Early on during my research stint at Lion TV, I remember the Director asking me to find him stories from our target historical period with more ‘sex, death and murder’. This really brought home to me that even historical TV must be a little bit sexy, a little bit glamorous, a little bit risqué – in order to ensure the viewer would prefer to watch this programme rather than just turn it off and cut their toenails. TV must also be relatable. As fascinating as the Roman Emperors are, we wanted to find real people, real stories, real everyday occurrences that were a tiny encapsulation of not only the state of the Roman Empire at any particular point, but also relevant to modern viewer’s experiences. Needless to say, this wasn’t easy. The schedule and script changed every few days, if not every few hours, as more things were discovered, incorporated, rewritten or struck out. TV is a fast changing business, in very many ways, but this meant that every day I found out something new, met another interesting person, and exchanged emails and phone calls with fascinating experts. I tried to keep these perks in mind as the uncertainty of what would happen at the end of my contract loomed ever closer…
My first job was with Lion Television, a production company that specialises in historical documentaries (they also make Horrible Histories!). I was a researcher for Mary Beard’s new series, Meet the Roman Empire. Having studied Classics at Durham, this was right up my street! As a documentary researcher, you are looking for two things: the FACTS and the STORY. Without the story, there is no TV programme. But the story needs to have facts to back it up, or the programme won’t have credibility. And the facts are what makes documentaries different from fiction, where the story is the only important factor.
What drew me to working in documentaries was their scope to work with inspired, creative and intelligent people. Whether you’re doing an observational documentary, factual, current affairs or historical, in the process of making it you will have the chance to come across people you would never have met in your everyday life, people who have done challenging, outrageous or revolutionary things.
The moment I decided on docs, rather than dramas or entertainment, is burned indelibly into my memory. At Durham University, I had set up Durham Student TV, having worked with Durham Student Film and produced a few short fiction films as well as my own documentary about the Emperor Hadrian (here’s the link – it’s only 15 minutes long).
Student TV covered factual things, and one day we were approached by a fourth year who, in her year abroad, had worked with UNHCR in Jordan. She had used her skills as an artist to involve Syrian refugees in painting two plain refugee tents. The end products were astounding, moving, and vibrant. So we made a film about what she did. Despite running between lectures, seminars, dinner, exhibitions and filming locations, it was the best day I’d had in a long time. This was it. This was what I wanted to do. And you can watch that film here.
I started lucky. My many student holiday jobs as an unpaid runner meant that I managed to get myself a position as a Junior Researcher on Mary Beard’s new series, Meet the Roman Empire, straight after Finals. Well, Junior Researcher was a bit of a misnomer – I was their only researcher. It was pretty cool, and pretty steady work for nearly three months.
And then my contract ended. Despite promises of working on other programmes with the same company, either the budget or the circumstances fell through. So I got myself an internship with ITN, and an internship with Bettany Hughes, another Classics presenter.
Then ITN announced at the end of my internship that they didn’t actually have a researcher position. So I got a pub job. Or two. It just about paid the rent; the tips paid for my food.
Then I went to a free launch night of a women’s film festival and made a friend. She got me a day’s runner work, which was amazing, and after a month of pub work, made me remember exactly why and how much I love TV!
But that was just one day. Then I got my friend a stand up gig, and while I was there supporting him, I met a guy who worked for a comedy production company. I got another internship. Still unpaid. Still juggling pub work alongside it.
So you meet me now, pretty skint, working two pub jobs, having applied for jobs in TV every day for several months. A CV that’s covered in As and A*s, a long list of qualifications and work experience placements, links to documentaries and films I’ve made. To be honest, it really couldn’t be much shinier. But apparently ‘this is how TV works’.
Yeah, it’s an unforgiving industry, based almost solely in a city that is very unforgiving: expensive, busy, and sometimes dangerous. No one goes into TV for the money or the stability. But as long as we remember why we started working in it, we remember why it’s all worth it.
So this blog is going to track my journey into telly: the good, the bad and the life that goes with it. Why? Maybe to tell the truth behind the glamour, maybe to fill the creative need that pulling pints can’t quite fulfil.