In the first part of a focus on the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on television drama productions, DQ speaks to three leading producers and writers to find out how they have been affected as filming around the world is put on hold.
In the grand scheme of things, how soon a new television drama will be aired is of little consequence as the world sits in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic. But like most industries, the future of the TV business, as well as those who work in it, is uncertain. With productions around the world shut down, cast and crew have seen their jobs – and incomes – put on hold, without any idea when they might be able to resume work.
“We predict a lot of things coming along to scupper these projects, but none of us saw this one coming,” admits Simon Crawford Collins, MD of Slim Film+Television and the executive producer of a new eight-part adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic novel Around the World in Eighty Days.
The series was three weeks into production on location in South Africa, after which it had been due to move onto Romania and other locations worldwide. And until the end of last week, the crew were confident they would be able to wrap this portion of the schedule before closing down. Then, in the space of 48 hours, everything changed and production halted immediately.
“Six weeks ago when I first went to South Africa, they were doing temperature checks of everybody who came into the airport, which is way more than is happening at [London] Heathrow now because nobody checked me when I got back in,” Crawford Collins says. “We were hoping we’d get that part done and it would be one bit in the bag, and then we’d have a bit of a hiatus and push on to the next. But it’s amazing the speed with which things can change.”
The team is now planning to resume production as soon as it is safe to do so, with the majority of the cast luckily having some space in their schedules that should mean filming can continue with all the main players on set.
“We’re also trying to dig in and work out the best ways of storing thousands of costumes, because it’s a big period piece and we’ve got offices all set up [in South Africa],” the producer tells DQ. “It’s like the Marie Celeste when people walk out, but we’re trying to do it in as controlled and careful manner and so that it’s ready to get going again as quickly as possible.”
Conversations are now taking place about rebooking hotel rooms, studios and location owners so that everyone can return later in the year and pick up where they left off.
“Contracts generally don’t really cover this sort of eventuality, it’s not something that people have been prepared for,” Crawford Collins adds. “What we’re trying to do, though, is just talk to people as human beings in desperate circumstances, and to work out the best way of resolving the situations and planning for the next step.”
Around the World in Eighty Days stars Good Omens’ David Tennant as explorer Phileas Fogg, who travels the globe alongside his valet, Passepartout (Ibrahim Koma), and aspiring journalist Abigail Fix (Leonie Benesch). Federation Entertainment is distributing the series, which will air on European pubcasters France Télévisions, ZDF (Germany), Rai (Italy) and the BBC (UK).
Locations in South Africa are doubling for the deserts of Yemen, the hill villages of India, the bustling colonial court of Hong Kong and a desert island in the Pacific, while a set has been constructed to replicate the interior of the Reform Club in London’s prestigious Pall Mall. Sets for India and Hong Kong are now lying dormant, with 16 weeks of shooting still to be completed.
“Because it’s an 1872-set road trip, there are lots of locations within each episode. So there are lots of different sets, and there’s a mix of exterior locations and studio builds and then builds within locations. It’s definitely the most complicated thing I’ve ever done,” Crawford Collins says. “So to throw in a pandemic on top of that, it’s a little cherry on the top of complexity. For all of the people on the crew, it’s presented a whole host of challenges we’ve not had to deal with before, and maybe that’s made us quite resilient. I’m sure we will get through this one.”
Meanwhile, production has also stopped on the second season of BBC crime drama The Mallorca Files, after the Spanish government imposed a lockdown on its residents. International cast and crew were able to leave the Balearic island and have all returned home safely, with six episodes filmed and four to go.
The story follows a British police officer who joins forces with a wise-cracking German detective to fight crime on the picturesque island.
“Mallorca was nearly all location so, from a practical point of view, it just stops,” writer Dan Sefton says of the shutdown. “This has been a global problem so no one has been immune, literally. It makes no difference. Every domestic [UK] show has closed down as well. But as quickly as this has all shut down, and it’s been quite a shock for everybody, we have to be prepared that, as soon as it’s safe, it will start up again as quickly as is practical. That’s what people should be making plans for.”
Sefton is also in development on a third season of The Mallorca Files, while also preparing a potential fourth season of ITV’s India-set medical drama The Good Karma Hospital, which recently returned for its third run. All that work is continuing as normal, he says, though there are more video meetings and conference calls over Skype and Zoom than there would have been otherwise.
While broadcasters are looking at their schedules and deciding their own plans, Sefton says writers should be using their time to come up with new series that could shape the television landscape in the next couple of years.
“Writers spend a lot of time working on stuff that’s been commissioned. Having that freedom to work on something completely on spec is quite liberating, as long as you’ve got money coming in, which is another consideration for people,” he explains. “That’s the only silver lining I can think of. Writers can have fun writing things they’ve always wanted to write and then, hopefully, in two years’ time we might get some really interesting shows coming out of it.”
However, the former doctor is also preparing to put those plans on hold should his medical skills be required to help the fight against the pandemic. “I have volunteered to go back but I haven’t heard anything. Because I live in [English county] Somerset, we haven’t been badly affected yet, but I have volunteered to help when I can. I might be working while everyone else is writing.”
Another show to close following a six-month shoot, leaving it just 12 days away from wrapping production, is Sky drama Intergalactic. The action sci-fi drama, set in the 23rd century, follows a crew of fierce female convicts who break free and go on in the run in space. It is written by Julie Gearey (Prisoners’ Wives).
The series closed down on Wednesday, halfway through the final filming block. Despite precautions being taken up to that point, it quickly became clear they weren’t going to finish as scheduled.
“People started to get anxious and needed to get home. You can’t really stage a scene with loads of extras in it if the government says you need to keep away from people,” says executive producer Frith Tiplady, co-founder of producer Moonage Pictures, which was also behind Sky’s dystopian street-race series Curfew. “It’s been really tough making the decision. We’ve gone on hiatus and we’re still deciding how long that hiatus needs to be.
“Weirdly, you’re left in a strange world where your cast is covered [by insurance] if they have got it [the virus], but they haven’t got it, yet the right thing to do is to shut down. That leaves huge financial exposure. The broadcasters are being amazing and very supportive about each decision but it’s a bit strange, really, and I really feel for all the freelancers. Suddenly they’re in this situation. It’s horrendous.”
The decision to shut down was made on Monday, when production was out on location. Sets stopped being built and the de-rigging of existing sets began quicker than originally planned. The challenge now is deciding when to come back, while trying to ensure there is enough crew available if, as expected, many part-finished and new productions kick back into gear at the same time.
Moonage is also in pre-production on BBC miniseries The Pursuit of Love, starring Lily James in Emily Mortimer’s adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s novel trilogy set between the two world wars. Development work continues apace with weekly meetings held online, but Tiplady wonders whether broadcasters and other elements of the industry will continue to engage during this uncertain period, with planning only able to progress so far before key decisions need to be made.
“We can keep developing, it’s just [about] how much business can carry forward,” she says. “I think it can. It will slow down a little bit because people don’t know how much money they’ve got to spend and when they can produce things. Maybe that will become clear in the next few months.
“In post production, we’re editing remotely, everyone’s gone home and has got their computers and we’re still editing. That process is really working. But then can we grade remotely? Can we do ADR remotely? To a certain extent, yes, but undoubtedly it’s going to slow the process. Intergalactic’s got a lot of CG. It might change work/life patterns in a good way going forward, you never know.”
What’s not in doubt is that cast and crew who have lost their jobs overnight have been hit hard by the fallout from the ongoing pandemic, while questions of insurance, financing and when productions might hope to restart are still up in the air – and perhaps some time from being answered.
“Their salaries have stopped overnight so that’s the biggest casualty. As an industry, how we can support them?” Tiplady asks of the hundreds of people who collaborate to bring television dramas to the screen. “That’s the biggest concern. Crew and cast are the lifeblood.”