As the coronavirus pandemic rapidly escalated in March 2020, filming for all television dramas came grinding to a halt. Sets stood empty; actors and make-up artists and camera operators sat at home anxiously waiting, while producers and writers picked over budgets and scripts and wondered what could be done. And then the government made an announcement: with the easing of lockdown, filming was now officially allowed to restart. Hurrah!
But that “hurrah” has been somewhat muted – because for most drama productions, restarting filming (or launching from scratch) in a socially-distanced, pandemic-struck world is far from easy. For some, it will be practically impossible. Entertainment shows may be starting back up again here and there, but drama is a whole different ball game.
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Consider the issues if you were, say, making a period drama set in the 18th century; you can’t exactly incorporate COVID-19 and social distancing into the story (even if all the characters wear really, really wide skirts). And maybe you’ll want to include a romance storyline – but will your actors be allowed to lock lips? Or you’re making a drama set across several countries; is shooting in different locations across the globe even feasible anymore?
Add in all the complications of time-consuming (but necessary) safety procedures, escalating costs, and lack of coverage by insurers – and you have real uncertainty about when, and how, filming can actually get going again, as TV producers from across the industry have told RadioTimes.com. And that is deeply frustrating for TV-makers and TV-viewers alike. “We’re all wanting to know when we’re going to be able to start making all the content that the world seems so hungry for again,” as producer Jeremy Rainbird puts it.
Of course, there are some trailblazers: the soaps. The Australians went first, with Home & Away and Neighbours; they’ve been followed by Emmerdale, Coronation Street, and soon enough EastEnders.
“We’re all watching,” says producer Nickie Sault, whose work includes the recently BAFTA-nominated drama The Virtues. “We’re all watching and learning. We’re all kind of going, ‘Ok, how are we going to do this? How are they going to manage that? How are they going to manage this?’ There’s a real camaraderie about it at the moment because we really do feel like we’re all in this together, as an industry, trying to sort this out.”
At a press conference to mark Corrie’s restart, producer Iain MacLeod laid out the conundrum: “How on Earth do you make a programme about social interactions, romance, someone punching someone in the Rovers, adhere to social distancing? It’s been incredibly challenging. We’ve stripped everything back to what soap originated with: brilliant dialogue played brilliantly by extremely talented cast. Hopefully it will be equally good, but just a bit different.”
Coronation Street films at a social distance (ITV)
He explained: “We’ve taken out all inessential prop interactions because every time something has been touched, that’s three possible chains of transmission for virus particles. We’ve taken eating and drinking out. We’ve removed anything that would be close proximity. We’re losing kissing, hugging, holding hands, which provides challenges. We had a scene in a pre-pandemic universe that required a character to try and kiss another, which is now not acceptable. So the writer had to craft it and made the come-on verbal – it works equally well.” Older actors’ storylines have been set aside for the time being.
As for physical contact, MacLeod said directors have been asked to “cheat it” with lenses and editing. “We are embarking on our first post-pandemic car stunt – it’s two people in particular jeopardy who look like they’re on top of each other,” he said. “There will be cheating when a character is knocked out of the way of a vehicle. There are ways of cheating that so it looks like there is physical contact.” Home & Away has also managed to film a no-contact kiss using clever trickery, while Neighbours has taken a different approach – announcing plans to cut away before a kiss or a punch, and trust audiences to use their imaginations to fill in the gap.
But while the soaps have found a way to kickstart filming again by working within the guidelines, that certainly doesn’t mean that everyone else can follow their lead.
Colin Wratten, a former EastEnders producer whose recent work includes Belgravia and Killing Eve season one, says: “The soaps have the ability of being modern-day, and of being able to write their storylines to factor in COVID and the situation that we’re in.
“Also, when it’s a modern-day show, it’s easier for people to put on their own clothes, and maybe do their own make-up and put a little bit of powder on their forehead. However, in period dramas, it takes two people to get you into a corset. You need someone to apply the wig. You need someone to do the curls, or to put the hair up. So those are different challenges.”
Then there’s the fact that soaps can be filmed primarily on a purpose-built film set.”They’ve got that regular base that they turn up to, and the approach to filming is a more formulaic set-up,” points out Dan Winch, the producer behind ITV’s Quiz and the BBC’s A Very English Scandal. “If you’re based at a studio which has a perimeter fence, a car park and a security turnstile gate, it’s possible to imagine how this set up can work more efficiently and controllably than location filming.”
Having that kind of set-up could be a major advantage, and could potentially help shows like Call the Midwife and Silent Witness come back into production. In May, Call the Midwife producer Annie Tricklebank told us that fans could “absolutely, definitely” still hope to see the Christmas special: “We are going to make it and it’s going to be on the air on Christmas Day.”
And the studios are starting to open back up. The Bottle Yard Studios in Bristol recently declared itself “fully open to productions” – and Twickenham Studios, which Rainbird co-owns, has a whole new set-up of one-way systems and sanitiser gels, digital declarations, temperature checks at security, masks, weekly protocol workshops, zones, wristbands, and clear reminders everywhere. “The place looks like a Santa’s grotto with neon signage,” he says.
The COVID-safe reception (Twickenham Studios)
But not every show can be filmed in a studio. Many dramas require a ton of location shoots, relying on access to period mansions, busy city streets, museums, courtrooms and more.
“We were barely at a location for more than two or three days at the most before we moved on to the next one,” Winch says of filming A Very English Scandal. “Taking the audience on a visually compelling and varied journey was important for the story. These measures will inevitably put a strain on our ability to pick up a production and move it!” With all the coronavirus safety measures involved in setting up in each new location for a drama like that, he’s worried about having any time left to actually film.
To give an idea of what filming a “high-end drama” or movie in the near future could actually involve (both on set and on location), you could take a look at the 44 pages of guidelines published by the British Film Commission in June 2020. These measures seem obviously sensible, in that they massively reduce risk of infection; they’ve also been put together in consultation with the people they’ll affect, rather than imposed from above.
Still, as you read through the document, you do start to wonder whether TV can really be made like this. Pre-production: fine. Post-production: difficult, but the industry is already adapting to doing things remotely. But the actual film shoot? A harder task.
For example, the guidelines suggest things like “limiting access to the set and other communal work areas to one department at a time,” so if you get a coronavirus case you only have to quarantine that one department. Cast and stunt performers should “try to avoid performing in a face-to-face position.” Cameras and equipment should not be shared, and should ideally be left untouched for 72 hours after they arrive from the hiring company; crowd scenes should only be filmed in line with current social distancing rules; cast should rehearse their scenes outside in the open air, if possible. Everything has to be constantly, constantly cleaned.
Filming for 2018’s A Very English Scandal on location in a courtroom (BBC)
And then there’s the big headache within the BFC guidelines: “Be aware that the whole production may be halted for group testing if a person who has wide contact with cast and crew shows undiagnosed COVID-19 symptoms or tests positive for COVID-19.” An expensive, unexpected shutdown would really throw most productions into chaos – and what if you have several shutdowns in a row? And how are you getting those tests, anyway? And how quickly can you get the results? And who’s paying the bill?
That brings us to the boring-but-important challenge facing the industry which is stopping many productions from moving forward. “Insurance is the big overwhelming question that is being discussed at the moment,” says Wratten. “There isn’t a solution to that yet, but people and big companies are discussing that, both with insurers and with broadcasters at the moment, and with insurance companies, and with the government.
“Because some people just won’t be able to [film]. If you’re a small independent film producer, then you just won’t be able to afford to have your crew and your cast down for two weeks if that became necessary. If you’re a bigger company, you probably still can’t afford to do that, but you’ve got a little more support around you. But no company is going to be able to just suddenly generate extra millions, or hundreds of thousands of pounds.”
Put simply, TV production companies just won’t begin a shoot unless they’re covered for all the risks that coronavirus represents – and insurers aren’t exactly queueing up to provide that coverage, because it doesn’t make any financial sense for them to take that risk. At the moment, producers are still hoping that the government steps in and offers to foot part of the bill for any potential shutdown.
But even if insurance were sorted, that’s only the beginning of the extra costs involved. “There’s an absolute certainty that costs will increase, and it will be across the board,” Winch says.
First and foremost, only having a small number of people doing their jobs on set at any given time slows things down a lot – and time is money! As Wratten puts it, “You won’t have that efficiency of: the grip is laying the track; and the electricians are close by, rigging their lights; and the set dressers are assembling the props, all at the same time.”
Then, consider these complications: a ban on sharing equipment will increase hire costs. Using VFX instead of actual people to create crowd scenes is expensive. Building a set will take longer. Testing will cost money – up to £100 per person, potentially several times a week. You’ll probably need to hire an independent COVID safety enforcer. You need to hire people to clean each cast member’s separate make-up brushes. You might have a confirmed (or suspected) case on set and need to shut down for a bit, but still pay all your bills. You might have to ban a specific person from coming to work because they or someone in their family is showing symptoms, but then hire someone else to replace them at the last minute. Maybe that leads to more delays, and more money spent.
And then, say you want to film abroad: if the country will even let you fly your people in from Britain, it’s possible that you’ll have to put your cast and any necessary crew in quarantine for a couple of weeks before you can even get the cameras rolling. “So you take you entire crew, and take your entire cast, and take them to New Zealand, and isolate in New Zealand, and then get cracking,” suggests Sault. “It’s an extreme idea. But there are projects out there that have the money to do something like that, you know?”
Asked to name figures, Dan Winch reckons an extra 25 per cent on the budget is the absolute minimum – and that’s still “a punt in the dark for what we don’t yet know.” Jeremy Rainbird has heard of an upcoming project that needs a 70 per cent increase in spend. It’s not currently clear where this money will come from, especially since UK broadcasters have taken a big hit financially during the pandemic: the BBC is facing a funding crisis, and ad revenues are seriously down for Channel 4 and ITV and Channel 5. Perhaps the big streamers like Amazon and Netflix will be willing to pay more for what they get?
But say you’ve discovered a magic money tree, and the costs are no problem: you’ve still got issues to figure out. Big ones.
Sault explains: “We can do all the things it’s asking us to do, as far as you taking it in turns going onto set; you streamline; everything that it’s saying, we can do. That’s not an issue. We can make that work. It will take a lot more time and cost a lot more money. But the cast – what happens with the cast?”
On her current show, she says, “There are certain key moments where one cast member, one character, touches the hand of another character. And it’s pointed. It’s there for a reason. It’s written for a reason. It’s a moment that’s important. And no, we can’t cut that out.” Recently, she went through the scripts and highlighted all the scenes that were going to be an issue; there were 160 of them.
So how do you do it, she asks. Do you quarantine your core cast before certain key scenes, away from their family and friends? Will they be so dedicated to the show (and so happy to be working again) that they agree to those conditions? That’s a discussion to be had. And then, what about the smaller characters and the day players? “None of this at the moment is really viable when we don’t have access to testing. If you’re bringing down a day player, you could potentially test them. OK, they’re COVID-19-free. And then you basically take their temperature as they’re coming onto set. You know that they’re still COVID-19-clear. But at the moment, we don’t have that access to testing either. So do you bring them down and isolate them for a couple of weeks? Or do you wait until we’ve got access to testing?”
People working within the TV industry are also deeply concerned about losing the flexibility of the pre-coronavirus times – and the creativity that comes with it.
Wratten says: “I think some of the spontaneity would inevitably go, just because, on the day, a director saying, ‘Actually, it looks much better over there. Can we go and film it in this room?’ or ‘Look at this fabulous corridor…” – if that hasn’t been cleaned and sterilised and prepared and the risks mitigated for that, then the answer inevitably will be no.” Winch is similarly concerned: what about all the “unforeseens” during a day of shooting? What about if it rains when you’re meant to be doing a big outdoors sequence, and you have to quickly change the schedule for the day and find a studio to film in last minute? There will inevitably be pressure to take the easier and more straightforward options in the first place rather than planning a more ambitious shoot.
The Virtues (C4)
And filming something like The Virtues would be simply impossible. “You just couldn’t,” Sault says. “Because Shane [Meadows] – he improvises. The thing about what’s becoming more apparent about the COVID time we’re in at the minute is, you have to stick to your script, and you have to stick to your schedule. That’s very, very important, because it takes so much planning. So you very much have got to stick to the script, and stick to the schedule. Shane does neither! And we embrace that. We embrace his process. We’re all there to enable his process.” But under these restrictions, “It just wouldn’t have been possible, unfortunately, no.”
For the last few years we’ve been talking about “peak drama”. With the British TV industry operating at the top of its game, and tons of great shows coming in from America and elsewhere, and the rise of Netflix – for a while it seemed like there was just too much good TV; an impossibly large tidal wave of quality content.
But now, for totally unexpected reasons, we may find that this was peak TV. It’s also likely that, in the near future, the TV schedules are going to look emptier and emptier. Until this point, the broadcasters and streamers have enjoyed a bit of a grace period, as they’ve had almost enough dramas already in the bag from pre-corona times to keep putting out new content – or enough dramas which had wrapped on filming and could be post-produced remotely. That pipeline is unfortunately drying up.
So when exactly will things start up again? It’s hard to say. Progress on the soaps is promising, and Rainbird says that entertainment shows are starting to come back up into production at Twickenham Studios – but TV dramas are still a big unknown.
Winch is hoping to start working again before the end of the year, while Rainbird says that “on the scripted side, we’re hearing September or October.” For his next project, Wratten says he’s hoping to start prepping in September, “with a view to shooting at the beginning of next year”. One of the first projects to actually commit to a date has been The Witcher, which is bringing the cast back on set on 17th August.
But others will consider waiting it out until they can make the TV show they want, even if that means pausing for far longer.
Nickie Sault was 12 days into a shoot for her new BBC/Amazon drama The Offenders when the lockdown order came in. “We don’t think that we’re going to be able to shoot our show without compromising it in this current climate,” she says. “We really do want to have access to testing. Because we don’t want to compromise the quality of our show, and we don’t want to compromise the safety of the cast and the crew.”
The show is written by Stephen Merchant, and as Sault explains, “He’s been working on The Offenders for six years. He does not want to jeopardise the quality of the show. It’s based on his parents, and their job as community service officers. It’s something that he’s been working on, and thinking about, for such a long time. That’s why we’re not like: ‘We’re going to come back in August, and we’re just going to make it work.’ We’re not. We are waiting until we know we’re not going to compromise the quality of the show.”
She’s not the only one. Rhodri Talfan Davies, Director of BBC Wales, recently cast doubt on whether Doctor Who will film until the restrictions are eased: “A production like that, which at any point employs hundreds of people, freelance and staff, I don’t believe can be made to the current standard in a socially distanced environment.” And Sophie Petzal, who created and wrote the TV series Blood, tweeted about why everyone in the industry was postponing their shows: “Unless it’s an already-running machine that’s going to lose cast/crew if not completed, why would you sacrifice something you’d work so hard on, to make a compromised version of, that everyone’s going to cringe at and avoid because they want what they had before?”
Speaking of “already-running machines”, the challenges of bringing an existing part-filmed drama back into production will go far beyond cropping Cillian Murphy’s lockdown locks back into a Peaky Blinders haircut, or accounting for a sudden change in the seasons or a child actor’s summer growth spurt.
One big issue is what to do if your cast and crew are no longer available by the time you boot back up again. And what are you meant to do if one (or more) of your stars is elderly, and you can’t safely bring them back on set? Or one of your stars has already had to move onto their next job?
Jeremy Rainbird is facing some of those problems on a show for Merman, his ex-wife Sharon Horgan’s production company at which he’s a Managing Director. On one particular drama they were filming in Ireland, he says, the team were just 10 days away from wrapping when they had to pull the shoot: “And, of course, we lost the director to New York. We lost two of the talent to Los Angeles. The rest of the crew went back to either Dublin or London. And now we’re trying to work out how we can get everyone back. It looks like we’re probably not going to get our director back.”
It’ll be different if you’re writing and filming a new drama from scratch, of course. Many screenwriters are already beavering away on scripts that could be filmed in a coronavirus world – and ambitious shows like Staged, Isolation Stories, and the upcoming Talking Heads monologues have already been made under lockdown conditions.
Sarah Lancashire in Talking Heads (BBC)
Perhaps, says Wratten, we’ll end up with a smaller number of high-end dramas made by those who are able to splash the cash – but then a higher number of shows “that can be made quickly, and can be made efficiently, and can be made simply, and will be made for the world that we’re currently living in, and that the production process currently living in.”
Still, one thing is clear: despite the many, many challenges of starting or restarting a TV drama right now, those within the industry have absolute confidence that their talented colleagues will work something out. Wratten says: “One thing that the film and television industry are great at is, we are great problem-solvers. We are great communicators. And it’s a creative industry. If you need to find your way around a problem, then the film and television industry has those skills in abundance. Every area of the industry is working the problem, and trying to find a way of doing their particular part of the jigsaw so that everyone can get back to work.”
And a second thing is clear: these filmmakers are determined to return to making the TV they love – just as soon as they reasonably can.
Take Rainbird, who admits that his corona-proofed studio in Twickenham is a strange place to work nowadays: “I’m not going to lie. It’s horrible. We are creative people. We are pack animals. We feed off each other in a positive way. It isn’t the world that we all had to leave behind in early March.”
But then, he says, “hopefully those days will be back, but, you know, we’ve got jobs to protect; we’ve got livelihoods to protect; we’ve got careers to build.”