Another day, another docu-drama

Today I started my new job at Channel 5’s in-house production company: Elephant House Studios.

The last six months have been filled with all things Roman, as I worked from conception to delivery on the octuplet series Eight Days that Made Rome. It’ll be out by the end of this month on Channel 5, and I can safely say that the whole team is very proud of their brainchild. I’ve never worked on a project right until the end, so it was great to see how it evolved and developed through every stage of the edit – the down side being the mountains of post-production paperwork that go with delivering the final films.

But it’s a rather snuggly feeling, knowing that soon I’ll be curled up in front of the TV watching a series in which I feel so very involved. From knowing exactly where I was standing behind the camera, to seeing the baby photos of one of the contributors, I have been part of this series at every level. It’ll also be my very first on-screen credit!

And in the meantime, I’m starting all over again with a brand new docu-drama. This one will be more drama than doc, and may well lead my career further into dramatisations, but when I think back to all the theatre productions I produced and directed throughout school and university, maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all. I get a real thrill from seeing historical characters come alive on the screen, and I think there’s a lot to be said for education through entertainment. This feature-length docu-drama, however, is focussed on the Victorian era, so I’m out of my historical comfort zone and learning every day.

But this is what I love about working in telly. There’s rarely a chance to get bored. There’s always an exciting new project round the corner. Always more people to meet, more facts to learn, more skills to develop. Having put Eight Days that Made Rome safely to bed, I am very keen to get my teeth into this new challenge.

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Another day, another docu-drama

Drama Queen

I’m now working on a docu-drama, an eight-part series about ancient Rome. This is the first docu-drama I’ve worked on, and it’s really interesting to see how the teams of directors and producers (four teams of two, each allocated two episodes) are working to combine the elements of documentary and drama to effectively tell the story of the Roman Empire. Along the way, I’m learning how drama is written, and I’ll share a few of my discoveries with you.

One advantage of dramatizing parts of history is to bring the complex politics to life. The history of Rome wasn’t all epic battles and gladiators: the key moments of change usually involved covert conversations in darkened corridors, House-of-Cards-style. These are pretty boring to describe or to read about, but dramatize them and you’ve got yourself an edge-of-your-seat political thriller!

One of my tasks as the series researcher is to provide the Drama Producer with character briefs for the casting. This means that I get to profile these incredible figures of ancient history in a way that the actor can embody them, understand their personality and their motivations, and bring these people back to life. It’s a great privilege, and one that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed – my previous experience in directing theatre productions has come in useful too! I find that when I read about the leaders and key figures in history, I can vividly imagine what they were like – little details here and there that we get from their biographies make them jump off the page.

But I’ve been particularly impressed by how the producers and directors are so keen on historical accuracy. It’s easy to get carried away with the sensationalism of the story – but each drama sequence has been supported by and based on at least one reliable historical source. The directors are particularly keen to put words in the mouths of their historical characters that sound believable – I’ve been looking up extracts of Seneca’s speeches so that the director can write ‘in the voice of Seneca’. I’m also working with the props department to make sure that each of the key props in the series are historically accurate – for example, that the drinking cups are typical of status and period.

All these details, coupled with the new archaeological discoveries that we’re exploring in the documentary sections of the series, are bringing Ancient Rome back to life. I’m exploring aspects of Roman life that I never covered in my degree, and what will be an intriguing and informative journey for our Channel 5 audience has certainly been that way for me. I’m so happy to be a part of this project – and I can’t wait for filming to start!

Drama Queen

The Day They Came to Me

It was a relatively unremarkable day halfway through January, and things at Windfall were going well. I was working away on some research for a few new science documentary ideas, comfortable in my job and fairly sure that Windfall would want to keep me on. I was planning to ask to be set to work on a production, as I felt I needed a bit more action than the regularity of development.

But with just one email, that all changed. It was from a production company with a very good reputation, one I saw as a giant of factual film-making. And they asked me if I might be interested in working on an eight-part drama-doc about Ancient Rome!

A phone call established that it would be a six-month contract, the longest I’ve ever had, and that I would be working with one of my favourite presenters, Bettany Hughes, and a colleague from my first ever TV job. It sounded like the dream team!

So on that bombshell, I had to go an inform my boss at Windfall that I would be moving on. As lovely as she is, I couldn’t help but come to her with a huge grin on my face and ask to leave her at the end of my contract. For me, this one email has marked a huge turning point in my Trail to TV – now, I’m not searching for the next breadcrumb along the path, rather, a whole loaf of bread has been generously tossed in my direction!

I think back to this time last year, when I was still working night shifts, still struggling to pay my bills, still desperately applying to any TV job I could find – and I’m happy and relieved. It did all pay off after all. My networking, my hard work, my attention to detail. They were worth something after all.

I’m so excited to start on this new project, and am very much looking forward to sharing the highs and lows of my first drama-doc production with all you lovely readers!

The Day They Came to Me

Fast Turnaround

Those are words I’m both hearing and saying a lot these days. On Day One of New Job at the BBC, I was introduced to my director, whose best-friend-by-default I would become for the next six weeks. We were given the topics for our films. There were four of them. Four films, each five minutes long, to be made over six weeks. Needless to say, it was all systems go from there!

Speaking of systems, working at the BBC is like a big fat slice of chocolate cake after a cabbage soup diet. It’s such a massive organisation that there’s support for everything: IT, Legal, Production Services – there’s even someone who will post your letters for you! But that also meant that I had to do a lot of working out which systems I needed to refer up to whenever I needed help. It’s about knowing who to email. Fortunately I worked out on the first day who I should email in order to find out who to email…

Other systems with which I have become familiar are archive databases. There’s one for news reports, one for radio, and another for all other TV programmes that have been broadcast on the BBC. Knowing your way around these is a very useful skill, and will certainly come in useful at future indie (independent production company) jobs! I have also noticed that many other indies ask for BBC Production Safety training, so I can now happily put a great big tick next to that requirement too.

So all in all, I’m learning loads and working hard and fast at the BBC. I’m already halfway through my contract, but it feels like I’ve barely been there a week! I’m certainly looking forward to returning to this beautiful building to work on further projects, but in the meantime I’m going to use that shiny BBC credit for all it’s worth in my applications for my next job…

Fast Turnaround

Two Towers of Factual Entertainment

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.

Two Towers of Factual Entertainment