This article was originally published in Broadcast magazine.
Gary Chippington reveals how the quiz became the first major entertainment series to return to studio post-lockdown.
Not much gets the adrenaline going like a studio run, where months of prep and millions of pounds are on the line over one make-or-break shoot.
However, if you really want to get the blood pumping, try being the guinea pigs setting out to record the first major entertainment series back into studio after lockdown, with the pressure of keeping a large crew safe added on top of the usual challenges of making a successful show.
That was the prospect the Catchphrase team faced when we headed into Maidstone Studios on 3 July to film a new ten-ep series of Celebrity Catchphrase for ITV and STV.
We’d been in the early stages of prep, gearing up for a studio run in May, after Covid-19 sent the country into lockdown on 23 March.
After a few days of soul searching and number crunching, we decided to press on with creating the animated phrases that are at the heart of the format without knowing when, or if, we’d be able to get back to record the actual shows.
The constant pitching and testing of the 500 or so catchphrases we generate for every series – usually a loud, rowdy group effort – shifted immediately to Zoom.
Our animators are spread across the UK and beyond and already work alone, remotely, from laptops in darkened rooms, so their workflow wasn’t affected. Some, in fact, may not have noticed that lockdown had been introduced.
Therefore, we knew we could still create the catchphrases and plan our shows at the height of the coronavirus lockdown, but that was the easy part. Getting the show on its feet and into studio while observing strict social distancing proved far more challenging.
Our head of production Gemma McAllister and production manager Jess Muller began an intense period of consultation with the DCMS and Pact to gather official advice before creating a brand new studio protocol with our health and safety consultants and, of course, Maidstone Studios.
Our first big call was to film without an audience. The official advice was, understandably, not to include one – and social distancing for the crew meant our new floorplan wouldn’t have had space for an audience of three, let alone the 300 people who attend most recordings.
With the blessing of our commissioners Katie Rawcliffe and Gemma John-Lewis at ITV, we took the decision to go without.
We had to keep teams apart in separate ‘pods’, so our lighting, sound, computers and camera teams were given different coloured wristbands every morning and their own distinct areas to operate from, clearly marked on the studio floor.
We changed wristband colours daily to easily identify who’d been through the temperature check on arrival. In the gallery, where it was impossible for our director and her team to socially distance, we erected Perspex shields between stations.
Everybody arriving at the studio had their temperature taken each morning, when they were also issued with PPE, water and snacks. Anyone presenting with a high temperature (37.8C-plus) would have been sent home and tested for the virus.
A positive test would have meant their whole team being replaced, but by keeping teams apart and having back-up teams on standby, we put ourselves in the best position to be able to keep the show on the road should the worst happen.
We were lucky, as the worst ultimately didn’t happen. Doubly lucky, in fact, given that we were not insured for any losses attributable to the virus – no insurance company was offering that level of cover, so with the backing of STV, we’d been forced to take on the risk ourselves.
Luck was on our side again when the government reduced the 2m rule to 1m plus from the day before we began recording. We’d redesigned the set to put our contestants’ podiums 2m apart but being able to bring that down to 1m gave us a much more intimate feel to the gameplay and a perfectly usable three-shot.
The ‘new normal’ forced a range of other unprecedented measures on us: make-up and wardrobe teams in full PPE, commissioners viewing from the gallery via Zoom, green-screen publicity shots, briefing celebrities through the open doors of their dressing rooms and our floor manager wielding a 1m pole at all times to make sure people kept the correct distance apart.
However, one of our most important decisions had nothing to do with safety and everything to do with mood. Despite having no audience, we retained our warm-up artist, Stuart Holden, to bounce off our celebrity guests and our super professional host, Stephen Mulhern, to keep the atmosphere warm and fun during the recordings.
Being the first entertainment show back in studio attracted a lot of attention, and the eyes of the public and the industry were on us.
In a packed schedule we found time to film live links to Good Morning Britain and This Morning to provide updates on how the return to filming was going. No added pressure there!
We got through it, kept everyone safe, got a great series in the can and can look forward to the next run – whether things are back to the old normal, or we’re still living through the new one.
My lockdown tricks of the trade
– Have a great production management team. This was a mammoth, unprecedented task for our head of production and production manager, who had to become instant experts in Covid-19 and the emerging health guidelines.
– Stay light on your feet. Flexibility was crucial. Government advice changed repeatedly during our lead in, so plans, schedules and protocols might be rewritten at any stage.
– Allow time. This is is expensive in studios but the extra precautions add to the schedule. Enabling teams to keep apart during the rig and derig added an extra day at each end.
– Look after the talent. We took pains to communicate the extra safety measures and filming practices to our guests so they were prepared for a new experience and had unanimously positive feedback about how protected they felt.
– Involve the crew. Our floor management team, camera crew and everyone on the studio floor became a de facto audience and helped build a great vibe in the studio – all while doing their day jobs at the same time.
Gary Chippington is creative director of entertainment at STV Productions
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