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Behind the scenes: C4's The Mill

Darlow Smithson and Channel 4 turned a documentary idea into a drama to convey the conditions of workers in a nineteenth century cotton mill. Tim Dams reports

The Mill, a new historical four part drama set in industrial England in 1833, began life in the extensive archive of Quarry Bank Mill in Cheshire.

It was in the former cotton mill’s archive that Darlow Smithson creative director Emily Roe came across 20,000 documents, all detailing the gruelling hours, punishments, pregnancies and wages of its workers – many of them poor and orphaned children.

Built by the entrepreneurial Greg family, who also helped found the liberal Manchester Guardian newspaper, the mill prospered in the nineteenth century as global demand for British cotton boomed. Yet, in the 1830s, children as young as nine worked 12-hour shifts in the mills – sold by local workhouses to the Gregs as apprentices.

Roe took the idea of doing a historical series on the factory to Channel 4’s history department.  But a factual approach was quickly abandoned in favour of drama. Julia Harrington, commissioning editor for history, says the idea was to tell the story of the people and children who worked in the factory – as opposed to the well known histories of the inventors and industrial pioneers of the age.

 “I’ve read lots of treatments about the industrial revolution, and they are always about who built the steam engines,” says Harrington, describing The Mill as “showing history from the worm’s eye view of the working class.”

This point is backed up by writer John Fay, who immersed himself in the job of researching the archive, and created a script based on real life individuals named in the documents. “When I was a school, I dropped history as fast as I could. It was all about kings, queens, dukes and duchesses.” Fay (Clocking Off, Torchwood) says he felt a huge responsibility to do justice to the real life characters, in particular the feisty Liverpudlian Esther Price, who is well documented in Quarry Bank’s archive. Price’s story is central to the drama: she ran away from the mill after standing up its owner in a fight over the terms of her service, and was put into solitary confinement as punishment.

The drama was also strongly informed by being shot on location at Quarry Bank, says director James Hawes (Enid, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher), who describes the responsibility the cast and crew felt to portray in an authentic way the real people who worked in the well-preserved mill.

“We wanted it to feel rooted and real,” says Hawes, who speaks of conveying the hardship of the mill workers lives – but not making the drama so grim that viewers don’t tune in. This is echoed by Harrington who says there is humour and joyfulness in the drama as well as a reflection of the grim and gritty conditions of the workers.

Besides, the drama is about a time when Britain was an emerging economy, making trade offs between wealth creation and the welfare of individuals. The mill owners are not simply portrayed as moustache twiddling baddies – but as more ambiguous, conflicted individuals who were dynamically entrepreneurial yet who relied on child labour at a time when Britain was beginning to feel morally queasy about it.

Harrington says The Mill is not a black and white morality piece. Many of the workers had terrible lives in the mill, she says, but it was also recognised as a place of opportunity for many.
The reality of their lives is most starkly revealed by the work of the production and costume design teams. Costume designer Joanna Eatwell looked to paintings for inspiration as The Mill era pre-dates photography. The one-size fits all costumes, worn by the smallest of girls to pregnant women, were not washed during filming to maintain the dirty and worn impression.

Meanwhile, production designer Pat Campbell had to transform Quarry Bank Mill, even though it remained open to the public during filming. The yard was recobbled and old machinery was scattered around to make it “look more untidy than a National Trust site.” Huge cotton bales made from polystyrene covered in wadding were important props.

Yet perhaps the most impressive achievement was the creation of the mule room, where the factory workers worked on the cotton spinning mules. These iconic machines were at the heart of the Greg’s business. Campbell had expected them to be relatively easy to source. But none existed, so they had to be built from scratch. Art director David Bowes then created them in wood without the aid of blue prints, but with input from museum experts in Belgium and the UK. His team built five – three of which are fully functioning and can spin yarn. It took them just 
eleven weeks.                                                          

The Mill is 4x60-min drama serial for Channel 4 about life in 
a cotton mill, set in 
rural-industrial England in 1833. It is based on the extensive historical archive of Quarry Bank Mill in Cheshire, which is the location for the drama.
Broadcaster Channel 4
TX August 2013
Production company
Darlow Smithson
Director James Hawes
Producer Caroline Levy
Writer John Fay
Editor Luke Dunkley, Pete Oliver
Creative director
Emily Roe
Exec producers Dominic Barlow,
Julian Ware
Director of operations
Ulla Streib
Production executive
Lynsey Neale
Line producer
Michael Treen
Production co-ordinator
Louise Adamson
DoP David Luther
Camera operator
Andrei Austin
Production designer Pat Campbell
Art director Freddie Evard, David Bowes
Set decorator
Elaine McLenachan
Costume designer
Joanna Eatwell
Costume supervisor
Joanna Maclin
Music supervisor Peter Saville

Posted 24 July 2013 by Tim Dams

Behind the scenes: Run

It’s taken over six years for new Channel 4 drama Run to make the journey to the screen. Set in south London, Run weaves together the stories of four seemingly unconnected people who face life changing decisions: a tough single mother, a Chinese illegal immigrant, a recovering heroin addict and a Polish cleaner.

But it’s not a stereotypical portrait of south London, insists executive producer Jaimie D’Cruz, who plays down comparisons to C4’s most recent London set drama, Top Boy. “There’s no gangs, no guns – none.”

Rather, he describes Run as an affectionate, honest portrayal of the south London he knows – one that reveals the stresses and strains of the mixed communities of the area, but that has life and warmth.

Run was largely created by a young team of TV newcomers from South London. It’s the first TV drama credit for Brixton friends and writers Marlon Smith and Daniel Fajemisin-Duncan, and commercials director Jonathan Pearson and his producer Adam Dolman. It’s D’Cruz’s first drama too. A former series producer at documentary indie Keo Films, he produced Banksy film Exit Through the Gift Shop, which won a Oscar nomination in 2011, and runs new indie Acme TV.

Run started taking shape in 2007, when Smith (who is part of D’Cruz’s extended family), Fajemisin-Duncan and Pearson called in to discuss the fledgling project with D’Cruz. None of them had any experience of making dramas, and Run was initially envisaged as a series of standalone micro dramas for a new media audience which could be told in just five or six minutes. “We were not thinking of it as a C4 primetime drama,” says D’Cruz. “That was the furthest thing from my mind.”

The project was developed and pitched to TV stations, digital channels, brands and internet platforms – but to no avail. Then, in 2008, the team decided to produce a self-funded pilot which would act as a calling card. It was a proper two camera, 16mm film shoot in Brixton with full cast and crew.

The big breakthrough came two years later when Channel 4’s Alpha Fund invested in full scripts. Then C4 drama commissioning editor Robert Wolf Cochrane showed interest, encouraging the further development of the scripts so that they became a coherent, interlocked series rather a number of unconnected episodes. When Wolf Cochrane left C4, new commissioning editor Sophie Gardner championed the project too.

D’Cruz describes the budget of Run as the ‘pretty decent’ but not high. The drama features a mix of established acting talent and newcomers, who were discovered through open castings, schools, theatre groups and even young offender programmes. It also eschews expensive props, special effects and grading. Instead Run shot in and around Brixton, Peckham, Loughborough Junction and Camberwell.

Given that most of the Acme team are from a factual TV background, there’s something of a documentary approach to the way they cast, researched stories and found locations. D’Cruz says they were determined to depict the culture of inner city London accurately, rather than recycle media stereotypes of the area. For example, assistant producer Shanthy Sooriasegaram ended up working full time on the intricacies of what a crack squat really looks like or where Chinese illegal immigrants sleep.

Acme’s lack of drama experience meant that it turned to a number of experienced hands to help make the show. The first two episodes are directed by Bafta winner Charles Martin (Skins, Wallander), while Pearson directs the final episodes. And Run was managed by experienced producer Chris Carey (Dirk Gentley, This Is Jinsy). Composer Harry Escott (Shame, Welcome to the Punch) provided the score.

DoP’s Ula Pontikos (Weekend) and Gary Shaw (Ill Manors) helped create the look of the series. The fluid, naturalistic imagery of Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express was an important reference point for the film-makers, who shot largely in available light with an Arri Alexa.  Above all, they wanted to avoid the clichés of most depictions of London – the glossy tourist version or the dangerous, grim gangster portrayal. The Alexa is noted for its ability to shoot in low light with a minimal lighting set up, which was perfect for Run as it was shot largely in the evenings in the height of summer to a tight shooting schedule of nine days per episode.

For a documentary maker like D’Cruz – who’s used to turning around documentary projects in months rather than years – it’s been a long process to get Run to screen. But he’s sanguine about the time it’s taken. “The reason it took six years is that many of those years were spent finding people to talk to us. And why would they? We had absolutely no track record in drama. I was knocking on the doors of people that I didn’t even have a right to knock on,” he says.

Run airs on Channel 4 on Monday 15 - Thursday 18 July at 10pm

Run is a four part drama set in South London that tells the stories of four people who face life changing decisions. In one episode, Olivia Colman plays a tough single mother whose teenage sons commit a random act of violence that ends in the death of stranger – and she must choose whether to protect her children or do the right thing.
Broadcaster Channel 4
Production company Acme Films
Starring  Lennie James, Jamie Winstone, Olivia Colman, Katharina Schuttler
Writers Daniel Fajemisin-Duncan, Marlon Smith
Directors Charles Martin (eps 1&2), Jonathan Pearson (eps 3&4)
Producer Charles Carey
Associate producer Adam Dolman
Executive producer Jaimie D’Cruz
DoPs  Ula Pontikos (eps 1&2), Gary Shaw (eps 3&4)
Production designer Tom Bowyer
Editor James Hughes (eps 1&2), Joe Randall Cutler (eps 3&4)
Composer Harry Escott
Cameras Arri Alexa, Canon C300, Canon 5D
Facilities Edited at The Mews, graded at MPC, mixed at Boom and 
re-onling at Deluxe 142.

Posted 10 July 2013 by Tim Dams

Behind the scenes: live@wimbledon

Most online TV channels are notable for pioneering creative ways of producing lots of content for very little money.

Not so live@wimbledon, a TV service produced by IMG Sports Media for the Wimbledon Championships.

Like Wimbledon itself, it’s in a different league to most online TV services - it’s professional and looks well funded.

The service runs on the website for up to seven hours a day during the Championship, and is put together by a team of 25 people overseen by executive producer Tim Lacy (pictured below).

The centerpiece of live@wimbledon is an open air rooftop studio at the All England Club, kitted out with full broadcast quality cameras.

Former players Annabel Croft and Mats Wilander host the service, which includes the latest information on games and interviews in the studio and from around the grounds with players, celebrities and fans.

It’s more relaxed and rawer than most broadcaster coverage of the competition, and aims to give viewers an insight into the players, fans and environment at the All England Club.

However, Wimbledon has been careful not to allow live@wimbledon to compete head on with the broadcasters that have acquired the rights to the Championship.

It can only show live coverage of one game, per set, per hour from each match. Each hour, the service broadcasts roughly 20 minutes of studio coverage, 20 minutes of live action and 20 minutes of reports from around Wimbledon.

Live@wimbledon is also geo-blocked, airing only in the UK, the US, Canada, South America except Brazil, Holland, Belgium and Cyprus. Next year there are plans to extend the service to India and China.

Now in its second year, viewing figures are growing too, says Lacy. Last week, live@wimbledon was getting about 100,000 streams a day. Last year, each viewer spent an average of 2-3 mins watching content on the site – and this has risen to 25 minutes in 2013.

Posted 03 July 2013 by Tim Dams
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