Springwatch visit

While the BBC has come under fire for being a bit crap about diversity in some areas, there’s no doubt that, within the organisation, there are concrete initiatives on going to try to improve diversity and the number of different voices that are heard.

Part of this is their excellent BAME Expert Voices scheme, which aims to find experts from ethnic minority backgrounds with the potential to be “talent” (either as interviewees on the radio or TV, or as presenters), and to equip these experts with some of the skills (or at least an IDEA of the skills) needed to get into this line of work. Back in January, I went to one of these Expert Voices days in Bristol – it was a great day, and I came away having learned rather a lot and having had a chance to tentatively put some of the skills I learned on the day in practice. It was pretty great.

One of the features of the day was the chance to meet producers, talent scouts and programme makers and talk about ideas and opportunities and pitching. One of the industry members there was the series producer for Springwatch, who extended an open invitation (that I took up on the spot!) to visit the Springwatch set later in the summer and see how it was put together, to get the experience of live format telly making and whether it might be something we want to get into.

At the time, June seemed ages to wait – but in the nature of these things, it came around pretty quickly. This post has been sitting in drafts for over a month – so some of the detail I was going to flesh it out with is gone. That’s my bad – instead, here’s the Jackanory version. Selected highlights and thoughts, if you will. Must blog more frequently!

I arrived at RSPB Minsmere for 1pm. This was a luxury that I had, as a visitor – most of the team had been up and working for many hours – and some, such as the story developers (who work 12 hour shifts, monitoring the cameras for juicy happenings) had been up all night. Springwatch, when it’s going, is very much a 24 hour operation.

I signed in at security and entered a compound that was someway between a field office for an scientific expedition and a military encampment – or at least, what I imagine the latter to be. Lots of purposeful goings-on. I was met by my native guide, Becky, who would be showing me around and making sure I didn’t make too much of a nuisance of myself. She was very nice. Everyone was nice!

The tour of the production village was fascinating; a terrace of vans, inside each of which Very Important Things were taking place, each relating to certain aspects of the production. The aforementioned story developers had one to themselves – large banks of screens, showing feed from the myriad cameras stashed around the Reserve. Their job is to keep a weather eye for anything interesting that could either service the narratives of the ongoing “A plots” – this year, the sticklebacks and various nestlings – or provide a new story of its own; something the viewers might find compelling. The thing is, there is a LOT coming through, constantly – and it’s only recorded if and when someone decides to; there’s not enough time to review recorded footage, so it’s a question of pouncing on cool stuff, tagging and bagging it and notifying the editors.

In other vehicle, the gallery – the centre of operations for the live broadcast, from whence all the producers and editors splice together live and pre-recorded footage, overlays and titles – often in real time – and send it out through the ether. Real live-wire stuff, and I got to sit in on it, which was pretty special.

Of course, a lot of what we see as viewers is served by the presenters, through the introduction and links between segments. These happen elsewhere, away from the main village. There’s blocking first, so that the cameras and crew know the geography they need to create for each scene – then later, the presenters arrive to rehearse. As well as delivering their pieces to camera in a friendly and engaging way, they’ve got quite strict timings to stick to – the program must run to time, and the pre-recorded VT (video tape, except it’s not tape anymore) segments are a set length so there’s no much wiggle room. Except, because it’s live, sometimes they’ll change the script on the fly, cut to a nest cam – and then whoops! It’s up to the presenters to cut and splice and improvise on the fly, to bring the whole thing to within the seconds’ tolerance needed. They have help, of course – there’s plenty of direction from the gallery – a constant stream of it, counting in and out of VTs, suggesting shortcuts or reminding them of things, in their in-ear monitors. Talkback, it’s called – and the effect is really distracting. But if it puts the presenters off, it certainly doesn’t show – no fear is detected in their eyes! These guys are pros, and it’s really, really impressive.

I talked to quite a few of the crew as I was doing the rounds. Everyone seemed really chuffed to be working on the show; I got the distinct impression that it was one of those plum gigs that everyone looked forward to, because of the team atmosphere and, I think, the thrill of the live broadcast. I’m not sure how many people were working on Springwatch – possibly 100? – but the main thing I discovered is that there’re a HUGE number of man-hours that go into it all. Each one-hour programme is the result of many, many hours’ worth preparation. But because everyone knows their job, when the time comes to bring it all together, it appears relatively seamless.

They say any reasonably advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. I think the same is probably true of anything where a level of skill is involved – when it looks effortless, it’s because they’re doing it right. Could I do it? Live TV is a livewire act, both figuratively and in a literal sense. I’m not sure if anything will come of my involvement with Expert Voices, or if – even if I might be cut out for presenting – I would have the nerves of steel needed for live broadcast. But it was a real privilege to watch the pros at work, and I’m really grateful to have had the opportunity to do so.

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