War of the Worlds: Cameras roll as actors wear face masks

By Huw Thomas
BBC Wales arts and media correspondent

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Image source, Fox TV
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The War of the Worlds sci-fi series is set in modern day Europe but based on HG Wells' classic novel

Sex Education and The Pact are the latest Welsh productions to begin filming - but with dedicated testing laboratories and face masks on set.

They follow Fox TV's War of the Worlds - the first big-budget series to resume shooting in the UK after lockdown.

The show, shot in a Newport studio and on location in south Wales, restarted filming on 13 July.

Producer Adam Knopf said everyone was working "to the highest safety standards".

Drama series and feature films have had to raise millions in extra finance to pay for new safety precautions to ensure cast and crew are protected from coronavirus.

Delays to a UK government industry insurance scheme also means those who have succeeded in restarting filming have largely had to rely on contingency funding from broadcasters to pay for health and safety measures and unforeseen costs.

On the set of the second series of War of the Worlds, the changes include temperature checks on arrival, regular Covid-19 testing of cast and some crew, increased distance between departments working on set, and partitions between make-up and costume areas that were previously communal spaces.

Image source, Fox TV
Image caption,
The second series of War of the Worlds is currently being filmed in south Wales

Even the breaks between filming have been affected, with one-way systems and packed lunches replacing the traditional food trailers and dining areas.

"We had actors that were due to shoot on other productions in other countries, so we knew that if we didn't start shooting on the thirteenth [of July] we might not even go this year," said Cardiff-born producer Adam Knopf.

"So, for us, it was key that we started shooting on the thirteenth, and we managed it, just about."

It involved securing a contingency fund from the broadcasters who had commissioned the series, and ensuring the production had exemptions from some Welsh Government restrictions.

Image source, Fox TV
Image caption,
Everyone wear masks on set, with actors taking them off just before filming starts

Key cast members who were travelling from abroad were excused from quarantine rules, as long as they only travelled from hotel to film set.

Mr Knopf said they spent 12 weeks putting plans in place, adding: "We were the first in the UK out of the high-end TV productions to start.

"We had a lot of eyes on us, so we had to make sure it was solid and correct, and that everyone was working to the highest safety standards."

Welsh Government initiative Creative Wales supported the production company.

Image caption,
The Pact stars Abbie Hern, Julie Hesmondhalgh, Laura Fraser, Eiry Thomas, and Heledd Gwynn

It helped Netflix series Sex Education, which is currently shooting in south Wales, War of the Worlds and another south Wales-based production to pool resources to create a private testing facility.

Deputy director Gerwyn Evans said Covid-19 had "hugely impacted" the industry, adding: "The first thing was to get money into the sector, because it was needed.

"The second thing was around the guidance - having real and open honest conversations about what issues the productions were coming up against, and it was varied all across Wales.

"And making sure we could feed that into a consistent message that went out to everyone."

Image caption,
Breaking Bad actor Laura Fraser is filming The Pact

New BBC Wales crime drama The Pact was due to begin filming at a Vale of Glamorgan country house the day after the UK-wide lockdown was announced in March.

Instead it was delayed until September, and production company Little Door had to negotiate a significant increase in funding to enable the shoot to go ahead.

The series stars former Coronation Street actress Julie Hesmondhalgh and Breaking Bad star Laura Fraser in a drama which follows the lives of five friends.

Actors wear masks at all times on set, including during rehearsals, and they are only removed when the cameras start rolling.

Image caption,
Production companies are relieved to be be able to start filming again, with many owners having feared for their future

Cast and crew must also self-report any symptoms online every morning, with Julie Hesmondhalgh saying: "It couldn't be more different, could it?

"It's the thing that you have got used to in ordinary, everyday life, but taking them into a work situation feels really different.

"The main difference is having the masks on for rehearsing. We only whip them off just at the take, because we need to protect ourselves until the very last minute. And that has been very funny, and strange."

'Tired eyes'

Co-star Jason Hughes added: "You end up going home at the end of the day with very tired eyes. They are doing a lot of work with this mask on. It's like this reveal, isn't it? You are just watching a pair of eyes and then you take it off and you get to see the whole thing."

Little Door's managing director Elwen Rowlands said she feared the company could have collapsed if work had not resumed.

"I feel incredibly fortunate that we are filming at the moment because I am hearing about a lot of difficulty out there," she said.

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