Excluded: How we made the BBC School Season drama

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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