Archives for September 2010

The Cut: I'm the wardrobe stylist on the drama

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Gemma Swan Gemma Swan | 15:34 UK time, Monday, 27 September 2010

The Cut is a drama for young people about a group of friends (and some enemies) living in London.

I'm the wardrobe stylist so my main job is interpreting each of the character's personalities and reflecting this through their individual styles. I think about the look and the brands that they would buy. I then source the clothes and organise the whole costume department.

When we're filming, I have to make sure everyone's wearing what they're supposed to be, when they're supposed to be. I'd say I'm involved from the moment we first get the scripts, to the moment the character goes in front of the camera.

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Before The Cut, I'd done a lot of music videos and photo shoots, working with artists like K'naan and Mr Hudson. I've also made clothes for The Darkness and 50 Cent's dancers, and wardrobe assisted on a show called Move Like Michael Jackson.

I knew The Cut were looking for a relevant, youthful look, and I knew I could deliver that, so a nice chap called Terence put me in touch with Pete Gibbons, the producer. I knew about the show because my younger sister watched it and so I really wanted to get involved.

To source the clothes, I have an in depth meeting with the director for each block of filming, to discuss the scenes and any special requirements. I then look at what we need and either approach different clothing brands or shop for the clothes. I have to pay for everything as a normal customer, though I do look for deals.

My budget is tiny so I have to be really creative, buying cheap clothes where I can and customising a lot. For example, for the fancy dress outfits for Marla's party in episode 26, a lot of the outfits were customised by me and my team.

The director was really pleased with the looks and especially because we managed to do a lot for not very much money. It's important to spend the money on the right things, the character's capsule wardrobe, that they wear all the time, is more important than the one off things, even though it is tempting to spend your budget on princess dresses.

Catherine Cadence, played by Deborah May

I have myself and another stylist, Neesha Sharma, and we've got a couple of assistants who sometimes help us. I have heard of this BBC wardrobe department, but I have never seen it with my own eyes. It sounds amazing. We have yet to be given the keys to the BBC wardrobe, but we look forward to that day.

We don't get to keep the clothes, because they belong to The Cut and also we reuse everything. You might see characters in the show wearing the same thing quite a lot, or put together differently. It works because it reflects the way young people wear clothes, they don't have massive budgets either.

If a character leaves, I must admit we do reuse the basic items in their wardrobe on other characters.

This wouldn't work with something obviously belonging to another character though, like I'll never be able to reuse Olive Loxley's leather jacket, it's so clearly hers and always will be... so the jacket goes into storage for now.

I wouldn't say I have a favourite outfit of all the ones I've put together. I think each has their own distinctive vibe, but each character has key items or a signature look that I really like. For example, Stephen Mackinnon's long trench coat became really iconic for that him, Cameron Benedick's wardrobe is a lot of fun, he's got some very tasteful Hawaiian shirts, and then Catherine Cadence's straw hat (above) has become a central part of her look.

We've got a tiny room in the basement of the production office, which is where the actors all get changed. It's not glamorous. We have to make do with limited space, storage and time and it's hard to keep it tidy.

When the actors first started, they used to leave their clothes all over the place, they are all teens after all, but they are much better now. I've been really strict, so I hope their parents are grateful!

Gemma and fellow stylist Neesha in The Cut's wardrobe room

The best thing about my job is having the opportunity to work with such a great bunch of people. Everyone's got a shared goal and when you watch it back I think that really comes across. It's brilliant coming up with ideas for new characters also, I am given a lot of freedom and I know that my input is valued.

Even when the director wants to make a change it's cool being part of the exchange and making sure the results are to everyone's expectations.

Sometimes things move really quickly. When we did the fancy dress or Marla Mackinnon's party, I was in the fancy dress shop the day before filming commenced, getting Frankie Stern and Cameron's outfits, literally about to pay for them when I got a phone call saying the outfits had to change. Me and Neesha had to run around the shops in Oxford Street in London, putting together the homemade superheroes look in about half an hour, but they looked really hilarious. Looking back it's funny, it wasn't that funny at the time.

And sometimes, things go missing, and suddenly it's a continuity nightmare. A pair of Frankie's earrings went walkabout once and it caused real issues. You have to be completely meticulous, the smallest part of the costume is still really important.

When I sit back and watch it on TV it's an amazing feeling. Seeing it come together after the hard work is really, really good.

Gemma Swan is the wardrobe stylist on The Cut.

Watch daily online episodes every weekday at 5.10pm on The Cut website, and the omnibus at midday on BBC Two, starting Saturday, 2 October.

Plus you can interact with the show through The Cut's blog and submit your music to be used in the show through BBC Introducing.

Inspector George Gently: Returning home to Durham

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Simon Hubbard Simon Hubbard | 11:37 UK time, Friday, 24 September 2010

I think everyone is, and always will be, in love with Inspector George Gently and the 1960s. Martin Shaw's natural charisma breathes life into this character - he is warm, conscientious, engaging. Couple that with Peter Flannery's great skill as a writer and the magic that is Inspector George Gently ignites.

As you may know I was in one of the opening scenes of the first series with Martin and Lee Ingleby (Detective Sergeant John Bacchus). It was on the beach saying "Over there sir." A very proud moment.

Inspector George Gently, played by Martin Shaw, and Detective Sergeant John Bacchus, played by Lee Ingleby, speak with Darren Paige, played by Shaun Dooley in the first episode of the new series.

Since that distant day way back in Dublin, where we shot the first two series, the three of us have become very close.

It was a pivotal moment for this new series with the new addition of my moustache. Of course, Lee and I are the jokers on set, so it was inevitable when my character Taylor grew a moustache, Lee would tease me. I think he was only jealous because he couldn't grow one and, well, I liked it and more importantly, so did my girlfriend.

Martin would also comment on Taylor's 'tache. I think it was hard for them to look at it without laughing in order to get the take right. So yes, as you may have guessed already, there will be bloopers ahead from this series.

I have to say, it was totally amazing being back in the north east of England after all these years, especially Durham, which is such a beautiful city. I grew up in a village next to Durham called Penshaw and being back home with the Gently cast was just magic.

We had filmed the first three series in Ireland, where I live now, and it was always strange to walk on to the set in Dublin and see maps, pictures and documents from my home town, especially 1960s ones.

I loved the time in Ireland and the crew were great but it seemed very natural to bring Gently back to the north east of England. The backdrop of the city, support and welcome we got from the local people really helped to relax us, and there was a great buzz on set.

This is a very special series - Gently has come home. The texture, tone and feel of the city is breathtaking in every scene, it really adds to the atmosphere of the show.

Inspector George Gently, played by Martin Shaw, sits on the beach with Lisa Bacchus, played by Marie Clare Pullen

The guest stars this series are well-loved institutions, much like the show itself. Warren Clarke, who plays Charles Hoxton in episode two: Peace and Love is a consummate professional - like many of us, we have all been fans of his for many years. The beautiful Sarah Lancashire, who plays Mallory Brown in the same episode, was so warm and graceful. The two brought great 'Sixties spirit'.

The new scripts are amazing. I can't say too much, but in true BBC style they have captured the zeitgeist of the 1960s and Inspector George Gently has some tough crimes to solve. The best thing for me was watching Martin playing Gently with the backdrop of Durham Cathedral. I was proud to be a Geordie.

I hope you enjoy the show.

Simon Hubbard plays PC Taylor in Inspector George Gently.

Inspector George Gently is on Sunday, 26 September at 8.30pm on BBC One and BBC HD.

For all future programme times please visit the upcoming episodes page.

You can see extra behind-the-scenes pictures of the filming of Inspector George Gently on the BBC Wear website.

Michael Wood's Story Of England

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Michael Wood Michael Wood | 16:08 UK time, Wednesday, 22 September 2010

We are outside Mary's Deli in the village of Kibworth in Leicestershire, and I am scribbling this as the camera crew gulp a quick coffee, after an early start.

After epic journeys in the Story Of India, not to mention tracking Alexander through Afghanistan, and Pizarro Over The Andes, this feels like something of a homecoming.

Michael Wood atop Lewes castle

Now one year into Michael Wood's Story Of England and we all really feel at home here. Mary automatically puts extra milk in the producer's tea, and it's impossible to walk down the street without meeting people who have helped us.

But how did it all start? Well, I had always wanted to try to tell the whole story of English history from one place, through the eyes of the people, not the rulers.

I felt sure that looking at history from this perspective would tell a completely different but no less dramatic story and one which we all could relate to - as it would be the history of us.

And why Kibworth? I was led to Kibworth first by its remarkable archive of historical documents. And split by the A6 on the fringe of the multiracial city of Leicester, Kibworth is emphatically today's England in miniature.

So the Story of England is the tale of one community over time, but it could be any place. It could be yours.

Making the series all started over a year ago with the Big Dig, which you'll see in episode one. We advertised on BBC Radio Leicester and 250 locals turned up at the school hall for an archaeological weekend.

Supervised by experts, they dug 55 test pits (the most ever done in a single place). The dig was a success beyond our wildest dreams.

We got Roman sherds, remarkable early and late Anglo-Saxon pottery, all the way through the Middle Ages to the debris of Georgian coaching inns, frame knitters' workshops and even in one pit household throwouts from the 1960s!

And even the children really got into it - as one of the villagers, Louise Dodds said: "We've never seen the kids concentrate so hard in all our lives!"

Michael Wood with the Kibworth group dig

As the series continues, you'll see us go on to field walking, tree ring dating and DNA tests. We've found a Roman villa and Norman castle mound.

The villagers have researched in the National Archives, and we've gone with the high school kids on their battlefield tour to the Somme.

Through all this, tales have opened up of Viking settlers, medieval rebels, canal navvies, highwaymen transported to Australia, and suffragettes thrown into Holloway prison.

The village was even strafed and bombed by the Luftwaffe in World War Two. The local Home Guard commander camouflaged his beloved silver and red Singer sports car so well that he had to send out his men to find it: a scene worthy of Captain Mainwaring in Dad's Army!

And filming back in England after years on the road? Well, I used to think that washing in a mountain stream at dawn on the Hindu Kush and breakfast with black tea and coarse bitter bread was just about as good as it gets on a film shoot.

But now as the village wakes up, with Richard the postman doing his rounds, Debbie putting out the sign outside the bookshop, and Mrs Croxford (97 this month) heading down to the Co-op, I must say that Mary's Marmite toast and coffee runs it pretty close!

Michael Wood is the presenter of Michael Wood's Story Of England.

Michael Wood's Story Of England is on BBC Four at 9pm and BBC HD at 10.30pm on Wednesday, 22 September.

For all future programme times, please visit the upcoming episodes page.

Don't Tell The Bride: Planning my fiancée's wedding

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Simon Candlish Simon Candlish | 11:10 UK time, Wednesday, 22 September 2010

My partner Kaleigh and I applied to be on a BBC Three show called Don't Tell The Bride. The concept sounded simple - we get £12,000 to get married, with one small snag. As the groom, I have to plan everything.

How hard can it be? I've been with Kaleigh for six years, so I'd like to think I know her really well.

We had talked a lot about getting married - she wanted a fairytale wedding in the UK, I had plans of grandeur and the bright lights of Las Vegas. Kaleigh didn't seem keen as she believed Vegas was, in a word, "tacky".

The day arrived. Day one of filming and we were both very nervous but the crew did a good job of keeping us at ease. A small camera, a nice bubbly producer (Zoe Page) and a guy with a comedy 'tache and a wit to match (Dave Gibson) were to be following our every move for the next three weeks.

Kaleigh had departed and my best man Anthony Shore had moved in - it was time to get organising our big day. The question was where do we get married?

I wanted Las Vegas, Kaleigh wanted the stately home so there was only one way to decide - a spin of the roulette wheel. Black for Vegas, red for the UK.

We entered the casino and placed our bet. Watching the ball roll around seemed to take forever to drop to reveal our wedding destiny, finally... black.

One thought entered my head: "She's going to kill me!"

The decision was made and the first stop was to book the flights. I hadn't prepared myself for the cost, as the first travel agent quoted £12,000 to fly all of us out there. This was going to be a lot harder than I'd thought.

I had to cut the wedding party down to the bare minimum, which meant leaving a bridesmaid, my sister, and Kaleigh's brother at home. It was a heartbreaking decision to make.

I chose the dress for my bride-to-be and, in my mind, what I had set up was an absolute dream and would knock the socks off a UK wedding.

You'll see in the programme why, the night before, I still wasn't sure if I would be a married man the next morning.

On arriving home, there was some explaining to do. Kaleigh's sister Sam didn't talk to me for a week but thankfully now all is forgiven.

On reflection, if I was asked would I do it again, the answer would be yes, but I wouldn't have gambled on a wedding with only half the family being present.

We're planning on having a blessing and a big bash, where all our family and friends will be invited. I think I'll leave the planning to Kaleigh!

Simon Candlish is the groom is episode six in series four of Don't Tell The Bride.

Episode six of Don't Tell The Bride is on Tuesday, 21 September, at 9pm on BBC Three.

To view all future episodes, please visit the upcoming episodes page.

Lost Land Of The Tiger: Filming in Bhutan

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Gordon Buchanan Gordon Buchanan | 00:01 UK time, Monday, 20 September 2010

When I mention Bhutan it solicits one of two responses. There is the "Oh, wow!" and then there is the "Oh, where?" The mention of filming tigers, however, solicits a combination of the two - "Oh wow, where?" Searching for tigers in a remote Himalayan kingdom is as awesome as it sounds.

A tiger caught on camera in the Himalayas

By trade I am a wildlife cameraman, and often, when I'm not behind the camera, I jig about and say stuff in front of it.

Presenter is an uncomfortable word for me to call myself, but I suppose that is what I have become. My role was simply to capture images of tigers by any means possible.

I love my job, and almost everything that comes with it, but the opportunity to visit a place that is on many people's top 10 list, to look for arguably the world's most charismatic animal has been a career highlight.

Back at the start of the noughties I was making Tigers Of The Emerald Forest, a film about an isolated tiger population of about 30 individuals (a healthy breeding population) living in a little known national park in north central India.

The film was about the success story of those tigers and how, despite the pressures they faced, they were doing really well.

Within two years of my departure, all of them, every last one had been wiped out by illegal poaching. The news of that tragedy threw into sharp focus the realisation that the very worst was true - that we faced a future where tigers could no longer survive in the wild.

I think that being involved in the Lost Land/Expedition series has helped me feel less guilty about my dream job. Each expedition has targeted vulnerable rainforest areas and raised awareness of the problems and hopefully gone some way to helping.

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In Bhutan we decided to highlight a single species: the tiger. At the start I really was resigned to a future without tigers roaming free in the world. To be honest, half way through the expedition, I still thought the same.

I knew almost immediately that the only chance we had of filming tigers was with camera traps. Unmanned and strapped to a tree these clever little cameras click into action the moment anything passes in front.

They never get tired, they never get hungry and they don't suffer from heat exhaustion, frost bite or flatulence. Effectively they put me out of a job.

We slept in tents in the tropical heat of the forest and the minus 15 freezing conditions in the mountains.

Food was basic, sleep was scarce and exhaustion of working in the danger zone at an altitude of 5,000 metres was one of the toughest things I have ever done. Blood, sweat and tears pretty much sums up much of the expedition.

Gordon in the Himalayas

The candle of the tiger flickers vulnerably at the end of a very long dark tunnel, but in Bhutan, in the foothills of the most impressive mountain range on earth, the tiger's future burns most brightly. We found them.

When I saw the first images of the tigers on the camera traps from the mountains (a place and altitude where tigers aren't suppose to live) I was completely overwhelmed. It was very emotional.

In an instant I realised that tigers had hope and that the entire teams efforts were being fully rewarded by this briefest glimpse of an animal that didn't know that its kind has been wiped out elsewhere in the world.

So we found them. OK, not roaming through every mountain pass, or roaring from every patch of forest, but our findings show that there is still hope.

Even (as is quite likely) if every isolated population is wiped out, all is not lost. If we care enough and can create a corridor spanning the Himalayas from Nepal to Thailand, tigers still have a chance. That is what I tell my children.

Gordon Buchanan is the cameraman and presenter on Lost Land Of The Tiger.

Lost Land Of The Tiger is on BBC One on Tuesday, 21 September at 9pm.

Excluded: How we made the BBC School Season drama

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Misha Manson-Smith | 16:18 UK time, Thursday, 16 September 2010

I'm the director of Excluded, a one-off drama and part of BBC Two's School Season.

It's set in the fictional The Lamont School, a struggling comprehensive in north London. Spanning the first few weeks of a new school year, the drama charts the intersecting stories of Amanda, an ambitious headmistress, Ian, an idealistic new maths teacher, and Mark, a troubled and disruptive pupil.

Mark, played by George Whitehead and Ian, played by Bryan Dick

The heart of the film is in Ian and Mark's fractious relationship, but it also engages with some of the key issues and dilemmas facing both staff and pupils around the country right now.

I first heard about the project through one of its executive producers, Eleanor Moran.

We'd worked together on BBC Three drama pilot, Stanley Park, which I directed, and were discussing what next.

I was keen to find a story that was immediate, real and relevant and when Eleanor told me about Excluded, a film she was producing in a unique collaboration with the BBC's factual department for the School Season, and written by Brian Fillis (Fear of Fanny, Curse of Steptoe), I was immediately interested.

When I then read the script, I was struck by the authenticity of the classroom scenes and how Brian had managed to distinguish this film from its many formidably excellent forebears (such as Good Will Hunting or The Class), but also by how much the classroom scenes are actually about the teaching of the subject (in this case maths), rather than being all about the digressions.

In case you're wondering how ready you are to sit down to an hour of algebra, I can honestly say those are some of the most compelling bits!

So, all very exciting. The only catch was that, because of its topicality, it had to be made incredibly fast. In fact we had just eight weeks to deliver the film - around half the time one might expect to spend on a drama like this.

If that wasn't already enough of a challenge, we also had to contend with new legislation coming through over the summer.

Undeterred, our brilliant producer Caroline Levy brought on board leading experts on both Academies and exclusions to consult throughout the production so that, come September, we were sure it would be as factually accurate and bang up to date as possible.

Next, Caroline and I set out to assemble a crack team who all proved themselves more than up for the challenge. The key word for every department was "authenticity" and never more so than in casting the 50 young actors who brought the classroom scenes to life.

Mark, played by George Whitehead

Our casting director Sarah Counsell had an amazing eye for completely raw talent and so when it came to casting Excluded, she eschewed theatre schools in favour of street casting and drama groups for kids who had themselves been excluded from school.

It was a major undertaking that involved workshopping literally hundreds of kids, but I hope you'll agree it was well worth the trouble, as their performances are effortlessly natural and bursting with wit and energy, despite the fact that none of them - including the lead George Whitehead - had performed in front of a camera before, let alone in a prime time BBC Two drama.

The classroom scenes were a combination of both the script and improvisation. A lot of my past work (such as La La Land, which aired on BBC Three earlier this year) has combined real life with improvisation and scripted elements and I've always been fascinated by that fault line between fact and fiction.

Improvisation often isn't appropriate, but I used it in Excluded as I felt it was essential the classroom scenes were as realistic as possible and that the way the rest of the class react and feed into the drama would be key to making those scenes convincing.

Once we had the scene working with the key cast (those with scripted lines), we'd then improvise around the scene, adding layers of reaction and asides from the rest of the class.

With the scene taking shape we'd then start shooting, but in an unconventional way - rather than working through the scene with one camera filming one actor at a time, we shot with two cameras and several microphones, so the young cast were free to speak out in a way that was natural and instinctive to them, rather than feeling they had to come in with a line at a certain point because it was written that way in the script.

We'd also improvise before and after the scene and avoid calling out loud "action" or "cut", as it all helped them relax into just being those characters, rather than switching on a performance for the camera.

The thing was, none of them had been on a film set before, they had no experience of what a "normal" shoot would be and so we took that opportunity to create a way of working that worked for them and worked for the film, rather than being bound by convention.

A lot of the credit for those scenes should also go to Bryan Dick (Ian) and Craig Parkinson (Gary) who are both brilliant and did a great job of leading the improvisations and bringing them back to the essence of Brian's vision for those scenes.

Ian, played by Bryan Dick

Once the decision was made to shoot the classroom scenes in this way, that in turn dictated where we shot the rest of the film and how it would look.

We had to be able to film with two cameras and follow unpredictable action, so I wanted to film on location at a real school, as on a set it's tough to look in more than one direction at the same time, and if an actor moves off their 'mark' you're likely to see the lights and crew in shot.

We shot for two weeks at The Grange School in Bristol, using parts of the building that had yet to be renovated and with many of their pupils appearing in the film as supporting cast.

I also decided to adopt a handheld, documentary-like style, partly to have that feeling of real life unfolding, but also because it made it acceptable for the lighting, framing and focus to be a little off, as it would have been a shame to lose great moments of performance just because they were less than perfect photographically.

Indeed, it's often those imperfect moments that make it feel real for me.

Excluded isn't a consummate drama with years of development and finessing behind it, but it is a great example of a film that is of its moment, written from the heart, and a story that speaks to the way we live now.

The Academies debate is changing by the week and had we made this film any less quickly, it risked feeling out of date by the time it hit the air.

It was a gamble, but with a great story and a dedicated and talented team both in front of and behind the camera, I think the result is a compelling drama that is fresh, vital and hopefully avoids hitting you over the head with its message.

Misha Manson-Smith is the director of Excluded.

Excluded is on BBC Two at 9pm and BBC HD at 10.30pm on Tuesday, 21 September.

Playing my own dad in The Road To Coronation Street

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James Roache James Roache | 15:15 UK time, Thursday, 16 September 2010

I'm about to appear in a BBC Four drama about how Coronation Street started called The Road to Coronation Street, where I play my father, Bill Roache (who plays Ken Barlow in the soap) as a young man. I am about the same age as him when it started.

To get into the role I had some great chats with my dad about the good old days and how he was feeling at the time. He told me how excited he was about everything but that he was also very nervous, so I kept that in mind for the part.

James Roache as a younger version of his real- life father William Roache in The Road To Coronation Street

It has a great cast, and working with Celia Imrie, Jane Horrocks, Jessie Wallace, Christopher McKay and Shaun Dooley (to name a few) was such an honour. It was so inspiring to watch them at work.

It's also directed by Charles Sturridge, who is truly a genius. He is such a patient director and never fails to get breathtaking results.

One great memory of filming was my first day on set, and walking on I felt like I had gone back in time. Charles had created a very atmospheric environment and every prop was authentic to the era. Even the TV cameras they used back then were on set and operating.

Even if you're not a Coronation Street fan you'll still love this as it's a gripping story about a young man's determination to get his show out there on the TV despite what he is told. He fights for what he truly believes in. Mix that in with a cast of some of the best loved actors and brilliant directing and you've got the ingredients for an absolute stomper of a show.

As an actor, nerves always play a part which you learn to use to your advantage in your performance. Filming this definitely hit the nerves a bit. I wanted to make sure the part was evocative and accurate, of course for the production, but mainly for my father.

I also appear in Coronation Street, the soap, playing Ken Barlow's grandson. I had fun filming both roles, but it was quite a crazy experience playing my father's character's grandson, and then playing my father himself.

Lynda Baron as Violet Carson sits by an old camera in The Road To Coronation Street

But what made it even more confusing was that I filmed them both at the same time over a period of two weeks, so I would film one in the morning and the other in the afternoon.

Luckily they were both filmed in the same location at ITV, so I only had to pop over next door. I really enjoyed it though, as I was doing what I love.

Anyway, I'll sign off now. I hope you enjoy The Road to Coronation Street and do let me know what you think.

James Roache plays William Roache in The Road To Coronation Street.

The Road To Coronation Street is on at 9pm on Thursday, 16 September on BBC Four.

The programme is part of Planet North, BBC Four's season of films celebrating the culture, history, life and architecture of northern England.

Spitfire Women: Margaret Frost on her role in the Battle of Britain

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Gary Andrews Gary Andrews | 16:21 UK time, Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Spitfire Women is a documentary that tells the story of the female pilots who transported aeroplanes for the RAF as part of the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA).

Eighty-nine-year-old Margaret Frost was one of the one hundred and sixty-eight women in the ATA and features in the programme. She spoke to the BBC TV blog about her part in the Battle of Britain.

Margaret Frost with a picture of her younger self in the ATA

How did you come to join the ATA?

Well, I was taken up with aeroplanes at the age of 10, as I watched my mother go up at Shoreham in the old days when it was just a tiny field. She wouldn't let me go up and I was very cross. You know how children are, I wailed on. I think I was eventually allowed to go up in a cabin by myself when I was about 11.

I was bitten by it and I spent all my time saving up my money to buy goggles and helmets. It was always very expensive to fly. But then the war was coming and the government realised how serious it was and we hadn't got enough fighter pilots. So what turned out to be the nucleus of ATA was a group of men who got the government to fund a scheme where flying clubs let everyone fly at half price. And then people like me were able to afford it - just.

It was called the Civil Air Guard and several of our people came from there. It was really to train men to fly in the RAF. They took women as well, but I was underage and there was a long waiting list. I eventually got in during April of 1939, only a few months before the war.

I managed to go solo and get an A licence. It's a tremendous business to get an A licence nowadays but then you just had to get up to 2,000 feet, close the throttle and do a dead stick landing, and that wasn't very difficult.

It was a dangerous occupation and the film highlights this. Did you have any near misses?

I was very lucky actually. I keep thinking about other people. I had aircraft which held together, put it that way. But we had this accident report which came round and I was always horrified by the ghastly things that happened to some people and the wonderful things they'd done to retrieve the situation. Everyone was highly commended and I kept thinking 'Would I have thought of doing that?'

I expect I had scary times. With the weather I must have done when it got hazy. That was horrible, flying in haze.

We had limits on the hours we could fly but I don't think anybody stuck by them. You just flew until you couldn't fly any more. Most of the aircraft were priority so you were allowed to be over the limit if you thought you could manage. I think all of us just stooged on.

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Were you surprised at how much interest the press showed in the female members of the ATA?

Of course. I always feel that this doesn't mention the men. They were the ones who started the thing, and we joined about six months later. There were 640 men and we try terribly hard to get them involved but nobody wants to know.

And some of them were heavily disabled. There were two who had one eye and one arm and flew, and there were one or two with one leg. But we never talked about this in the ATA. It's something that happened and that was the end of it.

We got this special badge from Downing Street, and it was only the women who were going to get it. I happened to know Giles Whittell, who wrote the Spitfire book. So I said, "You can't do this, where are all the men?" There had to be the men as well. And all the ground staff.

It's just like the services - if you get given a medal, everybody has it because they've all contributed in some way or another. Anyway, that went through fortunately, so everybody got one.

I don't think Number 10 knew quite what to expect and we didn't know quite what to expect. It was great fun.

I wonder what the original people would have thought, because they didn't want a fuss made. On the other hand I think they would have been glad that there was some recognition because it turns out that what we did was very useful. Absolutely essential, actually.

An archive picture of the women of the ATA in front of a plane

When you look back on it, the achievements of the ATA, and then look at today, female pilots still aren't that common...

Well, there are probably a lot more than you'd think. They blossomed after the war. Jackie Moggridge, who was one of ours, got second and then I think first pilot of an airline.

And of course the air force is full of them now. Nobody thought of it as a war, if you see what I mean. It was enough to have got in the plane and be ferrying things. You didn't think of actual fighting.

It was supposed to be the first case where women were paid the same. I think a lot of it has come on since then.

When you go near planes now do you get those memories of joy of being up in the air again?

I don't, I'm afraid. I don't really want to be flown - it's a bit like being driven, you know. I remember, I hadn't been in airliners very much, and we were coming down from Prestwick. I was sitting there and we were coming into Heathrow. There wasn't much wind and the pilot was trying to get the speed down a bit, and my right arm shot forward, to the amazement of the passenger next to me.

Well, he was a bit slow in getting the throttle open a bit and you get what is called an air pocket, but it isn't really, it's because you've lost speed, you know. I anticipated it automatically.

Margaret Frost features in Spitfire Women.

Spitfire Women is on BBC Four on Saturday, 18 September at 8pm, and is part of the BBC's Battle of Britain season.

Gary Andrews is the Assistant Content Producer on the BBC TV blog.

The Young Ones: Can re-living your youth make you young again?

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Tom McDonald Tom McDonald | 18:24 UK time, Tuesday, 14 September 2010

What if you really could turn back the clock? What if you could simply think yourself younger? Those two questions form the heart of The Young Ones, a new series for BBC One. It's a re-staging of a Harvard experiment which tested whether re-living your youth could make you young again.

Our experiment will see six well-loved British famous faces - Lionel Blair, Sylvia Syms, Liz Smith, Dickie Bird, Kenneth Kendall, and Derek Jameson - go back to 1975 for just one week to see if it can make them young again.

The celebrities: clockwise from top: Liz Smith, Lionel Blair, Dickie Bird, Sylvia Syms, Derek Jameson, Kenneth Kendell

When I first heard about the original experiment, and the BBC's plans to re-stage it, as the programme executive, I thought it all sounded completely mad and not necessarily in a good way.

I wasn't instantly convinced by the original experiment - it sounded too much like that 1980s film Cocoon to me - and I was concerned that if we re-staged it we'd simply find that the experiment didn't work, and would be embarrassing for everyone involved.

Two things changed my mind. Firstly, meeting with Professor Ellen Langer, who ran the original study. Her passionate belief that the way we age isn't inevitable and her certainty the experiment would work was hugely inspiring and enough to convince me that re-staging the experiment could change the way we all see ageing.

The second thing was reading that there are now more people in the UK over 80 than there are under 16 in Britain. Suddenly the idea of re-staging this experiment sounded much more than just fun, it somehow seemed completely urgent and absolutely necessary.

First, we had to decide which year we'd be sending our volunteers back to. We chose 1975 as we needed our volunteers to go back to their heyday and it was a year that many of the celebrities themselves brought up as personally important.

Nineteen seventy five was also an interesting year in the news, in culture and in sport. Margaret Thatcher was elected as the first female leader of the opposition and the Bay City Rollers were so big that crowds of hysterical girls could be found in every part of Britain (look out for a brilliant news piece on Rollermania in the first episode).

In sport Arthur Ashe became the first black man to get to the Wimbledon final and the first ever Cricket World Cup took place at Lords (and with Dickie Bird in the line up, this seemed particularly poignant).

Professor Ellen Langer, the creator of the experiement

A lot of our energies went into getting the look and feel of the house as historically accurate as possible. We also wanted the house to be as personal to our six volunteers as possible - we describe it in the show as "an Aladdin's cave of seventies-ness," which I think sums it up perfectly.

We needed plenty of space in the grounds to squeeze portacabins in so the massive production team on the series could be rigged up to computers, printers and the internet. We wanted it to be 1975 inside the house, but in order for the production to run smoothly it needed to be 2010 everywhere else.

Joanna Hilliard started to gently ask the celebrities to recall the things they most remembered about their homes in 1975: What did they have in their bedrooms? What colour were their walls? What photos would they have had up around their house? Were there any special mementoes which always took them back to that time?

We wanted the moment the volunteers saw their bedrooms for the first time to have a huge impact on them, so the researchers couldn't tell them why we were asking all these questions about decor and photos. We couched it all in terms of general research.

Joanna managed to strike it lucky in the case of all the volunteers - but most especially with Lionel Blair who had photographs of his actual 1975 bedroom. With that photograph, we managed to entirely replicate the wallpaper, carpet, furniture, even the bedding so it was a stunt double of Lionel's 1975 bedroom.

We were all so excited by the job that David did with Lionel's bedroom, which is why Lionel's reaction (you'll have seen it in the first episode) came as such a surprise to us - he hated his room!

Meanwhile, inspired by Habitat catalogues, design books and archive photos, art director David and his team transformed a suburban house into a living and breathing 1970s home.

Being inside it was breathtaking because the level of detail was so extraordinary. We'd always insisted that it couldn't feel like a set. Everything from the washing machine to the fridge to the curling tongs to the bedside lamps had to work - it was there to make the 1970s real.

Dickie Bird, sitting at a desk

There are too many moments on this series that were either hilarious, moving or simply completely bonkers to pinpoint one of them - but what will always stay with me is the sense about half way through filming that the experiment really was working.

The atmosphere in the house changed from being a slightly sad retreat for some very nice elderly celebrities into being a dynamic, living, breathing space where collectively everyone was living as their younger selves.

I'd always believed the key to the experiment would be the six volunteers enjoying one another's company and getting on together - and seeing the encouragement they all gave one another to either walk those extra steps or push themselves that little bit harder was inspirational.

I will never forget the moment that Derek Jameson managed to pull on his socks on his own (harder than it sounds) to the applause of Lionel Blair and Liz Smith - it's the spirit of that house that I'll never forget.

I will never be able to look at a shag-pile carpet or swirly wallpaper again without thinking of our 1975 house. I did try and nab a few pieces of the furniture at the end of the shoot (I do have a soft spot for 1970s dressers and dining tables), but I came home empty-handed.

Nearly all of the props in the house were hired from specialist companies to be sure the pieces really would have been in a 1975 house - we really didn't want to find out something we thought was 1970s turned out to be from the 1980s.

I hope when the series is on air that viewers will see that - other than the joy of some terrible clothes and gaudy furniture - there's nothing particularly special about 1975. What the experiment showed me is that we all have the potential to think differently about who we are and the way we live, regardless of our age.

And the reason I'll always feel hugely grateful to have taken part: hearing the volunteers as they left the experiment talking about how much hope it had given them for the future and how glad they were they'd taken part. You'll see these conversations in the final episode on Thursday.

Spending one week in 1975 hasn't changed my life on a day-to-day basis but if ever I think I can't do something or I have a problem that's insurmountable, I do try and remember the 88-year-old Liz Smith walking for the first time since her strokes 18 months ago without sticks. Inspiring, life-affirming, and a privilege to have been a part of.

Tom McDonald is the executive producer of The Young Ones.

The Young Ones starts at 9pm on Tuesday, 14 September on BBC One and BBC HD. For times of all episodes of the show, please visit the upcoming episodes page.

First Light: Dramatising the real Battle of Britain

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Matthew Whiteman Matthew Whiteman | 10:06 UK time, Tuesday, 14 September 2010

In a way this was a dream come true - getting the chance to dramatise for BBC Two Geoffrey Wellum's stunning First Light on the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.

The book is his memoir of what it was like to be an 18-year-old Spitfire pilot thrust into the gut-wrenching, ear-deafening, life and death struggle of the most violent aerial combat ever.

And it deals with his mental disintegration in 18 relentless months on the frontline.

Sam Heughan as Geoffrey Wellum climbs onto a Spitfire

It was always going to be challenging.

This was one film where we had to get not just the emotional thrust right, but also the historical detail. There are a lot of people out there for whom this really matters - and I am one of them.

The conversations started early about getting Spitfires airborne. But what is it they say? Never work with animals, children... or vintage aircraft!

We were discussing a scene in which 'Boy Wellum', the hero of our story, makes his first flight in a Spitfire and our actor, Sam Heughan, couldn't wait to get into the air.

The problem was how to convince the audience he was actually at the controls of a Spitfire rocketing through the clouds. The big snag was that there was no way we could get Sam airborne in a real Spitfire.

This scene was crucial to the story, appearing little more than 10 minutes after the opening of the film. We had to produce a sequence breath-taking enough to make the audience believe that flying the Spitfire was love at first sight for Boy.

We had access to a real Spitfire - and the budget for maybe 45 minutes flying time - but the Spit is a single-seater and there was no question of anybody but a very experienced pilot taking the controls of several million pounds' worth of vintage aeroplane.

We had access to a replica Spitfire, which could be shoved about on the ground but had no proper cockpit interior.

We soon decided that rather than shooting costly air to air footage, we would use outtakes from the Battle of Britain movie - and enhance it with CGI.

This was a huge task in itself, going through around 50 hours worth of unused and unseen material, but it was great that we could give some of this footage the light of day at last!

'Boy' Geoffrey Wellum (Sam Heughan) in the cockpit of a Supermarine Spitfire

It is lovely stuff but the registration numbers on the side of Spit in the movie footage didn't begin to match our real or replica planes.

One plane was brown and green, the other brown and grey. And the real one was based at Wycombe air park and our replica was 80 miles away on the drama set outside Dunstable.

Bringing the replica down would nuke what little was left of the budget, but if we didn't, Sam could be walking in the rain to the replica on one location and then climbing into the cockpit in bright sunshine on the other.

It was quite a headache!

Somehow we wangled it in the end. The owner of the replica was persuaded to bring his baby to stand side-by-side with the real McCoy.

Then we found a friendly pilot, prepared to have the back cockpit of his two-seater Russian YAK trainer converted to look like a Spitfire cockpit interior.

Sam leapt in, surrounded by high defintion (HD) mini-cams and took to the sky with his script taped to the instrument panel.

Meantime, our real Spit took off with the pilot delivering Boy Wellum's point of view (by way of a specially designed camera mounting on his flying helmet).

When we got into the edit, the whole story came together. Combining Sam walking to the replica Spitfire, the real thing taxiing, then Sam in close-up in the back seat of the YAK. Then cutting to his point of view shot in the real Spit, we get the hair-raising images of take-off.

And once he's airborne, we start to inter-cut Sam in the cockpit with the footage from the Battle of Britain movie.

That was the easiest of the flying sequences in the film!

Then we had to work out how to create a full-blooded dogfight, and a nightmare flight in torrential rain over the channel - during which Boy shoots down a German bomber. These scenes were whole other cans of worms...

Looking back on it all now, I can't believe we shot the whole drama, including the flying, in just nine days. We couldn't have done it without the orchestration of the first assistant director Chris Carreras, whose experience spans the Bourne movies and United 93.

Brian Kingcome (Ben Aldridge) and 'Boy' Geoffrey Wellum (Sam Heughan)

He was dead right when he took one last long look at the schedule just before we began the shoot and, having considered the weather and all the other infinitely frightening variables, commented dryly: "We're going to have to be 100% lucky on this one!".

Geoffrey Wellum didn't have time to visit us on set - but before the shoot, as I was scripting, we spent a huge amount of time together. And afterwards, during post-production, Geoff worked very closely with the CGI artists to make sure we got the tracer fire absolutely correct in the air battles.

Working so closely with Geoffrey has made First Light a unique experience both for me as a director and I think, for the audience.

The combination of Geoff's expert eye-witness guidance and actually getting Sam up in the air - instead of in some faked up studio cockpit - has made the film an incredibly rich experience for everybody.

And, I guess, is just about as close as any of us would want to get to the nerve-jangling terrors of air combat, Battle of Britain style.

For me, creating the tension on the ground was just as important as in the air. I love the waiting scene in dispersal before Geoff's first combat - the tinkling of teaspoons in cups, the rustle of a magazine, Kingcome chewing on his match... and then the sudden shrill ringing of the phone - scramble!

Geoff watched these scenes with great interest and said that he felt the film perfectly caught the mood and emotions he felt at the time, both on the ground and in the air.

The war literally tore Geoff's emotions apart. If he had not been rested from flying before going back for a second tour of combat, I think he would be the first to say he would no longer be with us now.

Geoffrey Wellum

But at that time, I'm sure, as he reflects in the film, he was desperate to fight on until the bitter end.

This was the truth for many soldiers - the feeling that they had been taken off the line before the 'job was done' and now were to be left to watch others die whom they could no longer help or protect.

Geoff still carries a sense of guilt that he survived when so many he knew died.

Geoff hates to be called a hero but his effort and that of those all around him 70 years ago, saved us from the terrors of Nazi occupation. I believe that his war - the Battle of Britain - was the key turning point of World War Two.

If England had fallen to Germany, the country could not have been used as the launching point for the D-Day landings and the liberation of Europe.

I salute you, Geoff - however reluctant you are to be called a hero. I salute you and all those that fought alongside you. And I'm sure the audience will, too.

First Light is on BBC Two at 9pm and BBC HD at 10.30pm on Tuesday, 14 September.

First Light is part of the BBC Battle of Britain season.

25 years of the Broom Cupboard on CBBC

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Iain Stirling Iain Stirling | 11:12 UK time, Monday, 13 September 2010

Hello, my name is Iain Stirling and I'm a TV presenter... A sentence that still fills me with a sense of wonder to this day!

I'm more commonly known as 'that Scottish lad with the dog puppet' in the CBBC office (or the CBBC Broom Cupboard, depending on the year displayed upon your birth certificate).

The dog takes the form of a funny canine named Hacker (a former yellow coat from Wigan) or occasionally Dodge (a London geezer, whose origins are known only as 'down the bins'). What a strange life I lead.

This week it's the 25th anniversary of the Broom Cupboard - or 25 years of live children's presentation at the BBC. To celebrate, the BBC Archive is releasing rare out-takes and clips of all our old favourites, from past presenters to Gordon the Gopher and Edd the Duck.

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As I look back at the archive, the idea of joining the long list of former presenters is an extremely daunting one.

Imagine following the career path of Phillip Schofield and achieving the unachievable and actually securing Holly Willoughby's phone number!

In all seriousness though, the thought of joining the likes of Zoe Ball, Fearne Cotton and Chris Jarvis, to name but a few, is awesome to say the least. Makes me feel like any minute the BBC is going to figure out the horrible mistake it's made and send me packing. I'm not worthy!

Being completely honest, the idea of being a 'telly presenter' was always one that excited me, but was never a real passion. Bar an excessive teenage crush on the lovely Fearne Cotton, my experience of TV presenting was never more than fleeting. Yet I find myself sat before you chatting at length about it - how can this be?

Toby Anstis, Iain Stirling and Zoe Ball celebrate the 25th anniversary in the CBBC Broom Cupboard

As a student (I studied law at the University of Edinburgh, thanks for asking) I indulged in my passion for stand up comedy and won the occasional award.

This led to an audition, in a room above a pub, in front of a group of CBBC people who just wanted to go home to their families.

It was a pleasure to do, and after a couple of days (I was, after all, a skint student with a rubbish phone that never got a signal) I got a call asking me to take part in a studio screen test.

I did it; it went quite badly but they gave me the job. This life changing moment will never be forgotten.

Thanks to everyone at CBBC for choosing me out of the many talented comics on offer and also my parents for forking out the money to allow me to fly to London to talk to some television people above a pub.

See Dad, it all worked out in the end....who needs law? (well as a society we do, I meant as a career option, obviously).

And here we are now. Do I get nervous before I go live on air? Not really. It's my job and I have an extremely talented team behind me, ensuring I come across much more professionally than I perhaps should.

Worst bits? Like every job there are a few. I don't get as many holidays as I would like, and the idea of people recognising me in the street can, at times, be peculiar. But these can be described, at most, as minor.

So yeah, thanks for reading, my name's Iain Stirling and I'm a TV presenter... Nah it still feels weird.

Iain Stirling presents the links on the CBBC Channel every weekday from 7.30am-8am and 4pm-6.35pm. It is also broadcast live on the CBBC website.

Strictly Come Dancing 2010: Conducting the live band

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Dave Arch Dave Arch | 17:01 UK time, Friday, 10 September 2010

Well, here we are back again in Studio One at BBC Television Centre for my fifth series conducting the live band on Strictly Come Dancing, after taking over from the great Laurie Holloway.

This year looks like it's going to be a good one, judging by the launch show. The new set looks amazing - it's so big, I don't know how it fits in to the studio, and even the band pit area is a bit bigger (most unusual!).

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My first task prior to the show was to decide, along with Tony Revell (the sound supervisor), how the guys in the band were going to be set up. I need to have a sight line to everyone, and Tony has sound considerations, especially placing the drum kit and so on. Hopefully we have come up with something that will work.

I have put together more or less the same band and personnel as last year, comprising of 15 musicians and four singers on this show. Depending on the material we have to cover, I'll be tweaking the line up through the series, but by and large, the instrumentation will stay the same.

For the first show we have five main routines to play, including one featuring all the dancers and their new partners. Now I know who the celebrities are, I think the competition will be fierce and the characters very entertaining.

I am really looking forward to when the live shows kick off in October. I only need to write 14 arrangements before then... now where did I put my manuscript paper?

Dave Arch is the musical director on Strictly Come Dancing and conducts the live band.

Series eight of Strictly Come Dancing begins on Saturday, 11 September at 6.25pm on BBC One and BBC HD.

Please visit the upcoming episodes page to check programme times.

You can read more on the origins of Strictly Come Dancing from head of BBC History Robert Seatter on the About The BBC blog.

Gareth Malone's Extraordinary School For Boys

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Gareth Malone Gareth Malone | 14:11 UK time, Wednesday, 8 September 2010

In the summer term of 2010 I was welcomed by Chris Thurgood, the head teacher of Pear Tree Mead Primary School, to teach a class of 39 boys. Since arriving at the school two years previously, she had been aware of the discrepancy in educational achievement between boys and girls.

Quite simply the girls were doing better and they couldn't seem to get the boys to knuckle down. She made an unlikely choice: She accepted my offer that I, a choirmaster, might be able to help her sort out the problem.

Gareth Malone with some of the boys from his class

To begin, I spoke to many educational experts and drew on my own experience as a boy at a regular state primary school. I remember our headmaster, Mr Brine, was kind but imposing.

I can recall three things about him: One - his favourite hymn was Morning Has Broken (through he preferred the Cat Stevens version). Two - he introduced me to Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 (for which I'm forever grateful!) and three - he reprimanded me very severely when we were on a school trip for using a telephone without permission. I definitely deserved it.

Later on I attended Bournemouth Grammar School. The selective atmosphere suited me down to the ground because I couldn't bear to come last at anything academic. It was run on traditional lines and I think it's influenced the person I am today in a number of ways.

There was a great ethos of respect between staff and pupils - we stood when a teacher came into the room, hard work was rewarded, and there was inspiring teaching by people who loved their subjects.

Because I'm known as a choirmaster people imagine that I don't do anything else, as if all choirmasters sit around listening to music from 1605. So when I arrived at Pear Tree Mead I was worried that I would not be taken seriously by the teachers when it came to literacy.

In fact my degree was in drama with a heavy accent on the study of text so I consider myself to be fairly literate. But once you get a name for something it's hard for people to accept you trying something else - as anyone who's ever tried to change job will tell you.

This was a departure for me and that made me nervous. That and the prospect of teaching 39 boys.

I was advised that boys need to know who's in charge, what the rules are, and if they will be applied fairly. With that simple adage I progressed. I can't say I always prevailed but you have to show the boys that you are not to be trifled with.

Gareth Malone in the woods with several boys from his class

At the same time, boys can be very sensitive and when they are scared or not getting their own way they can lash out. Training the boys to listen to each other and be respectful of each others' feelings is the work of a lifetime.

I was amazed how often boys cry over tiny things. We have this image that crying is for girls but, wow, the boys could cry at anything: Falling over, petty injustices in the playground, or just because they were not able to do something.

From talking to the experts, teachers and parents, I've become convinced that modern life is pulling boys in directions that don't necessarily help the basic skills of reading and writing.

Many boys play hours and hours of computer games every day which can be over-stimulating. By contrast a book can seem rather dull and that too much effort is required for not as much reward. In addition, children aren't allowed to roam as freely as they were in the past.

There are obviously real safety concerns about letting kids out unsupervised but too much 'cotton-wooling' is damaging for a boy's sense of self belief, and I found that if I gave them responsibility to step outside their comfort zone they really rose to the challenge.

Some of the boys were very behind in their reading. It was deeply affecting and difficult to know how to help. Several times I wondered if my approach was having anything but a detrimental effect, because as a new teacher you measure your success minute by minute.

If an activity goes well then you are elated. If it doesn't go according to plan it can leave you feeling pretty dejected and make you question yourself constantly. I think that over time teachers learn to roll with the punches.

But over the course of the term we did make a difference. I'm really proud that I tackled something that is of real importance. I'm proud of what I achieved with the boys and that the school will be taking some of my ideas forward.

I loved the excitement of the boys debating with the girls in the first programme, but camping in the school grounds was the most memorable experience. Tending the fire in the dead of night whilst the boys slept under the starlight was magical.

This has been a very busy year for me and I'm looking forward to a bit of a break. My wife - who is a teacher herself - is about to give birth to our first child and I'm absolutely convinced it'll be a boy!

Gareth Malone is the presenter of Gareth Malone's Extraordinary School For Boys.

Gareth Malone's Extraordinary School For Boys starts at 9pm on Thursday, 9 September at 9pm on BBC Two and is part of the channel's School Season of programmes.

To find out times of all episodes from this series, please visit the upcoming episodes page.

Read the BBC Parenting blog post about the programme by David Shaw, member of the BBC Parent Panel.

The Big School Lottery: How we make the hard choices for your children

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Julie Newbold Julie Newbold | 12:32 UK time, Tuesday, 7 September 2010

I'm the head of admissions and appeals at Birmingham City Council and my role, and that of my team, is to allocate secondary school places to pupils. Where necessary, we explain to parents why their child did not meet the criteria for their preferred school. Our work will be seen in The Big School Lottery on BBC Two.

I really love my job and have recently completed 30 years service at Birmingham City Council. I started aged just 16 and my first job back then was in the adoption and fostering team.

Head of admissions and appeals at Birmingham City Council Julie Newbold stands by a map of her area

I am really proud to work to admissions and appeals and am totally committed to providing the best possible service to the citizens of Birmingham. During my time here, I've implemented many changes and believe our team is now much more about offering advice and guidance to both parents, their children and also to head teachers, on all aspects of school admissions.

Having children myself, it is a process I have been through, so fully understand that some parents may find this a stressful time.

Blast Films - who made The Big School Lottery - wrote to Birmingham City Council to say that they were looking to make an observational documentary to get an insight into how the admissions process works. My director, Tony Howell, asked if I would be willing to be involved and asked if I would meet with producers to discuss the programme.

Mikey, one of the pupils featured in the film

At this stage I was reluctant, not only due to the additional time and effort, when we are already under immense pressure trying to help over 30,000 children and their families seeking school places, but also the thought of being on national TV.

And fellow admissions and appeals colleagues from other local authorities said, "You must be mad." I suppose as there's a natural wariness about letting cameras in!

But I was intrigued so I met with the producer/director, Amanda Blue, who was really encouraging and explained to me that the documentary would be about showing the process and the work that goes into allocating secondary places to children, as well as following the stories of several families going through the process.

After a bit of further persuasion from Tony Howell, who has been incredibly supportive, I took the brave step and agreed.

I then just had to persuade my team.

Much of our work involves talking with parents. It helps them understand if you take the time to explain to the parent that, for example, if over 1,000 children have applied for school A and the school only has an admission number of 150 places, then obviously the school cannot offer all of those children a place.

When a school is oversubscribed, places are offered in accordance with published admission arrangements. Overall priority is given to children with a statement of special educational need, followed by looked after children (in care or foster homes), then siblings and then by distance.

I will inform parents of their distance from the school and explain that X number of children live closer than their child, which is why they have not been offered a place.

My team and I take pride in our customer service and the empathy we feel for parents going through this process, and we advise them of their right of appeal and all that entails.

We often have tears and upset from the parents and even have people shouting at us, but we try to be understanding. We also have tears of joy when parents find out that their child has been offered their preferred school!

Harry, one of the pupils featured sits at a desk

One thing I will not accept is for any of my team to be on the receiving end of abuse. Unfortunately this does happen sometimes, but in the main, after contact with my office, parents/carers understand why their child has not been offered their preferred school. They may not be happy about it, but we make sure they know what their options are.

Every year we receive cards, emails and letters from parents thanking us for our professionalism and informative and understanding service, which is fantastic - especially when some of these come from parents who have not been offered any of their preferred schools.

I really hope the viewers gain a better understanding of how the admission process works, how hard we work to ensure the process is fair and robust (for example checking home addresses), and that parents/carers know where and how to access information in order for them to make informed decisions about how to apply for a school place.

Julie Newbold is head of admissions and appeals at Birmingham City Council and features in The Big School Lottery.

The Big School Lottery starts on Tuesday, 7 September at 9pm on BBC Two and is part of the channel's School Season.

You can read Lesley Wilson's post on the BBC parents' blog about her experience as a mother going through the admissions process on The Big School Lottery.

To find out all future episodes of The Big School Lottery please visit the show's upcoming episode page.

Why Mad Men needs no hard sell

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Will Dean Will Dean | 10:23 UK time, Friday, 3 September 2010

When Mad Men first appeared on BBC Four in 2008 it wasn't the casual racism and misogyny that shocked most viewers. It was the smoke.

Mad Men introduced us to a world of 1960s ad men who smoked like industrial revolution-era chimneys and drank up spirits like whisky-powered Henry hoovers. And, very quickly, many of us were hooked. Not by the smoking and the drinking. But by the most stylish and extraordinary drama of the 21st century.

Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm, smokes in front of on-screen wife Betty Draper, played by January Jones

I was lucky enough to be asked at the start of the second series to write an episode-by-episode blog for Guardian readers. It took a few episodes to really kick off, but by the end of that series - as Don Draper briefly ran away to California - we had hundreds of commenters trying to work out what everything meant.

The discussions that followed were fascinating. And as the group grew so did the level of debate - whether it was from people arguing over the accuracy of the pantyhose worn by the women or the intricate details of Don's double life.

And that's the key thing about Mad Men. While similarly acclaimed shows like The Wire are often beguiling - but for the most part, unambiguous - 90% of the value of this show is working out what everything means.

From a camera shot lingering slightly too long on a locked drawer to Betty Draper's impassive face at an awards' dinners, viewers who've immersed themselves in the show are treated to being able to tell what something means just by a quick glimpse at a character's eyes.

The BBC has taken the excellent decision to start showing Mad Men a couple of weeks after its US transmission (it previously ran from January). This means Mad Men's UK Maddicts have only had to wait a couple of months for the action to pick up from the end of series three, where Don Draper engineered a split in the original company just as his wife was engineering one away from him.

We meet Don just before Thanksgiving 1964 - it's the year of the Beatles' US invasion and the new office's furniture reflects a change away from the staid 1950s chic of the first three seasons. But despite the cheerful tumult of the office split we soon discover that there's as much darkness in the heart of Don as ever.

So why do we love a show with an often unlikeable central character?

The most simple reason is that it's great drama with no characters there simply to fill screentime. As much as we might dislike young account man Pete Campbell, we can understand why he does what he does.

Every thing and every shot is there for a reason.

Peggy Olson, played by Elizabeth Moss, Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm, and Joan Harris, played by Christina Hendricks, in Mad Men

But it's more than that just being great TV, Mad Men has captured the zeitgeist in a way that The Sopranos never managed.

The style of the show is so iconic that in this month's Vogue a model has been styled to look like January Jones' Betty Draper, while Jones and Christina Hendricks (Joan) sit on the covers of current UK editions of Tatler and GQ respectively. It cleverly runs through the many revolutions of the 1960s (civil rights, women's lib and the sexual revolution) without ever being obvious.

It also reeks of cultural class. The characters' film, music and reading habits send viewers running to investigate them, thus sending obscure books like Frank O'Hara's Meditations In An Emergency up the Amazon bestsellers chart.

It's even often very funny. In this first episode of series four Roger Sterling says of a war veteran Ad Age reporter: "A wooden leg? They can't even afford a full reporter."

For me and so many other people who can't stop watching - and if you start, you won't stop - it's possibly the most complete TV show of all time. So pull up an Old Fashioned, put on your smartest Brooks Brothers suit and enjoy series four.

Will Dean writes an episode by episode Mad Men blog for the Guardian.

Will has also blogged about the food and drink of Mad Men on the BBC Food blog.

Series four of Mad Men starts on Wednesday, 8 September at 10pm on BBC Four and BBC HD. To find out when Mad Men is next on please visit the upcoming episodes page.

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