Quarantining Actors & Local Stories: BBC Reveals Thinking On Resuming Drama Production After TV Was “Turned Upside Down”

BBC drama controller Piers Wenger has shed light on the British broadcaster’s plans to get cameras rolling again on high-end scripted shows following the coronavirus lockdown.

Wenger said the “TV world has been turned upside down” by the pandemic and he is working through “big logistical questions” about how to mount production again after most of his slate for 2020 and early 2021 was caught up in the crisis.

Shows including Peaky Blinders, Line Of Duty and soap EastEnders have been paused, but Wenger said he is in regular dialog with producers and his contemporaries in the UK and U.S. over ways to resume filming safely.

Speaking as part of a series of YouTube conversations with UK television chiefs being staged by the Edinburgh TV Festival, he said there will be a focus on managing actor production clashes, telling stories that do not involve international travel, and tapping into producer “ingenuity.”

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While he said it was too early to present fully formed solutions, he suggested that the BBC may be open-minded about ideas including “quarantining actors and crew in order to allow actors to interact in the same space” if social distancing measures remain in place. This will be even more pertinent where overseas filming is necessary, he said.

Wenger’s team has taken note of the camera trickery being used on Australian soap Neighbours to make actors look closer together, though he made clear that BBC continuing dramas, such as EastEnders and Casualty, are “not quite at that point yet.”

He added that the BBC will “learn an awful lot” from remaking Talking Heads, a series of 12 monologues from British playwright Alan Bennett that will star the likes of Jodie Comer. The series is being shot at Elstree Studios from today and will observe the UK’s strict lockdown rules, but Wenger said the restrictions have become apparent very quickly.

Moving theatrical scenery is difficult without breaking social distancing rules, for example, while hair, makeup and costume artists can’t touch the actors. “That inevitably slows a shoot down, so those very practical challenges are becoming clearer. Until you can put two actors together on a set, it is going to be very hard to make drama normally,” Wenger said.

Much like his counterpart at pay-TV broadcaster Sky, Cameron Roach, Wenger said his focus will shift from set-piece international drama to telling more local stories in the short-term. “We will be, without doubt, spending more on shows that are shot within the UK because of the restrictions that are going to go on way beyond lockdown. We are really going to be leaning into a variety of stories set around the whole of the UK,” he said.

In the longer-term, Wenger said viewers will want big, ambitious storytelling. “We’re going to be looking for ideas that play to people’s sense of fun, of mischief and provocation. We will be looking for big, really entertaining, edge of your seat, rollercoaster drama,” he said, adding that people “want to be taken outside of their worlds.”

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