The making of The Riots: In Their Own Words

Assistant Producer

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The riots across England in August 2011 should need no introduction. Following the police shooting of Mark Duggan, a peaceful protest in Tottenham developed into explosive violent disorder.

Over five days trouble spread across the country with people looting, setting fire to property and attacking the police.

Actor Youssef Beruain playing a rioter

Five people died and over 2,500 shops and businesses were damaged. To date 1,290 rioters have been sent to jail.

After those shocking days the media erupted with politicians and commentators discussing what had happened and why.

But nobody was hearing from the people directly involved in the disorder to find out what they had to say about their behaviour. Why had they acted like they did? Were they sorry or would they do it again?

One reason for this silence is that those who had been caught were mainly in custody. Those who hadn't been caught didn't want to appear on camera for fear of public judgement, reprisals or arrest.

There was no government inquiry into the causes and consequences of the unrest. Into this void stepped Reading The Riots.

Conducted by the London School of Economics and The Guardian, this social research project interviewed 270 people who were involved in the disorder.

The interviews were conducted anonymously to allow those involved to speak more freely.

The BBC didn't get involved until after the interviews were completed, so the production team played no role in the decision to grant anonymity to those the researchers spoke to.

As a TV production team, we were faced with the decision whether to use this important and illuminating piece of work, even though it granted anonymity to criminals.

In our view it was justified because of the insights it provides into why and how the riots had happened. Even we, the programme makers, were never to know the true identities of the people featured in the research and subsequently, The Riots: In Their Own Words.

As the assistant producer I worked with my colleagues to think about how the research could be brought to life on television and accessed by a wider audience.

The original interviews had been recorded as audio files and this led us to approach the dramatist Alecky Blythe.

Youssef and Alecky Blythe

Alecky creates plays from real interviews - mixing journalism with drama to create what is called verbatim theatre.

She uses a performance style called recorded delivery, requiring actors to wear earphones.

The cast don't learn any lines. Instead they listen to the recording and talk a few seconds behind, mimicking the tone and pace of delivery so that they capture the essence of the person and the intention of the words as they were first spoken.

The result is a very naturalistic and believable performance.

We were excited about the potential of this delivery for television because we felt it would give veracity to our dramatisation.

Working with Alecky, we selected 11 interviews to recreate extracts of. Hopefully viewers would experience the original interviews in a manner as true-to-life as possible, while we could maintain the anonymity of the interviewees.

The dialogue is startlingly candid and confiding because neither the interviewer or interviewee are presenting themselves to the public, but engaging in a conversation protected by anonymity for the purposes of social research.

Whilst we are able to listen in to these accounts to garner fresh insights, viewers may feel frustrated or even angry because the tone of the interviews is very different to what we might expect from BBC TV: as journalists we challenge our interviewees and ask them to justify their words, but we can't here.

Similarly we can't elucidate what our characters say or ask them to explain references that they make.

Some speak in a street vernacular that is likely to be unfamiliar to many BBC Two viewers and some of the nuances and context of what they talk about are in danger of being lost.

To balance viewpoints over the two-part series, episode two features testimony from police officers who were on the frontline during the riots and offers a very different perspective upon what happened on those nights.

Alecky's method presented a new challenge to us in translating this technique from stage to screen.

Actor Calum Callaghan wearing an earpiece

On stage the headphones can be visible and accepted as a stylistic device. On screen we wanted naturalism so camera, sound and make up all worked together to ensure the earpieces were invisible at all times.

Each actor was given one tiny earpiece that could be disguised by hair and make up and one larger earpiece that would be hidden by the camera angle.

Many of the actors thrived using the technique and if anything, the challenge will be reminding the audience that they are watching actors and not documentary footage.

The actor Calum Callaghan said to me: "It felt fresh and was such an electric way of working. It's also surprising how informative someone's voice is - I could imagine how he would sit and what he'd be doing with his hands. You just let go and trust what you hear".

Nicola Cutcher is the assistant producer of The Riots: In Their Own Words.

The Riots: In Their Own Words was originally scheduled for Monday, 16 July but was postponed after a judge overseeing a riot-related trial in Birmingham issued a court order preventing it from being broadcast.

The trial has ended and the first programme will now be shown on Monday, 13 August at 9pm on BBC Two and BBC HD.

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

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