Television to write this piece, the brief was simple: go through recent events, assess the different policy initiatives the industry has announced and offer a prediction as to whether this would lead to lasting change.
Unprecedented times demand creative thinking. An RTS webinar heard that shows as different as ITV’s Coronation Street, the BBC’s Top Gear and Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch have all learnt how to adapt their production routines to keep cast and crew safe in the age of Covid-19.