When all of our normal routines have been cast aside, the daily schedule of British broadcast television retains a familiar rhythm. From breakfast through to chat shows and afternoon quizzes, on to evening news, soaps and primetime drama. Maybe a film before bed?
It’s reliable and it’s comforting, but the familiar faces and formats of British TV belie the incredible adaptability of the industry, which is both reporting the current crisis and remaking itself as advertising revenue falls and social distancing halted production.
As the home of the National Television Archive, the BFI National Archive has been recording television off air since 1985 and we have captured breaking news and programming on every national crisis since then. None of those events transformed daily life so completely or had such a remarkable effect on national broadcasting as the coronavirus pandemic. Today we capture over a dozen channels off air, complete with ads and credits, and applause for key workers. We also select programmes to acquire from TV companies to represent the finest drama, comedy and non-fiction programming in any given year.
This year is going to look very different from the others.
Since lockdown began, the schedules of BBC1 and BBC2 have been ever-changing around breaking news and government statements. Channel 4 News embraced the new rules almost immediately by having one presenter deliver the news from their home while another remained in the studio. The webcam aesthetic that was once a substitute for a studio interview, or a device used in comedy (most recently in Channel 4’s Hang Ups), dominates news and entertainment programming as much as it has taken over aspects of our own lives in lockdown – and may well prove to be the new normal once the crisis is all over.
The Graham Norton Show now takes place on a ‘virtual sofa’ with stars dialling in, while Ant and Dec broke new ground in March by hosting their Saturday Night Takeaway without an audience. The Last Leg: Locked Down Under and Mo Gilligan’s All Star Happy Hour have followed the same route. The uncanny aspect in this change to chat shows is not the rapid cuts between talking heads, or even the sense that every programme is now related to Through the Keyhole featuring all celebrities at home all the time – it is the lack of a studio audience. Television comedy and entertainment is so intimately connected to the atmosphere and ‘liveness’ associated with audience interaction that a viewer can’t help but miss the laughter.
Of course the audience is at home, like most of us. In the initial stages of lockdown, television viewing soared by up to 33% and statements by the Queen and the prime minister garnered audiences of more than 20 million. In this new era with increased time to view at home, public service broadcasters have stepped in with modern takes on the Reithian principles of inform, educate and entertain. The BBC unveiled a truly impressive raft of programmes designed to keep the public up to date and active during lockdown, as well as a whole series of Bitesize programmes on demand to support children learning from home.
ITV is showing a weekly coronavirus Q&A alongside consumer information with Martin Lewis, and has broadcast documentaries showing the situation in NHS intensive care units with Ross Kemp. ITN has been turning around news specials and documentaries for Channel 4, while Sky News initially broke ground with its shocking report from Italy ‘Into the Red Zone’. Channel 5 have also produced the vitally important How to Leave Your Abusive Partner Safely in Lockdown.
Beyond factual programming, ITV made the first leap into lockdown drama with Isolation Stories, a series of four short dramas shown at the beginning of May. Depicting the lives of a range of characters during lockdown and produced using social distancing guidelines, each isolation story was a bittersweet portrait of characters who are trapped at home with personal problems that refuse to be locked down. The BFI hosted an online panel with the creators and stars in which they discussed the quick turnaround from commissioning to broadcast.
Isolation Stories showed a speedy way forward for the resumption of TV drama production, one where the format isn’t reliant on large casts or location shooting. The BBC is taking this logic to its natural conclusion with a series of remakes of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads monologue programmes.
Channel 4 has been trying to keep us busy with a rolling series at teatime on weekdays. So far this has seen Jamie Oliver presenting store cupboard recipes, Kirstie Allsop doing lockdown crafting and the return of daytime TV royalty Richard & Judy with their book club. These series have been billed Keep <insert activity> and Carry On. Carry on we must, even if we can’t keep up with all of them. What these series have done is usefully focus on the present and our immediate use of time, something which is very valuable in a moment of such uncertainty about the future.
Best of all is Grayson’s Art Club, a beautiful concoction of public submissions, celebrity chat and observational documentary featuring Grayson and Philippa Perry at home. Made with fixed-rig cameras that create a fly-on-the-wall approach while maintaining the distance of the crew, it’s the perfect lockdown production. Happily the same style of filming enables Gogglebox to continue as well.
The most poignant changes can be observed on children’s television, where kids can no longer have their birthday cards read out (though they can be submitted online) and presenters are filming inserts from home. In this tough time for children and their parents, CBeebies deployed their most popular guest by bringing Tom Hardy back for a whole week of bedtime stories. Hardy read five stories from his garden, some with themes that felt appropriate to the current crisis. Between songs about washing hands and a Hey Duggee short about staying at home, all the relevant information is being effectively communicated without causing alarm. A special message from The Doctor helped too:
Kids are not the only ones who appreciate familiar faces delivering public service messages and the BBC has been using clips from classic comedies to get the message across between regular programmes. Few got that message across more clearly than Malcolm Tucker’s exasperated ranting in The Thick of It:
Across the channels the weekly Clap for Carers is now a regular feature of the schedule and the ads we are used to have been replaced with corporate messages about the crisis and how we can support the NHS, and each other.
The sense of connection and company that TV provides is unique, and especially important just now. This has been recognised by fandoms online who have launched a series of timed watchalongs to episodes of series including Doctor Who and Life on Mars. Marketing body Thinkbox has identified the embrace of old favourites for comfort viewing as a current trend. It seems that in times of uncertainty viewers are less keen to try unknown quantities and more likely to be satisfied by familiar shows like classic comedies. This is good news for schedulers who are faced with programming repeats out of necessity. Family friendly programmes like Britain’s Got Talent have also had a boost in audience as locked down households settle down to view together.
Life in lockdown has often felt like being in a ‘bottle episode’. In television, ‘bottle episodes’ generally take place in a single location with a limited cast. British examples include EastEnders episodes featuring only two characters or the 2008 ‘Midnight’ episode of Doctor Who that saw The Doctor trapped in a vehicle for the entirety of the episode. The design of a bottle episode is often used to save money and time on production, but we will inevitably now be seeing more of them for safety reasons too, as regular production begins to emerge with new measures in place to ensure social distancing.
In the meantime we are left to enjoy the enforced creativity of home-produced versions of our favourite shows. So let’s sign off with the team of Michael & Eagle from Stath Lets Flats having a staff zoom meeting during lockdown: