The secrets of filming Bluestone 42

The writers of the hit Afghanistan-set series reveal the pitfalls of setting your workplace sitcom in a warzone...

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Every now and then we get the question. Someone watches Bluestone 42, set as it is in Afghanistan, and they ask, ‘So… do you film it in Afghanistan?’ As if this would be at once ridiculous and unavoidable. And then you tell them you film it in South Africa, and they look both relieved and disappointed. Still, it is one better than a comment we saw on Twitter that it was ‘obviously filmed in Wales’.

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Of course, we never considered filming it in Afghanistan. It’s incredibly dangerous. IEDs all over the place. But that’s not to say that filming in South Africa is without its hazards. And when the script you’ve written involves soldiers firing guns, getting shot at and blowing things up, you have plenty to contend with.


Snakes

The Western Cape is home to an array of venomous snakes, like the Cape Cobra. This is why we have a snake wrangler (Lindsay Skinner, above) in the credits of the show. Her job was not to look after the snakes featured in the show. Her job was to prevent snakes from being featured in the show. Or to prevent snakes from preventing our cast from featuring in the show on account of snake bites. And a fine job she did too. She also looked after the chickens on the base, and sorted out the rats – remember Smokey? – in series one.


Spiders

The snakes are fairly easy to spot. The spiders less so. You just have to hope you don’t pick a fight with a nasty one. In series one, one of our actors was leaning against a tree and saw a small black spider next to her hand. ‘What’s that?’ she asked. ‘Oh, that’s a button spider,’ said one of the crew. ‘A button spider? I’ve never heard of that,’ she replied. The crew member had a think, ‘I think back home you call them black widows?’ It was at that point that the actor stopped leaning against the tree. Or any trees. Ever again.


Safe Distances

The other major hazard to be dealt with was the explosions. Bluestone 42 is a show in which sometimes things go bang. In this latest series, there are some really big bangs, so at various points, cast and crew had to keep their distance, while cameramen and directors had sit in blast-proof shelters to get it all on tape. And a fire crew had to be on stand by to put out any ensuing fires. And all in the name of comedy.


Load Shedding

Power cuts were an innovation for us in 2014. To lighten the load of electricity in the Western Cape, the local authorities would switch off the power for a couple of hours here and there. Sometimes we’d even find out about it in advance. Sometimes not, which was exciting.


The Darker Corners of the Internet

When we signed up to be sitcom writers, we never expected to need a working knowledge of guerrilla warfare. More fool us. In order to research for series three, and to make attacks by the Taliban as realistic as possible, we ended up reading reports compiled by the US Marines about how the Taliban’s tactics had changed over recent years. Interesting, if rather depressing, reading. After all, the last thing you want is a letter from the Taliban telling us we’re misrepresenting them.

Other unexpected corners of research have involved sexually transmitted diseases, how to make IEDs, and the relative merits of the Sig Sauer P226 versus the Glock 17. There are quite a lot of videos on YouTube in which American gun enthusiasts demonstrate these in extreme detail. There is probably a file about us on a server somewhere in GCHQ labelled ‘keep an eye on’.


The Audience

We take military accuracy really seriously for a few reasons. Principally because truth tends to lead you to comedy. The moment you stop believing what’s going on, you disengage and tend not to laugh so much at the jokes.  But we also wanted to get things right because the British Army is widely respected and we did not wish to upset them, or others on their behalf, by getting details wrong we could easily get right. So we tried to get terminology, procedure and uniforms as accurate as possible.

Our military advisers were brilliant throughout and through them, in the last few years, we’ve learned an awful lot about render safe procedures, ranks, equipment, protocols and astonishing number of acronyms, as well as inventing quite a few of our own – like HTEA (Having To Explain Acronyms). After all, a lot of our audience are actually in the Army. And those guys have weapons and know quite a lot about bombs. It tends to keep us on our toes.

All images courtesy of the BBC

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Bluestone 42 returns to BBC3 tonight at 10.00pm