TV's new reality: Strictly and Britain's Got Talent return post-Covid

How to provide ‘normal’ TV in a pandemic? Safety measures include giant stages and contestant ‘bubbles’

From beaming in audiences from their homes on a giant LED screen on Britain’s Got Talent to “bubbling up” the professional dancers with their celebrity partners on Strictly Come Dancing, broadcasters are trying to bring the nation some feel-good “normal” television this autumn, despite the coronavirus-induced obstacles.

In the week that the BBC unveiled Strictly’s most diverse line-up yet and BGT returns to ITV, the extraordinary and costly lengths that producers are going to in order to feed the nation’s hunger for the return of reality and talent shows are emerging.

“[Strictly is] probably the hardest show to produce in a Covid climate – a big weekly live juggernaut that delivers so much spectacle, and close body contact of course,” said the BBC’s entertainment boss, Kate Phillips. “I think there’s a feeling for many that if Strictly is back, all is OK. Certainly the UK has never needed escapist entertainment more.”

Another motivating factor is that the returns are enormous: Strictly’s final on BBC One was watched by more than 11 million people last year and versions are made in more than 40 countries, while 8.2 million watched BGT’s final and the format has been sold to around 70 countries.

All broadcasters are following government guidelines such as handwashing and distancing but also industry-wide extra measures such as minimising travel. According to the BFI-led Screen Sector Task Force, adding coronavirus protection measures can push budgets up by as much as 30% on some complicated projects.

But Strictly is arguably the hardest entertainment show to make under the new rules, particularly as the celebrities – who include the Radio 1 DJ Clara Amfo, Good Morning Britain’s Ranvir Singh and the boxer Nicola Adams, the latter as part of the show’s first same-sex pairing – are due to continue with their usual work when the show starts next month.

To help mitigate increased costs and logistics, the number of episodes is expected to fall from 13 to nine, the set has been altered and plans are still being worked out as to how the house band can play.

“The pro dancers have been isolating in a hotel together as they prepare their big dance numbers. When the pros and celebs are paired up, they won’t have contact with the other pairs,” explained Phillips.

She said BBC Studios had “worked incredibly hard” to ensure the show is safe, and although it would be “a bit different, it won’t skimp on ambition and scale. Gone will be the gang piling into Claudia’s area, the celebratory and commiseratory hugs with others,” but there “will be some incredible performances … and the judges will be as tough with their paddles as they’ve always been.”

Meanwhile on BGT, whose run was interrupted by the pandemic, viewers will notice a number of changes when the semi-finals return on Saturday night. Along with the absence of Simon Cowell (due to breaking his back), the judges will have their own desks, rather than one long one, and some international acts unable to travel will be beamed in.

Instead of the usual live shows stripped across the week at London’s Hammersmith Apollo theatre, the semi-finals will air weekly and have been pre-recorded at a studio in Park Royal, west London, on a new set with a larger performing space to help distancing.

Charlie Irwin, the director of programmes at BGT’s co-producer Thames, said its parent company Fremantle and Cowell’s company Syco had broken down every element of the production to make sure everyone involved was safe, otherwise “we wouldn’t have done it”.

He said the choirs were a challenge due to numbers, so the safest way was to pre-record them away from the studio.

Unable to have the show’s regular 3,000-strong audience, Thames has erected a giant LED screen for a virtual audience, with their “reactions beamed into the studio as they watch the performances from the comfort of their own homes – much like one of the UK’s biggest Zoom calls,” said Irwin.

Other measures included teams working in “cohorts” so that if one person became ill, the production could still go ahead. Irwin added: “The only time someone isn’t wearing a mask is when they are on stage performing or presenting.” Plus, all the makeup and hair teams have been wearing PPE and UV-sterilising any shared equipment.


Tara Conlan

The GuardianTramp

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