How socially distanced stars are still making TV dramas in a crisis

By Ian Youngs
Entertainment & arts reporter

  • Published
Sheridan Smith in ITV's Isolation StoriesImage source, ITV
Image caption,
Sheridan Smith's fiance filmed her at home for ITV's Isolation Stories

ITV, the BBC and Netflix have found ways to make new TV dramas during lockdown - with the cast and crew at a safe distance. But screen dramas won't be back to normal for a long time.

Before coronavirus, the set of a typical TV drama would be a hive of activity, filled with dozens of people busily sorting out everything from cameras to costumes.

The making of ITV's Isolation Stories was not like that.

The name is not only a clue to the subject matter of the four short dramas, but applies to how they were created.

Actors like Sheridan Smith and Robert Glenister and their families did all the filming themselves in their own homes, with a director giving advice via Zoom.

Image source, ITV
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Darren Boyd plays hypochondriac Mike in Isolation Stories

"The biggest challenge was having to be reliant on just those people in the house to create a film when normally you have a crew of 50 or 60 people," says director Louise Hooper, whose credits include Cheat and Flesh and Blood.

"In the same breath you're saying, 'Move that picture, change the position of some object, can you sort out your hair properly, here are the notes for the direction, can you move the camera?'"

She adds: "We had a complete laugh with it."

Hooper's episode of Isolation Stories, titled Ron & Russell, features Spooks and Hustle actor Glenister and his actor son Tom, who were already in the same household.

Image source, Getty Images
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Celia de Wolff filmed an episode starring her husband Robert Glenister and their son Tom

ITV sent sterilised camera kit to be used by Robert's wife Celia, a radio producer who was given a remote crash course in filming.

"She was magnificent," says Hooper, who guided her via video. Other key crew members tuned in from Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Buckinghamshire.

The first 15-minute episode of Isolation Stories airs on Monday and features Smith as a heavily pregnant woman (the actress is heavily pregnant in real life) and was filmed by her fiancé Jamie.

In another instalment, Eddie Marsan appears with sons Blu and Bodhi. Marsan's wife Janine juggled camerawork with home schooling their four children.

Image source, ITV
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Angela Griffin also appears in an instalment of Isolation Stories

The series has reached screens just a month after executive producer and writer Jeff Pope had the idea - a timescale he has described as "unheard of for a drama".

Working in such a way is "totally feasible", Hooper says - although the dozens of crew members who would normally have been employed will hope it won't become the norm.

About 240,000 people were employed in the film, TV and radio industries in the UK in 2019, according to government figures - many of whom are freelance and now out of work.

"Obviously we want proper crews and we don't want people to think we are going to do this all the time," Hooper adds. "But in these unprecedented times, it's quite a beautiful thing to do."

Welsh channel S4C has already launched a series, Cyswllt (Lifeline), filmed by actors in their homes, while the cast of a new Netflix anthology called Social Distance are doing the same.

Meanwhile, the BBC has found a different way to make drama in a crisis.

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Some of Alan Bennett's characters are moving into the EastEnders set

Instead of writing new stories about life in lockdown, Alan Bennett's classic Talking Heads monologues are being revisited by actors including Jodie Comer, Imelda Staunton and Martin Freeman.

All 12 stars signed up within 24 hours of being asked and, along with producers The London Theatre Company, are donating their fees to the NHS - which producer Kevin Loader says will amount to more than £1m.

Zoom rehearsals

Instead of asking the stars to stay at home, a skeleton socially distanced crew is filming them on existing sets at Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire, including those belonging to EastEnders and Holby City.

"Some keen viewers may notice some of these backgrounds from other shows," Loader says.

They have tried to minimise contact between people until the moment of shooting, he explains, with the actors and directors rehearsing via Zoom.

Image source, PA Media/Getty Images
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Jodie Comer, Imelda Staunton and Martin Freeman are among the BBC's Talking Heads

Make-up artist Naomi Donne bought each actor a make-up kit and gave them online tutorials about how to apply it; while costume designer Jacqueline Durran went through their wardrobes - virtually.

"And there's a lot of PPE around on set - masks, gloves, sanitiser," Loader says. "Everybody has an individually packed meal and eats it socially distanced from everybody else, which is a bit miserable."

Loader also produces Armando Iannucci's HBO and Sky sci-fi comedy Avenue 5, which was halted as sets were being built for the second series.

"As people get back to work, the things that will be more possible will be the smaller shows," he believes. "That doesn't mean they all have to be like Talking Heads or shot in peoples' houses."

Image source, Getty Images
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Armando Iannucci's Avenue 5, starring Hugh Laurie, was in the middle of building the sets for season two

One idea in the TV industry is to quarantine all of a show's cast and crew together - which might work if a show like Friends was being made, Loader says.

"If you had a show with six or seven young people who live in three apartments, you could just say to them, 'Guys I'm afraid we're going to have to form a household with our crew and we're going to be away from home for two months while we make the show.'

"What's going to be difficult are shows that require access to public locations and the semblance of a normal, bustling world.

"They're going to be tricky for a while, and [so are] shows like Avenue 5, where we have a huge ensemble cast."

Special effects

Shows that rely on special effects, where actors appear in front of a green screen and much of the action is computer-generated, might also find it easier to carry on.

"They'll certainly be able to do some of those quite expensive and ambitious shows that use those techniques, like the Star Wars spin-offs," Loader adds.

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Soaps like Coronation Street could resume filming in a slimmed-down form

Soaps have reduced the number of episodes being screened and may resume with minimal cast and crew in order to avoid going off air altogether.

"They are being inventive and creative about rejigging storylines," ITV boss Kevin Lygo told a virtual version of the Edinburgh Television Festival last week.

"I think we have got to accept there will be no more than two people talking in a room, and [we are] looking at ways of shooting where people don't appear to be 6ft apart."

But it would be too dangerous to involve older and vulnerable actors, he said. "I don't want Ken Barlow [played by William Roache, 88] to get sick on my watch."

The pandemic has not only thrown up practical problems for broadcasters, but also huge financial pressures.

Cheaper shows

Commercial channels have seen advertising drop, with ITV cutting its programme budget by £100m and Channel 4 cutting £150m from its programming.

On Wednesday, Channel 4 director of programmes Ian Katz said the broadcaster would have to produce "lower tariff" shows.

"In the next few months I don't think we will see any new dramas getting up and running," he said.

Also last week, the BBC said it would have to "think hard about every pound" it spends on new programmes because of problems like a licence fee shortfall.

All of which is going to make it even more difficult for glossy dramas to resume production.

Loader believes that won't happen until there's a vaccine or an easily-accessible test, which might mean next year.

"Everyone's very keen to get back to work, but we're acknowledging that for some of the most ambitious kinds of drama, it may not be until January that we can," he says.

Isolation Stories is on ITV nightly at 21:00 BST from Monday to Thursday. Talking Heads will be on the BBC in the coming months.

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