Britain's Got Talent executive producer Amelia Brown on the art of producing ITV's Britain's Got Talent.
"We start with casting. The casting team are key and each year the team gets bigger. Casting gets harder and harder.
The key thing you don’t want to lose from BGT is undiscovered talent – and undiscovered talent is hard to find. In the earlier series, people turned up for television shows in their masses and queued up. Now, people still want to audition but they just need a little bit more encouragement.
We go to them more these days. We used to do a few days of producers’ auditions in Manchester and London, but we now have lots of smaller days in smaller towns.
It becomes a bit of a numbers game to ensure you have enough great auditions. We will see about 300 acts during the judges’ auditions, but only a proportion of those will make it to air.
A love of the show is the key skillset and personality trait that I look for in everybody who works on BGT. It sounds simple, but you would be amazed at how many people come in for interview and haven’t watched the show. It drives me bonkers.
We try to bring staff up through the ranks. People quickly become very highly qualified on BGT. You pre-record, you film live, you do live shows, you do the edit – so it sort of ticks every telly box in one show. So you then want to nurture the staff and want them to stay – they become very key to the show in the following years.
About 250-300 people work on the show if you count everybody from myself to researchers, lighting, rigging, editors, and producers. There’s about 30 in the key editorial team, and 30 in the edit.
The biggest challenge during filming is that all the acts have different requirements. A magic act may have fire or want to hang from the rafters, whereas a dog needs to have licences and may not like the lights, and then you have a kids’ choir who come with all the licensing requirements you have with children. Each act has its own set of rules. There is a researcher role called the fixer and that is exactly what they will do all day.
The audition shows take place over 10 or 11 days. We are there from about 4pm for the matinee performance and then there’s an evening performance. There are two different audiences.
My motto, which drives everyone mad, is I want options when it comes to the edit. The team film from 8-9am until midnight. We tend to film everything that moves at all times. There is definitely a few thousand hours of footage to get through.
The edit begins as we start filming. We have a marvellous system called the Montage Project and a whole edit system now where we pull together everything and organise it.
It is all about labelling. You have to be quite thorough and anal about labelling. Every contestant will have a list of every checkpoint that gets filmed – their arrival, their audition, their interview, their secondary interview, their leaving shot. And all that needs to go into a bin and needs to get organised. That is your starting block. If it is not organised straight out of the blocks, then you have got a problem.
We grade the acts we like most as we go along. So we will give everyone a grade from A to C. I write notes on what I like about them, and what I don’t like about them. Those notes and the series producer’s notes get used in the edit.
We then rough cut the stories, and from that decide who we want to go in which show and then start posting the shows together in the edit.
The edit is my favourite bit. It is where it comes to life. I think we have got the best editors in the business.
Organisation is key. Then it becomes about the producers; I bang on about this a lot but they need to watch everything. It’s difficult because we film so much. But woe betide if we get to a point and I ask a question about whether something is there - and they don’t know the answer. Because for me the devil is in the detail - you will find bits of reality that we filmed with a contestant where they are far more relaxed chatting to their mum that will show their personality much more than an interview question with a producer. All those little pieces are the gems now, and is how the edit has changed over the past six years. Those bits can make or break a story.
This show is run by WhatsApp. It is a great way for monitoring stories. We set up all the producers, the series producers and myself on a WhatsApp group. It helps us to keep up with changes, and means that everyone has got the information at the same time and knows what is happening. If something happens at the judging desk - say Simon is in bad mood or Alesha has said no to a load of kids - that is something we need to pick up on so it will go on the WhatsApp group.
You have to have a love of people and a love of storytelling. It sounds a bit vague, but if you don’t have those two things then you are on the wrong show.
Your management skills need to be good. The team is massive. Everyone works very long hours, they are on their feet a lot and they spend a lot of time together because we’re away. So keeping the team happy is key.
It is a massive show but you don’t want any member of the team to feel like they are just a cog in a machine. Everyone needs to know that their role is important, because if someone doesn’t do well in their jobs then everything does fall in like a house of cards.
The thing that keeps me awake at night is worrying that we don’t find new talent, thankfully 10 years in that hasn’t happened so far."
This interview is taken from an April 2016 Televisual feature on the art of producing entertainment TV shows.
The latest in a line of stylish John le Carre thrillers to be adapted for the big screen, Our Kind of Traitor stands out for a number of reasons.
It’s not just that the big themes of the story – about international money laundering and the impact of Russian money on British society – are particularly resonant in light of the Panama Papers revelations.
It’s also that, unusually for a Le Carre story, the adaptation plays like a road movie. One thinks of Le Carre in terms of dark interiors and alleyways and old fashioned Britain. But Our Kind of Traitor is based very much in the contemporary world, and saw the production team constantly on the go during the 10 week shoot, filming in Finland, the UK, Paris, the French Alps, Bern and Marrakech.
This was a key challenge for Gail Egan of Potboiler Productions, who produced the film with Le Carre’s sons, Simon Cornwell and Stephen Cornwell of The Ink Factory. Potboiler enjoys a long-standing relationship with Le Carre, having previously produced The Constant Gardener and A Most Wanted Man.
Scriptwriter Hossein Amini boarded the project before the book was even published in 2010, working closely with Le Carre on the first couple of drafts. “His books are tricky adaptations. They deal with complex subjects and have lots of characters, all of them with journeys of their own,” says Egan, who secured backing from Film4 and StudioCanal for the film.
From the outset, Egan says the overriding ambition of the production team was to be true to the essence of the book so it appeals to Le Carre core fans, while doing so in an entertaining way.
Susanna White was hired as director for Our Kind of Traitor, impressing Egan and her partners for the different genres she has previously tackled on screen – from Generation Kill to Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang to Parade’s End.
White says she ‘campaigned’ to get the job after reading the script. “It just works as a strong thriller in quite an un-Le Carre way – in some ways it is more of a Hitchcockian thriller than a traditional Le Carre.”
She was also drawn by the emotional core of the story – a tale of a modern marriage between Ewan McGregor and Naomi Harris’ characters, and how McGregor is won over by the magnetism of Russian mafia insider Dima (Stellan Skarsgard). “For me as a director, it flexes lots of muscles because I had done action and cgi in Generation Kill, but what I love about Le Carre is the depth of characterisation.”
White emphasises two key challenges in making the film: its technical complexity and the need to achieve emotional depth while making sure the complex plot was told at pace.
Both of these were exacerbated by the fact that the crew was always on the move, even shooting scenes while they were moving from location to location. “We got on the Eurostar to Paris, and packed our bags in one carriage and were shooting a scene in another carriage for real. There the pressure on me as director is not to let on to the actors how stressed I am – to make them feel calm and that they have all the time in the world to achieve their ideal performance.”
The look of the film was particularly important to White, who says she fought to get as many dramatic locations into the movie as she could. For example, it was initially mooted to film a key Russian exterior using snow effects in Windsor. “It was crucial to me that we opened the movie with these big Russian landscapes…to give that sense of scale. I didn’t give up until we were allowed to shoot for two days in Finland for that.” Many scenes are also shot from the air to compound the sense of scale and movement.
Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle was also a key part of the production team, helping to create the rich visual world of the film. Dod Mantle, whose credits include Slumdog Millionaire and Rush, worked with multiple, sometimes hidden cameras to capture the fast-moving, cosmopolitan world of Our Kind of Traitor.
“An awful lot of this film is moving,” he says. “I had to structure and package my equipment and to minimalise the stuff I use, including the lenses, because we had to move so often so fast, so quickly and in such small spaces.” His kit list included the Alexa XT and Canon C500 (see opposite for full kit).
Post production, acknowledges White, took “quite a long time” – some ten months in all, and also involved a number of pick ups. “Thrillers are very hard to do – you just have to keep it moving and can’t let people question things too long. It was all about finding the right balance between giving depth to the characters and keeping Le Carre’s complex plot moving forward.”
Our Kind of Traitor is released on May 13
Based on the John Le Carre book, Our Kind of Traitor is the story of an English couple who befriend a charismatic Russian, who unknown to them is a key money launderer for the Russian mafia. When he asks for their help to deliver classified information to the British Secret Services, they get caught in a dangerous world of international espionage and dirty politics.
Director Susanna White Script Hossein Amini Producers Gail Egan, Stephen Cornwell and Simon Cornwell Co-producer Jane Frazer Production designer Sarah Greenwood DoP Anthony Dod Mantle Cameras and lenses Alexa XT with Leica Summichrom C lenses; Canon C500 with Leica Summichrom C lenses; and Canon K35 vintage primes; Indiecam 2K with C mount lenses; Phantom Highspeed with Canon K35 mm vintage primes. Editors Tariq Anwar, Lucia Zucchetti Grading Goldcrest Sound Halo Vfx One of Us Cast Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgard, Damian Lewis, Naomie Harris
One of the most striking facts to emerge from the Televisual Salary Survey is the discrepancy between median pay for men and women. This has been a persistent feature of the survey since it began, and shows no sign of improving. In fact, the gap – which stands at £12,500 – is worse than it was last year.
Median earnings are lower for women at most levels in the industry. A female AP at a TV indie can expect £32k, while a male AP is likely to earn £37k. A female producer has a median salary of £40k; for a man it is £46.5k. A female producer director will be on £54.6k, while a man is on £60k; for series producers it is £52.2k and £70k respectively.
Many women believe they are being paid less than their male counterparts. “There is a definite pay gap between males and females in production roles, particularly shooters,” says one female AP. A female editor adds: “I know for a fact they pay me less than my male counterparts.”
She is likely to be right. Our figures show that a female offline editor typically earns a media salary of £32.5k, while her male counterpart takes home £55k.
Tellingly, one of the few jobs where a woman is likely to earn more than a man is higher up the production foodchain, at executive producer level. A female executive producer can expect £95k, while a man earns a median salary of £87k.
If you want to earn good money in broadcasting and production, it helps if you are a man over 40 who works in London in commercials or independent TV. Televisual’s 21st annual Salary Survey reveals – once again – significant disparity in pay depending on gender, geography and genres.
For an industry that prides itself on being liberal and open, it is genuinely shocking to learn that men continue to earn more than women, bringing home a median salary of £50k versus £37.5k respectively (see separate story).
This is the case right across the spectrum, with Salary Survey figures showing that men tend to earn more than women in similar jobs as diverse as assistant producer, editors, production managers, producer directors, producers and series producers.
Workers in London also earn more than their counterparts in the nations and regions. The median pay in London is £47.4k, while in Manchester it is £35.8k and £45k in Bristol and Glasgow. Perhaps less surprisingly, pay increases with experience, with median salaries crossing the £60k mark once people are in their 40s.
On a positive note, the median salary for people working in this industry is £45k, significantly above the national median wage of £27.5k. A majority of respondents also say that their pay has gone up in the past year, with 47% saying their salaries have risen, compared to 38% saying they have stayed the same and 15% reporting a decline.
Many report that the industry is busy, with plenty of shows in production helping to support levels of pay. One drama editor on £55k says: “Not only did I work more weeks last year, but my rate was marginally up too.”
Despite a widespread perception that both budgets and wages are decreasing, one reality TV producer says he was surprised that after ten years in the industry he was ‘finally able to force an increase in my rate.”
That said, such positive feedback to the Salary Survey is few and far between. Most commentary focuses on four concerns; flatlining wages; the salary gap between those at the top and the bottom of the industry; the imbalance between male vs. female pay; and working conditions that mean long hours but no overtime.
The long hours culture of the industry is regularly commented on, with many complaining that this is effectively driving down their real rates of pay. “There is no work life balance and we are all having to work evenings, weekends and Bank Holidays regularly for no extra pay,” say one researcher on £22k who accuses indies of ‘continuing to exploit workers.’
An edit producer who earned £55k last year says: “The level of work expected and the amount of hours put in are definitely not reflected in our wages. You don’t get over time or sick pay. As an experienced producer who’s now worked in TV for over 13 years I think pay has risen very little. You constantly have to fight for your rate.”
An AP on £29k has his own take on the root cause of the overtime culture in TV: “The absolute biggest problem is the phrase “That’s just telly though” being used to excuse every exploitation. There’s a Grapes of Wrath type mentality in the industry that needs to change; the mentality that it’s such a sought after industry to work in and if you don’t do it there’s always someone who will do it for cheaper”.
Many also say there is a kind of stigma attached to asking for what you’re worth – particularly for overtime. Says one freelance editor: “Everyone expects you will sit in the edit until 2am because you ‘love your job.’”
Many complain of the discrepancy in pay between production staff and unionised technical jobs in cameras and sound. A production co-ordinator on £26k says. “Production staff are incredibly underpaid, undervalued and overworked compared to the ‘technical’ jobs in the industry. Many colleagues like myself are jaded and looking to get out of the industry to do something that gives us more money or time to live our lives.”
Many contributors to the survey report that their pay has flatlined in recent years, blaming static or falling programme budgets. “Production managers and executives are using the ‘low budget’ excuse to increase hours and keep pay low,” says one researcher. “Salaries seem to have stayed the same for 10 years for most roles, but the workload has increased with budgets getting smaller but content ambitions getting bigger,” explains a production manager.
In effect, this means a pay cut because of rises in the cost of living, with many contributors pointing out that their wages are down 15-25% in real terms. “My rate has remained static for three years and I have to fight for every contract,” says one series producer on £54k.
Notably, the Salary Survey has plenty of comments from freelancers working in the Bristol TV industry who complain that the market has been ‘all but stagnant for a number of years now’ with the BBC in particular seen to be imposing unofficial rate caps and refusing to negotiate on rates.
Indeed, there is widespread anxiety among Salary Survey participants about what exactly they should charge, in the absence on any commonly agreed standards. Greater transparency on rates is needed, argues an AP. “It feels like they are determined by production managers whispering to each other. There needs to be some sort of routine and authoritative third party clarification of going rates, to take the power out of management’s hands. I wish Bectu were more proactive on this front.”
There is also plenty of commentary about the disparity in pay between those at the top and bottom of the career ladders.
One md (on £100k) of an indie making high volume series for the BBC and ITV acknowledges: “Creatives are being squeezed the most with falling budgets. The only way for us to make things work is to pay management less.” Adds another head of production (on £100k): “There are a lot of people at the top making huge sums and yet the people at the bottom still slog it out on £25-30k for many years. I’d like to see average junior wages rise.” Many argue junior staff are the ones taking the hit for programme budget falls – while those at the top and particularly talent are protected.
Indeed, running throughout much of the commentary is a general exasperation at some people’s treatment at the hands of some companies in production. One edit assistant at a TV indie describes the predicament facing many junior staff well: “I’m in a fortunate position to have been able to turn down jobs for the following reasons: 1. ‘We don’t do lunch. A runner will bring lunch at your desk’. 2. ‘You’re paid until midnight, but we expect you to stay until the work is done, which may be 7am’. 3. Contracts that pay 45 hours, but include an Opt Out of the EU Working Time Directive. 4. Jobs with OK salaries, but on a “Freelance” (0 hours basis), with no guarantee of work.”
How the Salary Survey works
Televisual emailed readers asking them to respond anonymously to our online salary survey. We asked what they were paid in 2015, and details about their age, gender and job. We had 717 responses in all.
The annual figures quoted in the article are based on median earnings. The survey skews towards Televisual’s readership, which tends to reflect more senior levels of the business. Respondents had a median age of 36. 57% were male, and 43% female.
46% worked full time for a single employer, 50% were freelance, 3% part time and 1% unemployed. 49% worked in indie TV production, 18% in post production, 18% at a broadcaster, 5% in corporate, 3% in commercials and 2% in a facility.