Unlocking creativity

Unlocking creativity

Michael Pickard
By Michael Pickard
May 4, 2020

In production

ITV and S4C are both using drama to tell some of the unique stories that are emerging from life under lockdown. Producers Jeff Pope and Pip Broughton tell DQ about making Isolation Stories and Cyswllt (Lifeline).

While documentaries, news and current-affairs programming can be produced quickly to respond to seismic human, environmental or political events, the time it takes to write, film and edit drama series means they are rarely called upon to reflect events as they are happening.

Yet at a time when the UK remains under lockdown, commercial broadcaster ITV and Welsh-language pubcaster S4C have both commissioned so-called ‘fast-turnaround’ dramas that aim to depict life during the coronavirus-related restrictions.

Launching tonight and running across four consecutive evenings, each 15-minute episode of ITV’s Isolation Stories will reflect what families are going through after weeks of isolation.

Produced by Jeff Pope and his ITV Studios-owned factual drama label, the series has been assembled under lockdown conditions, with actors and their families filming the scenes themselves. Each of the directors – Paul Whittington, Paul Andrew Williams, Louise Hooper and David Blair – watched the footage via their mobile phones and gave advice about camera positioning, scene composition and lighting as scenes were recorded. ITV Studios Global Entertainment holds international distribution rights.

The first story in the series – whose episodes are named after their main characters – stars Sheridan Smith as Mel. Alone, heavily pregnant and fed up with life, Mel faces giving birth without the married father of her child – who has chosen to stay with his wife and family – and without her own family, who have given her the cold shoulder.

Jeff Pope started thinking about a lockdown-focused show when isolating with his ill wife, who contracted the virus

Ron & Russell, the second instalment, stars Robert Glenister as Ron, who is ill with the virus and is confused about where he is and what’s happening to him, while one of his sons, Russell (Glenister’s real-life son Tom), is trapped and isolating with him, leading to the reopening of old wounds.

The third story, Mike & Rochelle, stars Darren Boyd and Angela Griffin. The worst fears of paranoid, self-absorbed hypochondriac Mike (Boyd) have come true and he insists on an online session with his psychiatrist, Rochelle (Griffin), who must try to talk him down from the precipice.

Finally, Karen stars Eddie Marsan, his sons Blue and Bodie, and David Threlfall. The latter plays a grandfather who passes his son-in-law Stephen (Marsan)’s house on the way to the shops and stops to lark about outside and amuse his grandchildren. But Stephen, still suffering after being left by wife Karen, doesn’t welcome these daily visits.

Executive producer Pope (A Confession, Little Boy Blue) is known for producing fact-based drama, but perhaps none quite as topical or immediate as Isolation Stories – a project made particularly personal by the fact his wife fell ill with Covid-19.

Pope says that isolating with his unwell wife gave him a lot of time to reflect, and he began thinking about the fact that, under lockdown, everybody is in their own homes having their own small experience of this global pandemic.

Isolation Stories’ Karen stars David Threlfall (left) and Eddie Marsan, as well as Marsan’s two sons

“What formed in my mind was short stories,” he tells DQ. “They’re not something you see much on television, but they work because we’re not trying to tell the whole story of the coronavirus pandemic. We’re just trying to paint a fragmented picture of what’s going on. My inspiration was, if we made a short story, we had a chance to write it, shoot it and transmit very quickly.

“Uniquely, I thought there was a chance for scripted content to have something to say about what was going on. Normally it’s the news, current affairs, reality programmes – they can all reflect instantly what’s happening, and there’s been some wonderful stuff. But I thought there was an opportunity here for drama to say something as well, to try to reflect what’s going on.”

In particular, Pope was keen to highlight the emotional journeys people might be taking as they isolate at home alone or with other family members. ITV director of television Kevin Lygo and head of drama Polly Hill were immediately receptive to the idea, and were prepared for the fact the finished product wouldn’t be as polished as a high-end drama filmed with a full crew.

Pope then got in touch with three other writers – Gaby Chiappe (Mel), William Ivory (Mike & Rochelle) and Neil McKay (Karen) – and invited them to submit potential stories. He wrote the other episode, Ron & Russell, himself.

“All of us wrote our story in five or six days. I tried not to be too prescriptive, I just said it should reflect something they have come across either themselves or through their friends and family, so it should be inspired by real events and we shouldn’t be afraid of making people laugh or cry,” Pope explains. “But it should be a mirror. We should be saying to people out there, ‘In a small way, this will connect with you – this is what you’re going through.’ The scripts were written very quickly.”

Sheridan Smith in the Mel episode, which centres on a lonely pregnant woman

While actors have become used to filming auditions on their phone and submitting them via email, casting Isolation Stories proved to be the biggest challenge for Pope, owing to the fact he needed to find specific actors who were isolating together and were with family members who would be able to assist with filming.

“If we take my story, initially it was about a mother and son, so you needed an older actor and a younger actor living in the same house. Both needed to be actors, and we needed someone else in the house who could operate the camera, because none of our crew could go into their house.” he says.

“We discovered Robert Glenister, an actor I really admire, was isolating with his son Tom, who’d done some actin work, and also with Celia, Robert’s wife and Tom’s mum, who was going to be our camera person. She did the most amazing job. We had to work with what we were presented with, so I had to change the script slightly to suit exactly what we knew was there, and off we went.”

The Karen episode proved even more complex, requiring an actor isolating with two children who could act plus someone else to film. Marsan and his sons Blue and Bodie took the on-screen roles, with Marsan’s wife Janine working behind the scenes.

“It was a really stressful, intense and difficult casting process because there were all sorts of factors you don’t normally have to deal with,” Pope says. “We got really lucky. To a man and woman, the performances are fantastic, and the backup from other members of the family has just been extraordinary.”

Pip Broughton pictured between Keeping Faith star Eve Myles and creator Matthew Hall

Sterilised camera equipment was delivered to each actor’s home. A technician would then give them a crash course in operating the kit – from a safe distance – and production began from there. On the day of the shoot, the director, cinematographer, assistants and lighting technicians could all tune in to watch remotely, speaking to the camera operator via an earpiece about framing and apertures.

“It was the most wonderful adventure. There was some brilliant work done technically to get us to a point where we could shoot, but then it was such a rewarding experience,” Pope says. “It was wonderful to see DOPs talk through a complete novice, someone who’d never done it before, and try to explain the best way to achieve a move without it shaking. It was really heartening, wonderful stuff.”

Beating Isolation Stories to air by a handful of days was Welsh drama Cyswllt (Lifeline), which also aims to capture a snapshot of life during a pandemic, showing the effect of lockdown on individuals and families.

Launching last Wednesday, the three-part series was filmed only using laptops and phones. It weaves stories of families and friends over several weeks, bringing tension, split loyalties and surprises.

Producer Vox Pictures had been in the middle of filming the third season of breakout Welsh drama Un Bore Mercher (Keeping Faith) when production was suspended. “We were in a car park in [South Welsh coastal town] Laugharne, with the scene set up on the beach, and had to tell the crew we were stopping shooting,” remembers director and Vox producer Pip Broughton.

Broughton’s Cyswllt (Lifeline) began airing on S4C last week

“Everyone had travelled down there for the week’s shoot, everyone had packed their bags for a week away and we had to say we’re stopping shooting immediately and we have no idea when we’ll be getting back. I just felt this strange, overwhelming grief.”

With six unfinished episodes of Keeping Faith in the cutting room and seven more weeks of shooting to come once production can resume, Broughton sought a way to reflect the world today through drama. She pitched Cyswllt to S4C with a plan to film and air the series immediately, hoping to explore how people’s emotions and behaviour are changing under lockdown.

“A lot of documentary footage has been made, a lot of self-shooting footage has been made but I wanted to work within the genre I live and breathe,” she says of making a drama. Laptops and iPhones were delivered to the actors along with costumes and props, while Broughton directed over video-conferencing service Zoom. The finished series follows the story as characters have video calls with each other, including two nurses working on Covid-19 wards and a grandmother and granddaughter.

“It’s not perfect, it’s rough-edged, but we did it as a gesture, rather than as something that has been nourished for years and years before it’s shared,” continues Broughton, who also praises the cast, including Mark Lewis Jones, Suzanne Packer, Hannah Daniel, Catherine Ayers and Aneirin Hughes, many of whom come from Un Bore Mercher.

“It’s a bit nerve-racking because none of us have done it before, and there were quite a lot of problems, technically, in the edit.

Making Cyswllt has been a ‘steep learning curve’

“It’s been an incredibly steep learning curve, but what we’ve achieved is an intimacy because it’s like we’re a fly on the wall at both ends of the conversations. In drama, you’re always in a dilemma: do you cut on the person speaking or the person listening? In this, you have both. That sense of intimacy and authenticity is important. It feels very real that we’re in both kitchens listening to people; we’re listening in on the conversation.”

Through the three half-hour episodes, a thriller story is combined with issues including homelessness, domestic abuse and mental health. Broughton says the scripts have changed as her feelings about the lockdown have evolved. “As I felt differently, I had to write differently for it to be current. It’s been very fast but very freeing at the same time, because you’re not worrying about the mistakes and the imperfections,” she notes.

The director says she hopes to resume filming Un Bore Mercher as soon as it is safe and practical to do so, though she says the way Vox is now developing other projects is changing as a result of Covid-19.

“The questions you ask yourself at the beginning on the editorial side are different, and then there’s the practical side – how long are the physical restrictions going to be enforced, and will we need to be creative again?

“This is our solution for now, to shoot on iPhones over three weeks. I don’t know what our next solution will be if we’re not able to shoot in a traditional way. It may be adapting how we work. It’s one day at a time, as it is for everybody. The main thing about this project is it’s about the human condition and what makes us human, and how being human has been changed by Covid.”

Pope says that as Isolation Stories was made and will air “in the teeth of the crisis,” it has been important to reflect how people are feeling and living at this time. Once the industry returns to a state of normality, escapism will be the order of the day.

“People will want to watch not necessarily fluffy dramas, but they’ll want to get a handle on some kind of normality,” he adds. “The best drama takes you out of the moment and make you think. So once this is over, we’ll want to go back to the kind of drama we were watching six months ago. But while we’re right in the middle of it, it will be fascinating to hold a mirror up and for people to say, ‘That resonates in me.’”

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