It was the moment that I really did take my eye off the ball. Up in the back bedroom of my Hackney home I was supposed to be ‘eyeballing’ the latest series of consumer programme Rip-Off Britain: Holidays, which meant I should have been checking every frame for mistakes and corrections – it’s the final safety net before transmission. But my focus had wandered and mentally I floated off to the North of England’s glitziest shopping mall, writes Series Producer Gaby Koppel.
But this was no fantasy shopping trip – I’d stopped the video on a sequence showing our production team at work on our annual Pop Up Shop at Manchester’s Trafford Centre. It’s a chance for presenters and experts to meet the public, and what’s unusual about Pop Up is that the crews are there on screen, so in the wide shots I could see all our producers, film makers and researchers. By now the clock was ticking – up in Salford our facilities house was on tenterhooks for me to green light delivery, but instead of getting on with the job of checking captions and scripts and blurring, I was thinking ‘Oo there’s Natalie – and is that Steve?’ I let it play on a few more seconds and stopped again, ‘There’s Sherry and Kirk and even from behind I can tell that’s Ian’.
Suddenly reality kicked in, and with a jump I realised my mind wasn’t just wandering because I was tired – it was because I’d missed simply being physically in the room with people. Being there with them, not on a screen, a phone or an email. This was my first time series producing remotely.
Right at the beginning of lockdown I worked on a quickly assembled daily daytime show for BBC1 One. Healthcheck UK Live presented by Dr Xand van Tulleken, Michelle Ackerley, Angela Rippon and Mr Motivator scored a huge hit with the viewing public. A small part of a large team, I was producing series of film inserts remotely instead of my weekly routine of getting on the train at Euston and heading north for three nights a week. When my kids were younger I’d have leapt at the opportunity to do a TV job from home, but by now they’ve flown the nest I was more concerned about missing out on seeing my Manchester Uni student son.
At first the idea of running a team I’d never met in person while producing TV from our distant bedrooms and kitchens seemed like a ridiculous novelty. But like TV people all around the country we discovered how adaptable we were. Of course it was fascinating to see the rails of kids clothes, the geography course-work displays and the type of bedspreads favoured by my colleagues, but it could also feel like working in slow motion – initially all of us racked up huge hours to get the job done. That’s because we work in a world greased by communication – a nod, a smile, even a joke around the long desk we share can move a production forward without having to send round a group email or schedule in a Zoom meeting.
But it proved to be like learning a complicated yoga move – as time went on we picked up momentum and surprised ourselves by our agility as we learnt how to juggle Zooms, phone calls, Whatsapp messages and emails to get the team dynamics right and move things on. Even when you are 200 miles away you can sense when a one-to-one chat will boost somebody whose motivation is flagging, or when you can straighten out a film that has gone off course by summoning 5 key people to join an ad hoc video conference.
A team spread all over the UK was soon working efficiently. Of course the only people actually leaving home were the film makers, DITs and runners – their jobs made significantly more laborious by the wiping , the distancing, the masks, the having to film outdoors if you can despite the weather, the constant reference to health and safety advisors, and a maximum travel time of 90 minutes. Yet some of the results were astonishingly good because we had adapted to the circumstances, and because we were able to call on some top class PDs at short notice.
We made a series of cookery films at chef Ellis Barrie’s Anglesey kitchen – with the restaurant shut we had the place to ourselves, and it was roomy enough to keep our distance. Ground Force veteran Tommy Walsh made over his garden for us, and Jay Blades worked his magic on an old chair in his airy workshop. All credit to PDs Anneliese Edwards, Debbie Martin and Josh Newman.
Sometimes it is true that we had to lower our standards both technically and in terms of content – but the audience forgave us as if it was an imperfect hand-knitted sweater that had been made with love. When Gregg Wallace was good enough to film something on his phone for us – I’m sure he would have had the grace to admit that he was somewhat out of his depth – we were just grateful to him for being so game. I produced a two part interior design feature where the film maker remained outside the house (high five to PD Charlie Preston) , and we got endless mileage out of the contents of Chris Bavin’s fridge. To achieve it we were innovating and problem solving every day, because that’s what we do.
By the time we went into production with Rip Off Britain: Holidays in August a lot of the lessons about how to make it work had been learned. And though it could sometimes still feel like walking through quicksand in oversize wellies, we were beginning to find those magic moments all over again. With thanks to my fabulous team, click here for some thoughts:
There’s been a lot of talk about the world of work being permanently changed by what we’ve learnt during lockdown. Though I personally cannot wait to get back to the office, I have to grudgingly admit that we’ve learned stuff that is transformational, like being able to recruit researchers and producers regardless of where they are based geographically. I predict that video conferencing is going to be an essential part of our toolkit for the foreseeable future and some of our Zoom interviews have turned out to be high spec enough to use even when we don’t have to.
Those of us who have been lucky enough to work through this year will never forget it. I hope that everybody in the industry will eventually benefit from some of the innovations that have been forced out of us – the progress may have been painful, but in retrospect it was nothing short of remarkable.
Gaby Koppel is available as Series Producer/ Edit Producer