Blast! Films has just celebrated its 20th anniversary. In the cut and thrust world of independent documentary production, it’s an impressive milestone.

The Kentish Town-based indie made its name with distinctive, award winning docs and dramas including Tina Goes Shopping, The Death of Klinghoffer, The Year London Blew Up, Soundproof, Coppers, The Year the Town Hall Shrank as well as Steve McQueen’s feature debut Hunger.

In recent years, Blast has broadened out into popular factual, producing series such as The Tube, The Supervet, 999: What’s Your Emergency and The Route Masters: Running London Roads. It’s also making three series for US broadcasters, including two for Discovery.

As a result, Blast has tripled in size in the last three years, says founder and creative director Edmund Coulthard. This growth looks set to continue in to 2015. The indie has just picked up its first two rig show commissions from C4.

Both are firsts for the technology. Trawlermen takes the rig out on to the high seas, chronicling the aspirations of young crewmen trying their hand out in the high-risk fishing industry. London Night Bus sees a London bus rigged up with 12 cameras and a vision mixer to catch the lively atmosphere of late night transport across the capital. It’s billed as a window onto nighttime London as the capital becomes a 24-hour city. Blast is also making ob doc series The Post Office for BBC2.

And Blast has just hired C4 commissioning editor Nick Hornby as head of programmes, with a brief to “take us to the next stage”, says Coulthard. He’s joined a team that includes md Claire Bosworth, head of factual Alistair Pegg, head of development James O’Reilly and exec producers David Hodgkinson, Nick Cory-Wright and Alex Sutherland.

Asked to describe Blast, Coulthard says the indie is focused on making “high quality, passionate filmmaking that has a purpose to it.” Blast’s films are, he adds, “about something.” He believes this is one of the reasons Blast has grown recently. Television, he thinks, has moved out of the “Wife Swap era” when formats were king.  Now, there’s “quite a strong demand for quality factual,” he adds. “It genuinely feels like a productive time for factual production.”

“You feel the audience are much more interested in authenticity, and docs are having their time in the sun.” This has played into Blast’s hands. Even though the indie has diversified into popular factual, Coulthard insists it hasn’t lost sight of its core values.

Docs like Routemaster, The Tube and 999 are about the state of the nation. “We use the access to hold a mirror up to Britain – who we are, how we’re changing,” says Coulthard, who explains that Routemaster isn’t just about buses but also about issues such as immigration. ‘I’m not interested in television that isn’t about anything,” he says.

Coulthard says the turning point for Blast in terms of growth came when it started to concentrate on producing big series. Coulthard, who had made his name directing docs and dramas (he won Baftas for BBC2 drama Tales from Pleasure Beach and Soundproof), moved out of making shows to help run the development of series.

Production budgets have not gone up for the past 10 years, he notes, which means the only way to survive and thrive as a TV indie is by generating revenue from international sales. And the demand in the international market is for series. “Series can put your company on a different footing,” he says.

That doesn’t mean Blast isn’t interested in single docs. He points out that there have been a spate of “brilliant” single docs on TV – including The Paedophile Hunter, The Murder Trial and Baby P: The Untold Story. Single films are a good platform to nurture talented directors, allowing greater freedom to express themselves than a series where the executive producer is the dominant voice.

Blast, has, however moved away from producing drama such as Soundproof and Hunger. “It’s not something you can do on the side,” says Coulthard, adding that there is only a small pool of writers who broadcasters want to work with and that it is very difficult to compete with specialist drama indies.

That said, he says Blast doesn’t feel challenged by the fact that it is not part of a superindie group. “Broadcasters want quality programming – they don’t mind where it comes from,” he says. Back in 2007 RDF Media Group took a 20% stake in the indie, but Blast bought this back after RDF was sold to European superindie Zodiak Media. It means Blast is one of very few mid-sized true indies remaining after the huge round of indie consolidation.

Coulthard says one of the reasons for its longevity is that Blast moved away from being a production company that pursued only filmmaker interests.  “To survive you need to have a sense of humility about what viewers are interested in,” he concludes.

Born  Swansea 1961
School Bishop Gore Comprehensive, Swansea
Universities BA in English at King’s College, London; MPhil at Jesus College, Oxford
Career Researcher on After Dark and The Media Show
1992/3  Director of The Promised Land for BBC/Discovery
1994  Founded Blast! Films to make doc I’ll Be Your Mirror
2001 Wins Bafta for best new director for BBC drama Tales From Pleasure Beach
2006  Wins Bafta best director for BBC2 thriller Soundproof
2008 Blast produces Steve McQueen’s feature debut Hunger
2010 Blast produces police C4 doc series Coppers
2012 Blast produces The Tube and first series of 999: What’s Your Emergency
2013 The Route Masters nominated for Bafta doc series; The Year the Town Hall Shrank wins Grierson for best doc series
2014 Blast produces two series of The Supervet for C4

Tim Dams

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