Indie producer The Garden set up 16 cameras in a household of dwarves to capture their lives for C4 series Seven Dwarves. But it's much more than just a fixed rig reality show, they tell Tim Dams
This summer is Channel 4's first without its Big Brother stalwart for eleven years. And one of the key shows that is filling up the 250 hours of airtime it leaves behind is Seven Dwarves, an observational, fixed rig documentary which focuses on a household of seven dwarf actors.
Produced by The Garden, the indie behind the acclaimed fixed rig series 24 Hours in A&E, it follows the dwarf actors as they live together and perform in a Christmas production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in Woking.
The idea for the show followed conversations between The Garden and C4 about new areas to explore with fixed rigs. "In the context of that, we were talking about pantomimes," recalls C4 head of documentaries Hamish Mykura, "where you have this remarkable, long-standing tradition where groups of seven dwarves get together, often sharing digs, to do a panto. The idea formed that if you did have seven dwarves sharing the house together, it would be very interesting."
"This was a good way to explore a hidden world," adds executive producer Nick Curwin. "But it was only a way in. You've then got to think about what the purpose is going to be and what is going to be of interest in that kind of precinct."
Initial research, however, quickly made clear that the panto actors enjoyed a party lifestyle during the season, making it all the more attractive as an onscreen proposition. Finding a household was relatively straightforward too: it involved researching the several theatres in the UK that were preparing to stage Snow White. "What swung it towards Woking," says Mykura, "was the diverse, very interesting characters in that panto. It's also the biggest panto in Britain. It's a large theatre with a full on production and a big budget. All that makes for a better tale."
Both Mykura and Curwin stress that while the fixed rig was an important part of the filmmaking process, there's more to the show than simply seven dwarves in a house. The characters are followed going to rehearsals, performing, going out, partying and visiting their families. As such it's a blend of fixed rig and traditional observational documentary series.
Ultimately, says Curwin, it focuses on the characters of the dwarves themselves, with each of the 7x60-min episodes telling one of their stories. They include Karen, a 43-year-old with two daughters, who is in a relationship with fellow performer Max. There's also 26-year-old :party animal" Craig and 20-year-old Josh, the youngest of the group who comes from a dynasty of little people performers - his mum and grandfather were Ewoks in Return of the Jedi.
"The attitude and interest are traditional in that we are really interested in them as people," explains Curwin. "That ultimately is what good documentary is about. The personality of the show really comes from the personalities of the people." And, he adds, their personalities "are really out there. They have very colourful lives and amazingly big personalities which gives the series its character."
The rig does, however, allow the crew to capture the intimate, frank and personal moments of the dwarves' lives more easily, without getting in the way and changing it. Mykura says the combination of filming in the house and following the characters in the outside world means that Seven Dwarves is "true to the great qualities that rig shows can deliver, while also bringing it into new areas. As a viewer, you wouldn't think of it as a rig show or a live reality show. There's much more of a documentary narrative." No doubt aware of criticism from some quarters, particularly the BBC, about the nature of fixed rig documentaries, Mykura adds: "The story of the rig is only beginning, I don't think it is anywhere near the end."
Both he and Curwin are quietly confident of its success when it airs. That's partly because, says Mykura, the characters are "immensely engaging, really interesting and charming - the more you get to know them, the more you want to go back." It also looks much better than most fixed rig shows to date, adds Curwin, thanks to the decision to shoot Seven Dwarves in HD. "It looks fantastic," he says.
However, Seven Dwarves may face one major challenge when it plays out on C4 this August at 9pm. That's exactly when Channel 5 is tipped to roll out its most high profile acquisition to date: Big Brother. Which household will win?
From gypsies to dwarves
In the run up to the launch of Seven Dwarves, there's been plenty of comparisons with recent C4 hit My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. Is Seven Dwarves a copycat commission, in search of ratings by focusing on people who often live in the margins of society. "I've always been very clear to refute that," says C4 head of docs Hamish Mykura. "Gypsy Wedding had a very features approach...our programmes are more constructed docs, more character led, about people, their issues and their lives. But I would concede that C4 does very well with programmes about hidden cultures and little communities which we think we know but turn out to be more interesting than we thought. To that extent it shares some similarities with Gypsy Wedding, but that is as far as I would go." Executive producer Nick Curwin adds: "Some people have speculated this was commissioned as a way of following up Gypsy Wedding. But that's just not true. It was commissioned long before Gypsy Wedding went on air early last summer. And it was developed even before that."
Broadcaster: Channel 4
Production company: The Garden
TX date: August 2011
Series director: Richard Curson-Smith
Executive producers: Nick Curwin, Magnus Temple, Jonathan Smith
Series producer: Michelle Fobler
Senior producer/director: Jamie O’Leary
Commissioning editor: Hamish Mykura