Archives for January 2012

Protecting Our Children

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Sacha Mirzoeff Sacha Mirzoeff | 11:37 UK time, Monday, 30 January 2012

Some television programmes take a long time to make.

If you want to show the most hidden human behaviour within our communities, you're going to need a lot of patience.

The BBC had good relations with Bristol Council after making Someone To Watch Over Me - a series about child social workers after the Victoria Climbié case in 2000.

After the Baby P crisis, the BBC commissioners asked my production team to make a new documentary about child protection services.

Protecting Our Children is a three-part series that closely follows social workers as they work with families who need help in bringing up their children in a suitable way.

Our crews would follow individual social workers and families over months to see how the social workers tried to make situations better for children at risk.

Shaun, one of the dads in Protecting Our Children

Shaun and his baby

Even with good historical relations, the sensitivity was such that took us over a year to agree a modus operandi with the council.

We finally established a working protocol drafted by a QC working with the council, amended by the BBC and finally ratified by the most senior family court judge in Bristol.

The crux, we all agreed from the outset was, the welfare of any child involved has to come first. The details of what that means in specific situations is complex.

Then we started filming.

It took months of hard work to try and persuade people to take part to show the real nitty gritty of the actual cases with families.

In the meantime all we could do was film the more straightforward parts that we knew would provide the 'glue' to make all the programmes piece together, like shots of the city, simple meetings amongst the social workers.

What was key was that everyone got used to us being around with our cameras, so when real action happened later we could film it, unhindered.

How do you even ask a family who are probably in the worst place of their lives whether they would like to consider taking part in a television programme?

It's impossible to build up trust and understanding when you first contact someone.

When we got to the point of spending time chatting to people face to face in their homes, it became somewhat easier.

Slowly with patience and consideration we got somewhere, but I can never imagine a more difficult ask for members of the public.

We were able to offer a very different way of taking part - a system called rolling consent.

That meant anyone being filmed could choose to pull the plug and decide not to continue at any point in the process - after the first day, after six months or after they had seen the finished film.

We quickly learned that the only way to progress was to be a fully open book - to be honest and clear.

We showed everyone who took part the final film and agreed to change anything factually inaccurate and listen carefully to other objections (which didn't include anyone's hair looking bad on a particular day!).

Slowly we found people did have reasons for wanting to take part.

Some people wanted to pass on advice to others in similar life situations. As Shaun, one of the fathers says in the finished programme "appreciate it, love your children best. Don't go my way - I made the biggest mistake. I've lost my children and I try and fight for them - you know stay strong, don't give up."

For some our presence acted as further encouragement to make progress at home. For others who were battling with social workers, they wanted their side of events faithfully recorded.

So eventually we gained access into people's lives and started to film with a small crew of two or three people.

The stunning aspect of observational filming over a long period of time is the course of people's stories changes in ways that you could never imagine.

We never could have predicted that whole families who appeared to be united would fall apart in a matter of weeks. As John Lennon stated: "Life's what happens when you're busy making other plans...".

As we got more involved with the people's lives, we got to understand what a privileged position we occupied.

Protecting Our Children: social worker Annie

Social worker Annie

We were able to speak to the families in confidence (as long as it what they said did not affect the welfare of their children). At the same time we would hear the inside track from the social workers' point of view.

When some of the hard decisions needed to be made about the future of the children, we found ourselves overcome with emotion and often reeling for months after.

Surprisingly the social workers themselves were also deeply affected by certain cases that they became ensconced in, despite their extensive training to maintain professional boundaries with families. Somehow I found that reassuring.

This series will live with all who took part for the rest of their lives.

After three years of work we are finally able to show three hours of television that gives an insight into a world many of us never get to see, but one that continues around us in all our neighbourhoods.

Sacha Mirzoeff is the series producer of Protecting Our Children.

Protecting Our Children starts on BBC Two and BBC HD on Monday, 30 January at 9pm.

For further programme times, please visit the episode guide.

If you, or someone you know, have been affected by the issues raised in this programme, you can visit the information and support page (available until 23 March).

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

Birdsong: Interview with the director

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Fiona Wickham Fiona Wickham | 11:22 UK time, Friday, 27 January 2012

Sebastian Faulks' World War I novel Birdsong is about "the violence of a love affair, and exquisite love in war", says screenwriter Abi Morgan, who has adapted the modern classic for BBC One.

Director Philip Martin told the BBC TV blog about the experience of making the two-part drama.

What drew you to this script?
Abi Morgan's brilliant idea was to intercut between past and present, so that the story switches between pre-war France and WWI itself - to create a great tension. Balancing the love story (the past) with the war story (the present) was the challenge.

What kind of notes did Sebastian Faulks make on the script?
Sebastian was a great collaborator and joined us on location in Budapest. He gave us space to do our thing - but was there to help if we needed it. We all carried battered copies of the novel in our back pockets and I think everyone in the cast and crew spent the whole time trying to find ways to do justice to this epic story.

What does the title mean?
Birdsong doesn't quite stand for a peaceful, natural sound marking the ending of conflict - but actually the indifference of the natural world to the activity of humans. There's a great introduction to the paperback edition from Sebastian, where he talks about the meaning of Birdsong and how he wrote the book. It's fascinating to read, especially as it seems he wrote the book really fast - in a kind of trance.

Isabelle Azaire (Clemence Poesy) and Stephen Wraysford (Eddie Redmayne)

Isabelle Azaire (Clémence Poésy) and Stephen Wraysford (Eddie Redmayne)

This BBC version of Birdsong is described as "painterly" by Ben Stephenson (BBC controller for drama commissioning) - is that how you visualised it?
I wanted pre-war France to feel like a dream: crystal clear yet mysterious. The director of photography, Julian Court and I found a touchstone in a quote from the pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones, who said a painting should be "a beautiful, romantic dream of something that never was, never will be - in a light better than any light that ever shone - in a land no-one can define or remember, only desire... ".

What were your thoughts on tackling the erotic tone in parts of the book?
It's difficult in any area to translate something from a book to a film - they're both different. But it's particularly tricky with sex. Eddie Redmayne, Clémence Poésy and I spent long hours talking about it and we tried to be very clear about exactly what was going to happen in each moment - so that the build-up of sexual tension was done in a very precise and detailed way. What we tried to do was to make the experience of the audience watching match the intensity of the experience of reading the book.

There are two horrifying deaths in episode one - typical of WWI - how did you decide how gory to be in showing those deaths?
I suppose you try to make the deaths as powerful as possible, without making the audience switch off. The war was brutal and inhuman, with new technological ways of killing, like gas - so it feels important to reflect that fact... but to do so in a way that isn't self-defeating.

Did the actors visit war graves or the sites of conflict?
Both Eddie Redmayne and Joe Mawle visited the battlefields - and went into a newly discovered chalk tunnel in La Boiselle, with Peter Barton, a WWI historical consultant. I think they were some of the first people to be back inside the tunnel since the war itself. They found a poem, written on the chalk wall of the tunnel by a soldier almost 100 years earlier, which was incredibly moving. I also found the 1916 film of the Battle of the Somme extremely useful for research. Even in black and white, you could feel how hot and dusty it was and get a sense of the strange, upbeat energy of the soldiers - which was unlike anything I'd seen before.

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Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) rejoins his men at the front

Were the sets built or on location?
For the war story, we built sets just outside Budapest. I felt the audience's experience of the trenches should be 360, so we searched for a piece of ground which gave us uninterrupted views of the horizon. Production designer Grant Montgomery used hundreds of dead trees, quarried chalk and reclaimed timber to create an extraordinary world. For the French story, set in pre-war Amiens, we filmed on location in Budapest. This was perhaps the trickiest bit, as there's no tradition of the kind of architecture we were looking for.

Can you tell us a little about the uniforms?
We couldn't find enough uniforms in London - and so decided to make them in Poland. Charlotte Walter the costume designer tracked down a company using looms that made exactly the same cloth the original uniforms, and under the watchful eye of the curator of costumes at the Imperial War Museum, Martin Boswell.

Where do you find the replica guns?
We brought some working guns over from London - which gets complicated and requires lots of paperwork, as everyone seems to think you're about to stage a coup! We also had some terrific Lee-Enfield replicas made in Budapest.

How does an actor safely smash a glass on set without getting hurt in the way that Laurent Lafitte (playing René Azaire) does in episode one?
The glass is made out of spun sugar, so it can smash without being dangerous.

What was your worst moment in production?
There was a day when were due to film a lyrical summer picnic sequence when - predictably - after days of sunshine, the Budapest monsoon began. But the day also contained one of my favourite moments, when Stephen and Isabelle's ankles touch on the boat trip. It's all about body language and eyes and faces... like a wildlife film but with humans in it.

Philip Martin is the director of Birdsong.

Birdsong continues on BBC One and BBC One HD on Sunday, 29 January at 9pm. Episode one is available to watch and download in iPlayer until Sunday, 5 February.

Fiona Wickham is the editor of the BBC TV blog.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

We'll Take Manhattan: Meeting David Bailey

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John McKay John McKay | 10:38 UK time, Thursday, 26 January 2012

It's summer 2009, and I am sitting on David Bailey's sofa, trying to persuade him to let me write and direct a film about his life for BBC Four.

Bailey is short, fierce-eyed and direct: "I just don't want it to be s***!" he says.

I had spotted the photos which inspired We'll Take Manhattan in a weekend magazine a few days earlier - beautiful, rather innocent pictures of Jean Shrimpton, 18, on the wintry streets of Manhattan in February 1962.

I had sensed in the accompanying article the sniff of a story - of young Cockney upstart Bailey being offered a big assignment by Vogue, and risking everything by insisting on using his girlfriend, Jean, against the specific wishes of his fashion editor, the fearsome Lady Clare Rendlesham.

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David Bailey (Aneurin Barnard) shoots Jean Shrimpton (Karen Gillan)

Young love, bad behaviour, the beginning of a revolution... And now here I was, with Bailey's dog in my lap, trying to convince one of the most fearsome survivors of the fashion and photography world - the man who did the wedding photos for the Krays - that he should allow me to noodle around with his legacy.

If I had known then what I know now, I would probably have been more nervous.

Bailey has the intellect of a nuclear physicist - mighty, knowledgable, always questioning - in the body of a Mile End barrow boy, with his Cockney cut-your-knees-off-and-then-we-can-talk humour still intact.

Jean Shrimpton scrupulously avoids public contact, having retired from modelling in the early 1970s.

And portraying their life of 50 years ago, in London and New York, on a slender budget, would drive me and my tiny crew to the giddy limits of our ability.

The best part of making the drama was the detective work: the 20 or so published photos from their breakthrough NYC photographic session acted as a series of clues as to where they went and what they were doing.

By looking closely at the details, we were able to work out many of the exact spots where the shots were taken - and go there, to make the drama behind the camera.

Aneurin Barnard as David Bailey

Existing footage of young Bailey and Jean at work told us how they talked. Lady Clare, now deceased, was also kind enough to take part in a 1964 documentary, Fancy Dressers, which proved invaluable for Helen McCrory in catching her mix of tiger and butterfly.

The funniest part of filming was the Brooklyn Bridge. Bailey and Jean shot there ("it was so cold the camera stuck to my fingers") and so did we, but on a hot day - with my crew of 10 trying to politely hold back several hundred joggers, cyclists and tourists in 35C heat so we could complete our climactic scene.

Back to the sofa. Bailey sighs, frowns.

"Oh all right", he says. "All right."

I later discover that his life motto is Persistence. I guess my persistence paid off.

John McKay is the writer and director of We'll Take Manhattan.

We'll Take Manhattan is on BBC Four on Thursday, 26 January at 9pm. For all programme times, please see the upcoming broadcasts page.

Read an interview with Aneurin Barnard, who plays David Bailey, on the BBC Wales Arts blog.

Comments made by writers on the TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

The Crusades: the thrill of a priceless manuscript

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Thomas Asbridge Thomas Asbridge | 10:35 UK time, Tuesday, 24 January 2012

I first fell in love with crusading history as a schoolboy and continue to be fascinated by these medieval holy wars. In many ways, they have become my life's work.

For me, the Crusades, the wars fought between Christians and Muslims for possession of the Holy Land between 1095 and 1291, have it all - the power to thrill and shock through tales of epic adventure, appalling brutality and intense human drama; and the capacity to ignite and sustain curiosity in the way they impact upon 'big history' themes like the clash of civilisations and the causes of religious violence.

Statue of Sultan Saladin in Kerak, Jordan

The statue of Sultan Saladin in Kerak, Jordan

After the publication of my recent general history of the Crusades, I was approached by an independent production company with a view to developing a television series based on my work.

The Crusades, a three-part series was then commissioned by BBC Two, and I embarked upon an intense filming schedule that took me through Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, France, Italy and the UK over three months, writing and presenting the programme, and working with a brilliant production team.

It's been an extraordinary experience - from the grand spectacle of sailing down the Nile to the intimacy of handling tiny copper coins minted by crusaders - and an immense privilege.

One of the undoubted highlights was gaining access to the Aqsa Mosque archive in the heart of Jerusalem's Old City, to view a priceless, 800-year-old manuscript written by one of the closest advisors to the mighty Muslim Sultan Saladin, the man who re-conquered Jerusalem for Islam.

As far as I know, we were the first Western film crew allowed inside this library just yards from one of Islam's most revered holy sites, and it took months of delicate negotiation to secure permission. The manuscript didn't disappoint.

Its text lays bare Saladin's agony in July 1192, during the Third Crusade, when he decided to abandon Jerusalem to the Christians.

After years of campaigning, both he and his troops were shattered by exhaustion and Muslim morale was faltering.

Under these conditions, and with the crusaders camped just 12 miles away, Saladin judged that he had no hope of holding the Holy City once an attack began. That day he was said to have shed tears of grief as he led his people in prayer.

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Richard the Lionheart and Saladin

The manuscript also shows Richard the Lionheart - leader of the Third Crusade - to have been no brutish hothead, but a canny and agile negotiator.

During a flurry of diplomatic exchanges, King Richard proposed an extraordinary marriage alliance between his sister Joan and Saladin's brother al-Adil.

This union would form the basis of a peace agreement in which 'the sultan should give to al-Adil all the coastal lands that he held and make him king of Palestine', with Jerusalem to serve 'as the seat of the royal couple's realm'.

With a flourish of seeming magnanimity, the Lionheart proclaimed that the acceptance of this deal would bring the crusade to an immediate end and prompt his return to the West.

Richard probably had little or no intention of ever following through with this deal. Instead, his aim seems to have been to sow seeds of doubt and distrust within the Muslim camp by playing upon Saladin's fear that his brother al-Adil might seek to usurp power for himself.

I was primed for these revelations, having spent years poring over printed versions of this account.

What I didn't realise was that this manuscript had had something of a secret life. Up until the early 20th Century, the Aqsa archive actually had served as a public lending library.

Amazing as it now sounds, from the later Middle Ages onwards, citizens of Jerusalem had been taking this Life Of Saladin home to read; and over the years some had even left their mark on its pages, inscribing comments ranging from 'Praise be to Allah' to 'It's raining today'.

For me, the experience of actually holding a manuscript written by a man who knew the great Sultan Saladin, who witnessed the Third Crusade first-hand, was simply electrifying.

I couldn't help wondering what all those other readers across the centuries had felt and thought as they held this same work.

Dr Thomas Asbridge is the presenter of The Crusades.

The Crusades continues on BBC Two and BBC HD on Wednesdays at 9.30pm. For further programme times please see the episode guide.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

Stargazing LIVE: More secrets to be uncovered

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Mark Thompson Mark Thompson | 14:48 UK time, Monday, 16 January 2012

I have been fascinated by the night sky ever since I was a child.

I remember seeing Saturn through a telescope for the first time when I was about 10 years old, and the sight was nothing short of magical.

Seeing Saturn, rings and all, hovering against the velvet black sky ignited a fire in me that has been raging ever since.

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Professor Brian Cox: Stargazing LIVE series two trailer

One of the key things that has helped maintain this passion is that no matter how much we learn about the Universe, there will always be more secrets to be uncovered.

It's been fantastic to be the astronomer on Stargazing LIVE, to work with Dara O'Briain and Brian Cox along with an incredible crew.

In the last series this involved me teaching astronomy to Jonathan Ross in his back garden, explaining how to take astronomical photographs and showing people the wonders of the night sky live on national TV.

It's been manic in the run up to this second series. Already we have two short film sequences complete, one which is a beginner's guide to telescopes and binoculars and another which is about light pollution.

Trying to get people to think about the amount of excess light they are using is one of the big themes of the series.

We want to demonstrate that even the smallest places create a heck of a lot of light, so I'm now on my way to Dulverton in Somerset to prepare for this year's biggest challenge - on the third night I will be attempting to get all the lights of the town simultaneously turned off live on air!

I'm pretty nervous about this as it relies entirely on people responding positively and agreeing to join in. It's all out of my hands when it comes to the show regardless of how much work we put in campaigning over the next two days.

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Stargazing series one: Jonathan meets Jupiter

There are loads of other great things coming up in the new series too and we want you to get involved.

You can send in your pictures and questions to the team and we will try to answer as many as possible in the follow-on show Stargazing LIVE: Back To Earth which happens straight after Stargazing LIVE.

There are also hundreds of events up and down the country for you to go along to.

We've also got some great new graphics plus an updated star and moon guide and loads of other resources downloadable from the website to show you what you can look for in the skies over the UK during January so you can get out and stargaze for yourselves.

Last year's show was great, even my 'missed meteor moment' was hilarious but we have loads of bigger and better things planned for this year and frankly, I can't wait for the first show.

Mark Thompson is the astronomer on Stargazing LIVE.

Series two of Stargazing LIVE begins on Monday, 16 January at 8.30pm on BBC Two and BBC HD. For further programme times, please see the upcoming epsiodes page.

On Thursday, 19 January at 2pm, Professor Brian Cox will present a live, interactive lesson from Jodrell Bank in collaboration with The Big Bang Fair. All UK schools can join in on the BBC red button.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

The Mystery Of Edwin Drood: I'm the director

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Diarmuid Lawrence Diarmuid Lawrence | 10:29 UK time, Monday, 9 January 2012

Charles Dickens died without finishing The Mystery Of Edwin Drood - in fact, he was only halfway through, leaving all the balls in the air and numerous hints, blind alleys, unrevealed connections and intriguing possibilities on display.

In short, a challenge not to be missed.

So, Gwyneth Hughes, a writer of great elegance, Anne Pivcevic (exec producer), Lisa Osborne (producer) and I enter weeks of intense discussions about how to bring this exciting and challenging work to the screen, not necessarily as Dickens would have done, because who knows what he intended, but in a way that remains true to most of what he did write.

And, about that ending... no, I'm not revealing that here! Be fair - this is The Mystery of Edwin Drood after all.

John Jasper (Matthew Rhys), Rosa Bud (Tamzin Merchant), Edwin Drood (Freddie Fox)

John Jasper (Matthew Rhys), Rosa Bud (Tamzin Merchant) and Edwin Drood (Freddie Fox)

So what's it about?

Drugs and stalking certainly, which gives it remarkable modernity, and the moral and mental collapse of John Jasper (Matthew Rhys) whose obsession with 17-year-old Rosa (Tamzin Merchant) leads to his murderous plans for her fiancé, his nephew, Edwin (Freddie Fox).

It is a murder mystery started when the genre was in its infancy.

Casting proves a joy. Freddie (yes, another talent from that dynastic family) virtually casts himself as the golden-haired youth blessed with everything that Jasper hasn't, including, of course, Rosa.

Matthew, newly returned to us from his American fame in Brothers And Sisters, seizes on such a different project as the perfect reintroduction to the British television audience. He is a dark and brooding revelation and a joy to work with.

Then to cast a cathedral - central to the story. Rochester, Dickens' home turf, is the template for Cloisterham, and much is shot there around the town and its cathedral precincts, but the interior is changed beyond recognition and attention shifts to St Bartholomew's church in Smithfield, London, a gloriously gaunt, dark, romantic and magically untouched space.

Drugs affected our decisions in developing the photographic style. Not directly, you understand, as the BBC is unaccountably reluctant to fund my personal research into the effects of opium, but in deliberately manipulating mood through light and enhancing Jasper's different view of the world.

He is a man aspiring to the celestial while going to the bad, so we film him some of the time as if hanging between the dark and the light.

We make his fantasies under opium rich and indulgent, but when his world fragments, his dreams are shot in an altogether bleaker way.

But enough of that.

Being Dickens, the story is also full of humour and humorous characters.

Durdles, the stone-mason, has a workhouse ragamuffin in tow called Deputy whom he's paid to 'stone him home' when he's drunk and who helps solve the mystery.

Alfie Davis as Deputy

Alfie Davis as Deputy

Many a boy auditioned for the part, but none stole our hearts until Alfie Davis, aged nine, auditioned by mobile phone from his holiday in Spain.

With his dad filming him while reading in for the other characters and offering the odd whack round the head (scripted), Alfie proved born for the role.

So now it's done and the final verdict rests, as it should, with the viewer.

But I like to think that the governor himself, the extraordinary Charles Dickens, would approve even if, as seems highly likely, it wasn't what he intended at all.

We all had great fun second-guessing him and the finished films are agreeably recognisable as true to our original vision.

Diarmuid Lawrence is the director of The Mystery Of Edwin Drood.

The Mystery Of Edwin Drood is on BBC Two on Tuesday, 10 January at 9pm.

For further programme times, please see the upcoming episodes page.

Watch the actor Matthew Rhys, producer Lisa Osborne and screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes discuss the contradictory character, John Jasper.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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