An unseen craft

An unseen craft

April 12, 2023

Job Description

Alison Barnett, the winner of this year’s Bafta Television Craft Special Award, is an industry pioneer as one of the very first female heads of production in the UK. She tells DQ about her prolific career, breaking barriers and filming again after the pandemic.

Alison Barnett, the recipient of this year’s Bafta Television Craft Special Award, has enjoyed a stellar career in British television, spanning more than 40 years and over 400 hours of programming.

Her first credits were as a floor assistant for such BBC science-fiction classics as Doctor Who and Blake’s 7. And now, four decades on, her pioneering work as one of the first female heads of production in the UK has led to her Bafta recognition. Since 2005, Barnett has been head of production at Spooks, Hustle and Life on Mars producer Kudos.

In accepting the prestigious prize, Barnett says it’s a celebration of not just her work but also that of numerous people in production offices up and down the country.

Alison Barnett

“I’m just so thrilled that production is getting recognised,” she tells DQ. “Camera, makeup, costume… everybody is recognised apart from the poor little production office, and that’s really because they are out of sight and out of mind. That’s fine if everything is going well, but if it’s not going well, suddenly it’s, ‘Bloody production office, what have they been doing?’

“Production is hard graft and you do get success because you actually get the show done, but you just don’t get any spotlight put on you. More and more people are coming into production but leaving early; they’re finding it such a strain. So for me to get this award, because no one ever sees us, is extra special. It is for all those people slogging away who nobody ever sees.”

A part of more than 80 Bafta-nominated shows, as well as 14 winning productions, Barnett began her career in theatre and opera after training as a stage manager, before joining the BBC’s TV drama department as a floor assistant in 1979. In 1985, she went freelance, working as a line producer on shows such as Glasgow Kiss, Spooks and Bleak House before joining Kudos, whose recent hits include Utopia, Grantchester, Broadchurch and SAS Rogue Heroes (pictured above).

She also sits on ScreenSkills’ High-End TV Skills Council, developing training programmes and partnerships.

Ahead of receiving her prize at the Bafta Television Craft Awards on April 23, Barnett speaks to DQ about the day-to-day challenges of her current role, how she led the line for female producers and the challenges of filming during the height of the pandemic.

You’ve been head of production at Kudos since 2005. What’s involved day-to-day?
I’m across everything from development through to getting the budget and schedule together, working with the producers and the directors, working through the actual filming, then working through post-production. It’s literally from getting that script on your desk to sitting down and watching it on the television screen in your living room. And that can take anything from one year to two-and-a-half years, depending on the length of the show.

What challenges do you face today compared with when you first started the role?
The industry has changed dramatically over the past 10 to 15 years. The creative ambition now in everything we do is huge. Budgets are always tricky when you’re going to shoot the actual show and crewing up because there’s so much competition, so there’s a shortage of crews. It’s challenging on a day-to-day basis. You’re moving around 80 to 100 people for up to 12 weeks if you’re on location, which has challenges enough, let alone what happens when the phone rings and something dramatic has gone wrong or someone is ill. Anything can happen and it does. You’ve just got to juggle everything and get on with it.

Barnett worked as a line producer on shows such as BBC spy drama Spooks

When you look back on your career so far, what moments stand out?
I was going from drama school into the theatre, and from theatre into what everyone thinks is the golden age of the BBC. I was there from the late 1970s to the mid-80s, and my last show at the BBC was Edge of Darkness, which was fantastic. Then I went freelance and worked my way up, and somebody pointed out I was the first female line producer back in 1982/83. It was a very male-dominated world then.

I was doing a huge range of shows, and then I met [Sister chief creative officer] Jane Featherstone when she was a producer, and we did Glasgow Kiss together. Then, of course, she went into Kudos. Spooks and Hustle arrived, and then it was Jane saying, ‘I think we need a head of production. We’re rather busy, can you come in and help?’ That was 2005. When I look back on my career and the people I’ve worked with, I count myself very lucky.

People regularly make the jump from the stage to screen today, but was that the case when you did it?
I love the theatre. I wanted to be an actress – I went to drama school. I adored the theatre and the opera and I never thought about working in television at all. At that time, to get into the BBC, you had to have worked in theatre. And having been a stage manager, the only way I could get in was as a floor assistant, which is why I was then doing everything from Grandstand, Nationwide and Top of the Pops to Doctor Who and Blake’s 7. You did everything.

I managed to get into the drama department and worked my way up to become an assistant floor manager, which was a lovely role. It was in between a runner and a prop boy, and it was still very theatrical. So it was a bold move and one I hadn’t thought of. But whatever stars were aligning saying, ‘Get into television,’ it was the right thing to do for me at that time.

What was your experience like breaking into production in British television?
I suppose it was breaking boundaries. I’d just had my first child, so I was literally taking her to work and bouncing her on my knee while using the computer. I was very lucky, though, to be working for Dennis Potter [writer of The Singing Detective], who was actually a great believer in promoting women in the industry behind the camera. Working with him was a great honour, and he had a female producer, Rosie Whitman. I never thought at the time that we were breaking new boundaries. We just had to kind of get on with it.

I remember when I first went to Kudos back in the day, [director of production] Jessica Sharkey at Hat Trick Productions decided we should have a head-of-production forum. I think there were eight of us, eight women in a room discussing various things and how we all managed doing stuff and all the rest of it. That must have been about 2008. Now, that same head-of-production group is 90-strong. And I’d say that, out of the 90, five are men.

Kudos is the producer of SAS Rogue Heroes, which comes from Steven Knight

Take us back to 2020 and the arrival of Covid. What was your experience during the early stages of the pandemic when production stopped and then the industry had to find a way to get back up and running?
Like everybody else, everyone was told to go home. We had SAS Rogue Heroes on the cards. We had Then You Run going to Germany. So the big thing was how do we continue? We were rewriting budgets, and protocols were coming out all over the place. Then getting the government PRS [production restart] scheme was just a lifesaver. But of course, that document was something like 80 pages long and everybody had different views about it. A core of us got together and helped the British Film Commission get the main protocols out for the industry.

But for SAS, we just thought, ‘We’ve got to keep going.’ The UK was in lockdown and we needed to get to Morocco. We were coming up with all these ridiculous plans. At one point, we thought about going by sea. We had to get special permission from the King of Morocco, who allowed us to charter in a plane – one plane – so we had to take everybody with us, the whole kit and caboodle, all the actors for eight weeks, all the circus, everybody, because we had one plane in and one plane out at the end.

When we arrived in Morocco, they were in lockdown but it was fantastic because we were in our own little Moroccan Covid bubble, and we just got on with it. It only really hit us when Morocco opened up its borders and people started travelling around again, and then people on the unit and some of the cast did get sick. But we managed to do it.

Then You Run was even trickier. We had to send everyone across to Germany right at the beginning of the show. At one point, we had to go all through Eastern Europe and cross different borders. When you think about it now, we were telling 80-odd people, ‘You are going to go to Germany in the middle of a pandemic and you can’t get home. And not only that, you can’t get a jab because you’re in a foreign country.’ So we asked a lot and it was tough for people, actually. It was bad enough back here getting people to come to work. To send people to Morocco and Germany was a different can of worms. But we did it.

Hustle, another classic BBC show on which Barnett worked

How has industry practice changed as a result of the pandemic?
The trouble is we haven’t got the insurance scheme anymore. Yes, of course, everyone is far more relaxed about Covid now. But it’s still out there and, for us in this industry, if somebody gets sick now with Covid, the production isn’t insured, so you have to bear that cost with your financier, broadcaster, streamer or whoever. You still have to have some protocols in place and look after people, so it is still tricky to manage.

We take a lot more care in looking after people’s mental health and wellbeing since the pandemic. It has changed things slightly and, because we’re all together in a different location every day, people are just a bit more wary of where they’re going, what they’re doing, how we’re looking after them and what happens if they get sick.

When you start a new project, what are your biggest considerations as head of production?
It’s just about getting the right people. It’s hard work. You need good leadership from the top, you need to get a commitment from your crew and artists, and you need to look after people. Because the industry is so busy at the minute, people, especially in the crews, are moving up the ladder a bit too quickly and so they’re not getting a really good grounding of the job before they’re moving up to the next stage. I think that then puts pressure on them, because it is a difficult job.

There’s been a lot of change in the industry over the last 40 years. What’s next?
We’re pushing again with so much industry-led training and we’re now opening up to younger people to show them there are so many different jobs and aspirations that you can do in this industry. I’m on the ScreenSkills High-end TV Council and what we’ve done in the past 10 years is really second to none. We’ve poured millions and millions of pounds back into the industry for training. We’ve opened up so many different training groups and are getting people back to work, including mothers after they’ve had children. It’s huge what we’ve managed to do.

I just want people to realise what a great career it is and to enjoy it. We are very lucky to be working in this industry, making magic and going to fantastic places all around the world. Yes, it’s hard, but you’ve got to enjoy it, and that’s what I want to bring back into the industry. I look back to the Spooks and Hustle days and I just remember laughing all day. I do get a bit worried about everyone not liking it and thinking about leaving. Have another think about it and take up training. Take your time, work your way up the ladder. There are plenty of opportunities. Don’t get there too quickly and get stressed out and burnt out and then leave.

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