The stop-start year that kept TV drama on a cliffhanger

It took months to find ways to shoot productions safely. The plot twist? There will be a shortage of new shows – then a glut

Fresh drama gleams out from the 2021 TV schedules, and viewers, particularly those with access to streaming services, will not go short. But the truth is there will be fewer new shows overall this year: the introduction of Covid safety protocols in 2020 first halted and then slowed down the production of high-end drama.

And while film crews went back to the studios and out on location, many of these dramas will only be ready to air this autumn, when audiences can look forward to something of a bonanza after a drier summer.

“Drama will be thin on the ground at first, then there will be a massive glut, I suspect, as next year was due to be busy anyway,” said executive producer Petra Fried of Clerkenwell Films, which has three shows in development that are due to shoot in the next few months, including Cheaters, a short-form romantic comedy series.

A much-anticipated follow-up to the dramatisation of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People, a serialisation of her first book, Conversations with Friends, is one of those still en route to screens, but slightly delayed.

Similarly, the makers of Channel 4 drama Murder in the Car Park, Indefinite Films, have complained that the pandemic “made the process weeks longer than it could have been. We had to adapt but it was painful. The delays made it very complicated”.

Many writers and producers say they spent lockdown developing scripts at an intense rate not possible before. As a result, lots of dramas are queuing up to be made, in addition to those already in production when the virus struck.

For Chris Lang, creator of the popular ITV crime series Unforgotten, the past year has been both busy and nerve-wracking. He managed to get both the fourth season – and the second season of another show, Innocent – out filming. “Delays were not as bad as people feared in the end,” he said. “Pre-production and finding a crew was harder though, especially now it feels like everyone is back up and running.”

Lang and his team filmed Unforgotten and Innocent, which he writes with Matthew Arlidge, in September, as something of a leap of faith. “You had to make a commitment weeks in advance because you have to line up your crew and cast. So we were in the vanguard really.

“We had already started Unforgotten before lockdown, so we restarted, and we were out in Ireland with Innocent. Line of Duty was also filming up in Northern Ireland, and we both felt we were doing it first. Ireland allowed filming to continue because they put it in a category with building construction.”

Lang had to rewrite, at speed, scenes that had initially involved a large cast. “There were other ways of doing it, I realised, and necessity is the mother of invention. So quite often, the compromises I made ended up working better.

“We had filmed 11 weeks of Unforgotten with Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar before we had to stop – and then we did four-and-half weeks in September, but I’d be surprised if you could tell the difference,” said Lang.

While some drama series were able to return to filming with the backing of a big broadcast or streaming network, small independent companies found themselves more exposed. “Everyone in drama now has an insurance story to tell. But in truth, a film set is one of the safest places to be. We all wear masks, rooms are sprayed and we are tested all the time,” said Lang.

Crews, Lang also found, adapted fast to new working rules: “There were a few slow days but after that it was fine. So there should be a lot around by the autumn. I don’t know of anything major that had been ‘green-lit’ that has been cancelled. They were just delayed.”

Petra Fried also feels that social distancing restrictions on set have served to focus the mind. “When we got started again, everyone was incredibly focused and glad to be working again. We found it actually made it more efficient,” she said. “It was just that we had to pause if someone tested positive, and we had three or four instances of that. Day to day. it was OK, although the stop-start nature made things more expensive.”

The biggest challenge now, said Fried, has been finding available film crew for the summer ahead. “Everything is going to be shooting in 2021. There’s lots of good stuff, developed with writers over a whole year, and now ready to go.”

Contributor

Vanessa Thorpe Arts and Media Correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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