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Autumnwatch behind the scenes: Running the show

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Jeremy Torrance web producer Jeremy Torrance web producer | 12:56 UK time, Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Guest post: Nicola Merrett, Autumnwatch's runner and assistant floor manager, on why her job involves everything from carving pumpkin faces to bizarre arm movements.

The Autumnwatch runner team

Me (second left) with the other Autumnwatch runners, Becky Hathway and Richie Dobson

I am a professional runner. Power, agility, endurance - you're no doubt concocting a visual feast: focused and determined eyes set beneath a brow beaded with sweat, adrenaline-rich blood pumping through prominent veins and the visible contours of sculpted muscles within a lycra ensemble.

Trade the muscular physique for a personable nature, the actual act of running for a vigorous power-walk, and the lycra hot-pants for full-length thermals (plus several more layers of clothing), and you'll be closer to the reality.

Filming Autumnwatch

Rehearsing the live show at Westonbirt

Whether it's prowling the Westonbirt car park in the darkness hunting for Unsprung audience members, carving pumpkin faces for the Halloween episode, or compiling the vital statistics of the dwarf sperm whale (the only sighting in UK waters having occurred just a few weeks ago), the runner's job description is really a case of anything and everything.

Monday to Thursday I'm generally office-based, here to assist the researchers, producers and edit team. This could mean anything from creating a waxwing magnet for Chris's migration map to tracking down aerial footage of Spurn Point.

On Fridays, however, it's all change. Then I am devoted solely to the live broadcast and spend the entire day as assistant floor manager. This snazzy title brings duties such as directing the presenters to the various filming 'areas' during the show (last Friday this included escorting Martin up the 70 steps to the top of Slimbridge's Sloane Observation Tower in under four minutes) and performing bizarre arm movements that are in fact intricate messages in TV sign-language.

pumpkin faces

Carving pumpkin faces is one of the runner's many and varied jobs

Unsprung isn't my first foray into television but it is my first experience of live television. And how that changes things. Broadcasting live is truly exhilarating. The sight of our floor-manager, Royston, army-crawling towards the presenters to pass in props and pictures is memorising. Likewise the frantic moves between outdoor locations during the programme, where various camera and lighting cables speed along the ground like snakes on fast-forward as everyone reshuffles.

One of the benefits of being live is how reactive we can be to what you, the audience, are saying. During the programme producers monitor our blog, Twitter feed, Facebook page and messageboard and make note of interesting comments and original questions. These are then ferried to Royston, who ensures the miraculous appearance of the notes in the presenters' hands.

Another exciting potential that inevitably comes to mind when you consider a live natural history programme is live wildlife. This series we've given it a good go with our live badger cameras. The first week the cameras went live the badgers decided to make their appearance, and exit, one hour before the programme.

It's difficult to hold a grudge when you hear that hilarious badger-snore though. Luckily Autumnwatch and the Devon badgers were in perfect sync the following week. We were all beaming with excitement as the live feed took over from the studio cameras and the whole studio crew crowded round a monitor to watch the badgers gobble peanuts, with as little idea of what was to come next as the audience.

This Friday we broadcast from WWT Slimbridge, a venue literally squawking with life. Such an abundance of wildlife has the potential to create unpredictable programmes, malleable to the very last second - precisely what makes fascinating viewing for an audience, yet tests the nerves of the production team.

But as excited as we are about Slimbridge, we'll miss the autumnal beauty of Westonbirt and our rare encounters with the resident wildlife. The unseen tawny owl, for one, who called out like clockwork each week, breaking the deathly silence that occupied the final minute before going live.

During our final week at Westonbirt, Sean (our sound recordist), returned the call only to receive an immediate reply, making us all laugh seconds before the cameras began to roll and reminding each of us why there's nothing quite like live television.

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