Published on: 07 July 2020 in Directors UK
Directing “Corona Street”: a director’s journal from the return to work in continuing drama
Reading time: 20 minutes and 3 seconds
Coronation Street was one of the first continuing dramas to return to production following the lockdown conditions imposed by coronavirus. The pressure of bringing one of the UK’s most cherished programmes back on air, whilst observing new guidelines for filming, was huge.
As the creative lead on the production, a lot of that pressure falls on the director. Directors UK member Suri Krishnamma kept a diary about what it was like planning for the safe revival of a TV institution, how the Coronation Street team ensured a smooth return to work, and how it feels to be back making drama, two metres at a time.
Read Suri Krishnamma’s diary below.
• When the call to shut down did come, I was in my car, just entering Manchester having driven up to collect belongings that were spread out across the city – in a hotel, apartment and at the studios. There would be no more shooting for the foreseeable future. Everybody should immediately go home. Only if it was absolutely essential should we go into the offices.
• Being in Manchester, we hoped we were about a week behind London in terms of the spread of the virus, so had naively thought we’d get through one more week and complete at least this particular block of shooting. Not to be.
• The production offices, and studios, were empty this morning. A bleak atmosphere. Those who were in the building seemed a little bewildered – everyone just wanting to finish whatever they needed to do and get out. Everyone now at a full 2-metres distance.
The Call to Return…
• Just seven weeks after shutdown, the call I was hoping for came today announcing that production on Corrie will soon be up and running again. It will take another 4 weeks to be fully ready, and of course much will depend on how the spread of the virus (the now infamous ‘R’ number) was reducing in the country, but we were on standby to return. It was clear from the call that many measures and new procedures were already in place, such as reconfiguring the main building at the studios for one-way traffic, as well as the plan to shoot the remaining scenes for the blocks in cohorts – where a team would be either exclusively on the street, or in studios 1 and 2, or studios 3 and 4. The remaining studios, 5 & 6 would be divided between the cohorts. And there would be a cohort manager supervising on each set, in particular re-enforcing the two-metre distancing rule that would govern both the movement in front of and behind the camera.
• Time to reflect this evening. We’ll be the first back in our industry. Continuing dramas are part of millions of daily lives – so there’s a sense from us all that we are an important service, not least to help mental health in these complex, stressful, isolating times. We feel that responsibility and take it seriously. And these productions are well-used to adapting and improvising with changing events, so getting Covid procedures in place should be more achievable in a short period of time than in the independent sector or in ‘higher end’ TV dramas which often have to build their shows from scratch. We’ll be the ones to find out if all the health and safety measures proposed really work. Will people be able to easily follow the complex set of new rules? Can on set practices really adjust to a two-metre distance both in front of, and behind, the camera?
• Received the Coronation Street Return to Filming Full Information Pack from ITV. I read it immediately and made notes, then cross referenced it with the BECTU guidelines.
• A conference call with senior staff, producers, cast and directors on Coronation Street with ITV’s appointed medical adviser.
• A general overview of what Covid is, how it spreads and how to avoid it.
• Most of the content seemed to chime with government advice and guidelines, tailored to the particular needs of studio working for both cast and crew.
• Other questions included whether rooms were available for directors to work in when not on set. As the building would be almost entirely empty, finding a space, given the new guidelines and restrictions of movement, shouldn’t be a problem.
• Colour coded zones, with people wearing wrist bands or lanyards of the appropriate colour.
• The plan would include a designated Covid-19 supervisor - someone whose specific job is to police the new system.
• Quick catch up with Gill Wilkinson, we’ll be the first two directors back on Corrie to complete the blocks interrupted by lockdown.
• We agreed the measures in place seemed sensible and well thought out. And for the short term, essential to get the show going again. Some concerns are the reduction in crew size and shorter prep time. The cohort working won’t affect us in our first week back as we’ll be shooting pickups – but cohort working isn’t what we’d want to see retained as it is in danger of undermining the role of the director in the story-telling process.
• Flurry of emails about restarting, particularly about scenes that need to be adjusted or rewritten. There’s understandable nervousness about all this – about how to co-ordinate everything from a distance – both in terms of scheduling, getting the cast together, and making sure there are no gaps in stories given how many revisions have had to be made over a short period of time. Also just making sure that all scenes can be scheduled to make sure that mine and Gill’s blocks can be completed in the first week back.
• It’s clearly going to be touch and go for Corrie. If Gill and I complete our pickups successfully in the first week back, that will give Corrie another 8 full episodes and prevent it from ‘going dark’ which will be an extraordinary achievement, given nearly 3 months of shutdown.
• Further conference/Zoom calls, including with other directors. Some concerns include: directing in story strands, rather than whole episodes; if actors can move between cohorts, why not directors? The added costs for directors, such as accommodation, given that the guidance includes not being able to stay with ‘friends’ but in separated apartments or hotels (and with hotels being closed until the foreseeable future); Track and Trace – what happens if someone tests positive? Do all who have been within 2 metres have to self-isolate? Government advice seems to suggest that as long as distancing and other measures are followed, shutting down a workplace might not be necessary.
• Call with my agent this morning about returning to work. Among other things, he wanted to make sure I was aware of all the new health and safety procedures regarding Covid and was comfortable with them. I told him that ITV had been extremely detailed in their guidance, and very responsive to requests and suggestions. The production team at Corrie have clearly been working flat out to make this all possible.
• Continued my notes on the script pickups and looked at the edit of the previous episodes to make sure that the new scenes fitted. Mostly they do but there are a few issues.
• Received crewing information. As the crews are working in cohorts, but (at least for the pickups) the directors are not, I will have 3 different 1st ADs and camera/sound crews, depending on whether on the street, studios 1&2 or 3&4, with studios 5&6 split. Looks quite chaotic on paper, but maybe that’s just because it’s a different way of working, will soon find out!
• Discussed the social distancing issues that might arise in some of the scenes with the script department, as well as some of the creative issues that present themselves, or rather challenges, that we need to be aware of when blocking a new scene. There is a clear need to be flexible in terms of content to get through the additional material needed to complete these blocks as quickly and efficiently as possible. But given that these are scenes that will be added to existing sequences, I think they should be sufficiently buried in the previous work so as not to stand out too much.
• A thought occurred to me while on another conference call with directors and producers about the limitation on an actor’s movement. If they think of themselves as polar-opposite magnets, or have an imaginary force-field of two-metres around them, then when one moves, the other has to move, as it is repelled. It might help actors make sense of the new world, while not necessarily being evident on-screen, given that the first week back is shooting pickups to go in episodes for pre-Covid stories.
8th June — First day of shooting
• As anticipated, a poor night’s sleep last night. I won’t be the only one. The uncertainty of what we’re going into a mixture of that ‘first day at school’ feeling and the fear of being in a foreign place and breaking a cultural taboo…
• Familiar faces began to ease any anxiety. ‘Step over here please’, said one cohort manager, as the induction began, ‘this is two metres’ he said, indicating marks on the floor, ‘wash hands over there before entering, then get your head ready for the heat test – don’t worry, it’s not a gun!’ Good humour, but clear instructions – a good combination.
• Face coverings available on a table as you enter.
• Heat-testing by a qualified medic – what happens if I’m ‘over the limit’? 36.5 – apparently that’s fine. Then a tour around the one-way system of the building. Seemed very clear. The floor clearly marked with the direction of travel.
• Sometimes floor arrows cross over, causing confusion – but makes sense the more you get to see them.
• The canteen – with prison-like screens down the centre of tables. Bleak, but necessary. The look on faces of kitchen staff said it all. This isn’t how we want things to be, this isn’t how we want to spend our lunch hour. But then a recognition also that this is how we have to be, for now.
• All my first day scenes were on the Lot, so Coronation Street, the garage, Victoria Street. Open air, so the risks are low, and distancing easy to enforce.
• Why am I the only one wearing a face covering? I stayed behind it, stubbornly. It’s both a reminder of the seriousness and, I hope, a way of encouraging others to do the same.
• Felt like a first day, first scene, struggling to find a rhythm or meaning – decided the best way would be to just push through it. Do a couple of takes of simple set-ups then move on. Everyone felt a bit rusty, a bit nervous, ‘It’s been so long, I’ve forgotten how to act,’ commented one actor, ‘don’t worry, I’ve forgotten how to direct!’ I offered, reassuringly.
• Cast and crew had changed in physical ways – some weight loss, some weight gain, much hair and beard growth. That’s going to be interesting when the performances are integrated into scenes shot 3 months ago! And self-make up very evident – particularly in the shine on men’s faces and hair (especially at the back). There’s a reason we have these specialists normally!
• All working to the one end and all uncertain at the same time. But within a few shots, the muscles had warmed up. The feeling getting back to something more normal, even the ‘new normal’ as we’ve been now used to hearing, palpable through the cast and crew. Good to see humour breaking through at times.
• Very respectful, polite, considerate atmosphere. Social distancing well-observed. Most people seemed to do it intuitively – I guess having had nearly 3 months of lock-down we’re all used to it.
• Stayed on the floor and used the Teradek system to get the camera feeds to my iPad. Worked well – think I might work like this even when things are back to normal. So much more immediate working on the floor rather than the gallery – able to see the actors’ eyes, communicate directly, and with crew too.
• By lunchtime, more people wearing masks. Mine stays on almost all the time. I hope this particular behaviour spreads. Official advice on wearing masks is confused, even reckless. The argument goes that they give minimal protection to the wearer - but may help to prevent spread to others. Isn’t that a good enough reason for everyone to wear them? ‘Wearing mine protects you, wearing yours protects me’. Simple.
• Lunch in my car. Quite relaxing actually. Even managed a 15-minute power-nap! Well earned. Stress can be tiring, not to mention poor sleep. Body clock feels it’s returning to normal.
• Exterior Rovers scene in the afternoon. Strong actors throughout the day made life so much easier. All on their game, no fuss, as keen to get the scenes complete as any of use.
END OF DAY DEBRIEF - DAY 1
• Weird how quickly the new ‘Zoom’ culture has become part of our lives. And a very effective tool, particularly in these circumstances – where arranging meetings, and altering times, take no time.
• Contributions from the directors first, so Gill Wilkinson and I. Felt this put the director very much at the centre of the process. Very respectful. Our feedback was almost entirely positive. Suppressed euphoria from all that we’d got it done. 1st ADs contributed their thoughts too.
• Lots of pats on the back, and no doubt quiet sighs of relief.
• Praise for the cohort manager. Kept a good balance.
• Very few negatives (some moans about loss of tea breaks).
• I mentioned the changed look of actors – hair and beard growth, and also lack of make-up. So kept shots wider than I would normally to try to cover this.
• Spent the evening reading scripts for the next block – 13 of them! Three times as many as normal, given the cohort working. So three directors will direct scenes across all 13 eps but be credited for the ones they have made the most contribution to.
9th June – Planning Day
• A short lie-in, but mostly spent reading more of the scripts before the Zoom meeting later. No chance I’ll get through them all, but at least get a sense of the stories.
• After breakfast, Zoom conference call for next block.
• I shared my experience of shooting under the new Covid guidelines.
• This process of debriefing and sharing information, particularly to other directors, is invaluable. And very effective doing it remotely and in one small group. Feels very reassuring and brings people together.
10th June — Shooting
• Walked to the studios in the rain, a flimsy folding umbrella offering little protection. A grim day.
• Heat test on the door – passed again!
• Grim weather, still tired eyes, moving awkwardly in heavy coats – so back to how filming really feels! A slightly more complicated scene involving several actors but blocked it simply and seemed to fall into place. Noticed how understanding actors are. Very little discussion or objection to blocking suggestions – so little debate. Just a sense of needing to get on with it with as little fuss as possible.
• Harder to communicate with actors when wearing a mask but tried to keep it on most of the time. Sometimes let it hang from one ear.
• Teradek worked better today – although sound was harder to assess given it was only available through the on-set monitors which, for obvious reasons, had to be kept low.
• Garage – two scenes. How to block a scene with an on-screen couple walking together, but at a distance – challenging. But strangely the blocking seemed to give the scene more life, felt more natural, as people don’t always walk side by side, or stand one opposite the other.
• Had to remind everyone, from time to time, that while we are observing the 2-metre distancing on both sides of the camera, this should not be evident in front of the lens as we are shooting as part of the pre-Covid stories.
• Victoria Gardens – even outside, when in a tight space the two-metre rule is tough. Actors needed to be seated, so sat them on the edge of different benches to maintain the distance.
• Some questions raised about the use of background artists as clearly more difficult to keep distance in the more populated scenes – but at the same time the world needs to at least look pre-Covid to match the scenes shot before the lockdown.
END OF DAY DEBRIEF — DAY 3
• Almost all positive – another well-run day, both units finishing early, everybody happy.
• One comment from an actor – ‘I feel very, very safe here’. And many other positive comments from actors. It’s a high priority to make sure they feel safe so good to hear this feedback.
• If, as anticipated, the government relax to 1-metre – will we follow? The answer was ‘no’, much to the relief of the production managers who had just spent several weeks organising and supervising the 2-metre distancing signs and floor tape throughout the building!
11th June — Shooting
• Ordered a cheeky bacon roll and was given two for some reason — so gave one away to the medic on the door.
• First scene in the studio: Rovers back room, two-hander.
• Different vibe in the studio – also to do with new crew. Felt like starting all over again. This is one of the disadvantages, but it’s temporary. Strange. Lacked some of the humour of the first couple of days on the street.
• One-way traffic route and following the path trickier than expected. Common sense in use when areas are mostly empty.
• Harder to keep the 2-metre distancing in the studio, while dancing around cameras, sound equipment, cables, monitors. And harder to reinforce.
• Was conscious of keeping the activity time as short as possible, to get on with shooting as quickly as possible.
• Not sure the ‘sequential working’ (one department after another going onto the floor to do their work) was being practised as well as it could be – but the work was getting done, and inside the guidelines.
END OF DAY DEBRIEF — DAY 4
• Studio – very efficient, well organised.
• Found studio experience quite different. Harder to move around, generally. But quickly adapted.
• Small sets — all scenes involved the doorways in some way — all achieved well.
• Actors’ energy – especially given reduced numbers. Need to be conscious of that. Actors are sensing this and I believe will start to adjust.
12th June — Shooting
• Shooting inside the Kabin, a small space where keeping 3 people 2 metres apart is a challenge. Just about measured it out diagonally across the space – only 6 metres – so 4 metres of space + 3 people! Made me wonder how in the ‘real’ world it can possibly work in shops – they just can’t enforce the 2-metre rule.
• Camera crew mostly wearing masks, but not others. It’s clear some people ‘get’ and intuitively stay 2-metres apart, while others don’t, either through forgetfulness or a sense that it isn’t necessary.
• I don’t miss the gallery as a director, I feel much more connected to the scene, the performances, the crew and shooting generally staying on the floor. The gallery now feels a lazy option.
• Social services set – this one adapted from the casting corridor on the first floor. Looked great. One-way walking traffic became much more difficult to achieve – stepping onto the set to speak to an actor briefly, then a long circuit to get back around, following four other corridors to get back to just six feet behind me.
• For a moment, it felt that life of the production had returned, but on finishing shooting, a quick trip to the production office told another story. A bleak place, just one person sitting at a desk.
• No conference call at the end of the day. Nothing to report. Sitting in my car before driving home, doing last minute calls to wrap up. Production happy, producers happy. All done. A mixture of relief and a sense of accomplishment. Teamwork, of course, and a solid, reliable, conscientious, considerate and respectful crew.
• Full credit to ITV and the Coronation Street production team for making it possible, and for making the rules clear and easy to follow. And full credit to cast and crew for abiding by them to deliver the show.
• Very few negatives in an extraordinary week.
• As I drove home, I reflected on the experience. My overriding feeling was a sense of wonder at how human behaviour can adapt to radically changed circumstances, how we all have the ability to adapt to changing working practices, but how this requires organisation, leadership and the right level of enforcement – but given all that, we can make anything work.
All photos courtesy of Lee Rayner, ITV.