Tips: casting contributors

Gary Hunter, executive producer in BBC Factual, offers us his advice on casting contributors and putting people and their stories at the heart of your programme.

People, and their stories, are at the heart of all successful programmes. Gary draws on his experience of casting factual shows like SAS: Are You Tough Enough? and Last Woman Standing to share some tips on drawing together compelling characters who will engage the audience.

"You might not want the quietest people but you want them to have something that holds your attention." – Gary Hunter

His first point is that casting takes a long time. In fact, he advises that the longer you can spend on the casting section of production the better.

But he cautions that casting can’t be done exclusively over the phone from the office. Adverts and other call outs for contributors may attract a limited demographic. Good casting involves leg work. Gary references a contributor in Last Man Standing, who he spotted in his gym and persuaded to take part.

For Gary, a cast is not just a bunch of individuals, but a group who need to act as a team and work well together. But they don’t always need to get on - if there is tension or friction in the team this can also work well for the programme.

Screen tests are the ideal place to test the suitability of contributors, and Gary likes to replicate the programme's setting as best he can at an audition. For adventure shows this means putting contributors through a series of tough physical tests. For cookery shows this could mean contributors being asked to demonstrate one of their favourite recipes.

Honesty is a crucial part of casting. Contributors must know what involvement in a programme will mean for them. Gary tells contributors exactly what is going to be required of them during filming, but also prepares them for transmission of the show, and how viewers’ reactions could impact on them through social media. Some contributor casters refer to this as the "talk of doom" where they present contributors with the worst things that could befall them as a result of appearing on the show. It’s a vital part of our responsibility as producers towards contributors.

Once Gary has his shortlist, he will usually run a series of checks. This could include asking for proof of identity, checking whether people have appeared on other shows, and may include police checks or psychological testing.


Why not listen to our podcast episode on getting the best from your contributors? It features Jon Lloyd, series producer of Come Dine with Me and Claire Faragher, producer of ITV’s The Only Way Is Essex.