Why filming TV show under social distancing guidelines is a bad idea


Seeing as I write about television for a living, perhaps I ought to be delighted by the news that the government has given England’s TV industry the green-light to restart production.

Just like worried bosses at Netflix and the BBC and ITV and co, I’ve spent the last two months staring in horror at the yawning gap in the summer/autumn schedules after all filming ground to a halt in the face of the coronavirus; sure, the broadcasters still have a few new TV dramas in the bag from pre-corona days, but before too long we’re simply going to run out. My heart also breaks for the out-of-work freelance producers, make-up artists, camera operators and actors who have been left hanging by Rishi’s furlough scheme.

And yet! It was with a heavy heart that I saw the headline announcing that film and TV productions can restart “within social distancing guidelines”.

As of Wednesday 13th May, the government declares that “all workers who cannot work from home should travel to work if their workplace is open” – and yes, that covers film and TV sets. Once there, the employer must “ensure employees can maintain a two-metre distance from others, and wash their hands regularly.” Further guidelines to COVID-proof the workplace are expected to follow.

But… that’s almost completely unworkable, right? And for those who forge ahead, isn’t it a recipe for terrible TV?

Perhaps The Thick of It writer Simon Blackwell’s spoof pitch best conveys the problem: “A film exploring the fraught relationship between two town criers who live in a quarry.” Or actress Aisling Bea’s response: “So the makeup artists can throw make up towards our faces from a safe distance and if we have to do sex scenes we can just stand in front of the other person and push our bodily fluids towards each other in a bowl using a snooker cue? Fantastic.”

They say that limitations can breed creativity, but in reality only a very small handful of scripted TV dramas will work under limits like these; ITV’s Isolation Stories, for example, or the upcoming Talking Heads reboot. Discussions are ongoing about what camera trickery and CGI can do to help. And over on the other side of the globe, the Australian soaps are re-starting production with certain restrictions in place (no kissing! no handshakes!).

ITV Isolation Stories

Isolation Stories (ITV)

But most TV shows will be practically impossible to make under safety guidelines – and if they are made, they will be so full of creative compromises that we’ll wish they weren’t made at all.

I’m thinking of Line of Duty, which had to suspend filming for series six in mid-March. Imagine: DS Steve Arnott (Martin Compston) and DI Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure) conducting an intense interrogation while sitting two metres apart. And will the actors playing gang members be allowed to get up in each other’s faces? And what about AC-12’s air-conditioned offices and team briefings? And what about stabbings or shootouts and hands-on killings?

At least Line of Duty is about the modern world, so you could – at a stretch – set it in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic to explain why everyone’s wearing masks and scrubbing their hands all the time. (To be clear, this would be a bad idea, and I cannot imagine writer Jed Mercurio going for it.) But incorporating COVID-19 is certainly not even an option when it comes to period dramas.

Another show currently on pause is series two of Gentleman Jack, starring Suranne Jones as 19th century “first modern lesbian” Anne Lister and Sophie Rundle as her love interest (now wife) Ann Walker. The first series was full of passionate kissing and intimate sex scenes, and it’s impossible to imagine a second series where they just stare at each other chastely across the room.

Likewise, much has already been made about the many passionate sex scenes in Normal People, which is currently airing on the BBC but could certainly not be filmed today.

Gentleman Jack - Ep 4

But the problem is not just sex: it is also about how you film those thousands of little moments of physical interaction between the characters that are the lifeblood of good TV dramas.

Just sit for a minute and consider the difficulties of safely making a TV drama right now, while the danger of contagion is still so real. Think about older actors with health conditions! Think about complicated make-up for, say, a car crash victim covered in fake blood! The only way to make a TV drama in the way that we’re used to would be to test each TV show’s entire cast and crew and then quarantine everyone together – but that’s not exactly a realistic solution considering just how many people are involved in making a TV show. And the barriers to getting insurance for a TV production will be very, very real.

So as a viewer, I would far rather wait. I would rather sit on my hands and watch repeats and catch up on the shows I missed and wait until it’s safe for everybody to get back on set and do their jobs properly again. I would rather filming remain suspended for now, because it’s not worth risking anyone’s lives to get TV dramas on our screens sooner rather than later.

And I hope TV bosses will wait until the danger of contagion is minimal and the rules are lifted, instead of making sub-par TV shows with funny camera angles and awkward socially-distanced interactions – and not a kiss in sight.

For now, take a look at our TV Guide to see what’s on tonight

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