Television Production and Covid: innovation or stagnation?

TV production in the UK was brought to a standstill across the board when the first national lockdown came into effect in March 2020. There were those TV shows that escaped into post-production; Doctor Who and Ghosts for instance had filmed their 2020 festive specials during the 2019 to 2020 production blocks. Other shows were not so lucky…

 

Actor Jim Howick in discussion with producer Matthew Mulot on the set of Ghosts. Available at Wikimedia Commons. One of the shows to be in post-production when Covid restrictions began. 

The Serpent, the hit ‘70s true-crime drama currently airing on BBC one was in the middle of its production around Thailand when the pandemic brought filming to halt. This forced executives on the project to adapt filming once the lockdown ended. The international travel that features in the series was not possible due to ongoing restrictions on movements between nations; thus, the show relocated to the UK to begin filming in August 2020. Sets and CGI were used to recreate exotic locations, including Kabul, Bangkok and Paris. Nevertheless, commentators of The Serpent have noted that this lack of location shooting cannot be spotted in the finished product. For The Serpent, at least, the pandemic appears to have had few repercussions.

It is possible to argue that the advent of Covid-19 in the UK has had a positive impact on production. Two months ago, The Guardian reported that the pandemic has been “fuelling growth of film and TV studios” as “real estate developers are spending millions on Hollywood-style lots” in the UK. This would suggest that the UK TV and film industry could see a boom in domestic output. The article mentions a “£300m deal to build a studio in east London”. Perhaps the pandemic has merely improved the situation for the UK TV industry, by accelerating certain processes that make it more competitive in the international market.

However, this does not consider the affect that has already been felt in the industry. For those TV shows not already in production by March 2020, the story was much bleaker than The Serpent. Production was put on hiatus for the likes of Line of Duty, Finding Alice, Vigil, and Gentleman Jack, and only one of those projects has actually aired in 2021 so far. Variety highlighted in July 2020 that the pushing back of start dates for production meant that “casting and scouting” were “becoming arduous as productions fish from the same pool of bankable actors and attractive locations”. This led to overlapping of schedules in cases such as Vigil and Gentleman Jack as both projects required Suranne Jones as a lead cast member. Eventually, Vigil went into production in August, and Gentleman Jack followed thereafter.

 

“Gentleman Jack” starring Suranne Jones (right). Jones experienced scheduling conflicts because of delays in film production due to Covid. Available at Wikipedia.

Whilst this does not necessarily suggest a long-lasting negative impact for the likes of TV stars such as Jones, it does mask greater financial troubles for the industry, and industry professionals. In June 2020, the BFI highlighted a serious disparity between the UK government’s investment in its creative sector, particularly independent providers or suppliers, and those of “France, Germany and Italy”. The panel of experts in this BFI discussion went on to express concerns that “the UK’s independent production community was ‘on its stomach’”. We can add to this the effect of the pandemic on less “bankable” individuals working within the UK TV production industry. The Conversation has drawn attention to what it calls “a darker reality” behind “British TV drama”. It uses the production of the tenth series of Death in Paradise to emphasise the dependence of the industry “on freelance workers” and mobility. Thus, the show pushed ahead with filming because its cast and crew were prepared for the flexibility required in pandemic times. Elsewhere, though, the picture is more troubling. The article cites “Trade union BECTU” which had:

“noted how creative workers had fallen ‘between the gaps’ of the government schemes to help UK workers during the pandemic. Because many production workers hired on PAYE fixed-term contracts were not on the books as of February 28, they were considered ineligible for the furlough scheme.”

This is a worrying development for the UK TV production, as it throws up the inherent inequality between different employees within the industry. The article surmises that UK TV drama is emerging as “a precious cultural asset” but highlights exploitation of some creative workers who are “on the breadline” and feel “abandoned” by the UK government.

The sustainability of film production with “flexible” professionals is being questioned because of the way this “flexibility” is taking its toll. Continuing dramas, including TV soaps, have had to adopt camera tricks and add props to scenes so that they can continue to film even though actors are required to maintain social distancing. The executives behind these shows have spoken about the difficulty of adjustment for cast and crew. This has been particularly an issue in scenes that have required heightened emotions or intimacy, with soaps having to make use of actors’ partners to negate social distancing. Moreover, recent scenes on Eastenders have even relaxed social distancing in one storyline for a couple of actors. This has led one actor to claim that such restrictive measures are not sustainable for acting professionals in the long run. These ways of working not only impact relations on-screen, as they also continue to affect the mental health of cast and crew.

There can be no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic has had a huge, long-lasting impact on the production of UK television since March 2020. Depending on the type of show, and the industry professionals involved, this problem has been felt disproportionately. It ultimately remains to be seen whether all areas of the industry will recover as we progress through 2021, and head toward something akin to ‘normality’ in a post-Covid world. One thing is for sure: the pandemic has put a spotlight on inherent inequalities in the industry that need to be addressed to secure the future wellbeing of creative and acting professionals, and the industry in general. 

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