The Yorkshire film and TV workers whose industry ground to a halt in lockdown
Uncertainty took hold when the film and television industry in Yorkshire halted, like many sectors, as the UK went into the lockdown amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Self-employed company owners and freelancers from across the region have faced multiple cancellations, delays, loss of earnings and bleaker professional prospects for the future.
While various government and charity relief efforts have assisted in some people keeping afloat, others who worked for years to get into the industry’s less-glamorous roles found themselves out of a job. Others, where possible, have tried to react as positively and proactively as possible.
Pontefract-based floor runner Charanprite Dhami, 41, did not get into the industry properly until she was about 37.
She said her parents did not approve of her career plans so she secretly saved up to fund her course at Prague Film School, leaving at 30, and has since worked on programmes such as Ackley Bridge and Sally Wainwright’s Last Tango in Halifax.
Miss Dhami has since signed on to Universal Credit and when she spoke to The Yorkshire Post was waiting for her jobs to restart.
“No one really likes to go on it. It’s the last resort,” she said.
“If the worst comes to the worst I will have to get a temping job.”
Brett Chapman is a Sheffield-based independent filmmaker who also makes some money doing corporate work.
He said: “Literally all my [future] work got cancelled in a few days. Overnight, everyone I knew, my peers and my colleagues, we were all out of work.”
The 32-year-old directed the recently-released The Good Book, a short film based around a dystopian future Leeds, but is concerned about the future.
However, he says he is entitled to £10,000 from a relief fund.
“I’ve had a government grant for the business, which is just an absolute lifesaver,” he said.
“Getting that money has meant I don’t have to give up my studio. We’re not having to beg our landlords to let us stay.”
But the situation is not the same for his industry peers.
“People have moved in with their parents, people have just taken a second job, people have sold their equipment to survive,” he said. Speaking about friends, he added: “They’re really nervous about not having a career after this.
“There are people that are retraining, people thinking that it’s time to do something else.”
Despite his own grant, he said: “I’m not sure that we’ve settled on the best system for this.
“There are a lot in desperate need who are falling between the cracks because of what the mechanisms are for who can claim.”
He added: “I have friends who have claimed Universal Credit. They’re in a financially dire situation and the sheer amount of paperwork and effort they’re having to go through to get a temporary refrain on their Council Tax seems so incredibly unfair and difficult.”
For most working in the industry, film and television is not the “super-lucrative” business people might assume, he said.
On the freelance nature of the industry, the creative director of True North, Andrew Sheldon, said: “That’s not been a massive issue [in the past] but this is really brought home how brittle that approach is.”
True North employs 120 to 150 people – around 40 at its Manchester base – and about 60 to 70 per cent are freelance, although many get continual jobs.
Speaking about the pandemic, he added: “The whole thing has got to be seen against the background that the industry is changing very rapidly anyway.”
Revenues are already being pulled from the privately funded terrestrial channels as Netlflix, Apple, Disney and other international giants lap up the demand for streaming content, he said.
Meanwhile, Lauren York, the managing director of the Leeds-based UK Locations filming locations agency, has already rewritten her business plan in response to the industry’s need for more careful working in the future.
Based on a survey sent out to her own clients, Mrs York and her staff – some of whom had to be furloughed – have reassessed how the business will operate once the disease is under control.
They have decided to prioritise three areas – safety and hygiene, leveraging technology and limiting crew numbers.
Mrs York, 39, of Meanwood, Leeds, said: “I felt like after lockdown it would be fine and we would go back to normal. Then I realised there’s going to be a new normal.
“We’ve rewritten our business plan based on Covid and a recession.”
She said: “For us, the main focus now is to get the industry back working as quickly and safely as possible.”
To improve safety and hygiene, the use of personal protective equipment could be a requirement for film shoots once production is back under way, says Mrs York. In terms of technology, she is looking at the potential of “FaceTime recces” – allowing prospective clients to see locations in her portfolio without the need to travel physically.
Speaking about the potential to limit crews, she said that in some cases with film and TV productions, 50 to 80 people could be on set.
“Were all those people needed at the same time? I’m not so sure,” she said.
Staff at UK Locations have also been researching the approaches of producers in Sweden, Norway and Florida, where guidelines for the resumption of filming had been drafted ahead of recent television guidance in Britain.
“For me, it’s important to be as far ahead as possible,” said Mrs York.
Anna Hall, whose Leeds company Candour Productions has just been commissioned to make a programme with Stacey Dooley at Bradford Royal Infirmary, said that for documentary-makers such as herself the key-worker status of journalists had allowed her and staff to continue operating to a degree.
“But that’s the £60m question: When will we be able to go out and shoot properly without it being seen as irresponsible?”
Julian Norton, star of The Yorkshire Vet documentary on Channel 5, said: “We should be filming series 11 currently but we’ve missed two months of filming.
“It brings quite a big problem. April is the lambing and calving season. That’s where you get a lot of interesting emergency farm stuff. Because that is quite seasonal we’re not going to get the chance to get any of those stories again.”
Lucy Meer, 29, runs Strive Films in Hull. One concern is that she has heard insurers – without insurance many productions cannot go ahead – are worried about backing film shoots because of the chance of someone testing positive for Covid-19.
She has heard that for short or indie films, insurers are “probably not going to want to go into production this year” in case of another outbreak.
Mrs Meer said: “The hope is, looking at it optimistically, that there will be such a need for content because of this, people will want to take more on to fill that space and test the waters of what people are interested in.”
The flipside is that commissioners and financiers may be “more risk averse than they were before,” she said.
David Ault, 38, from Ripon, who is involved in the No Sleep Podcast, supplements his tutoring of school pupils with voiceover work.
“As a freelancer, there’s not much of a safety net,” he said.
He stood to lose around £8,000 to £9,000 from reduced tuition earnings between March and May compared to last year.
But he thinks a lot of people in the media industry, where many top up wages from their regular jobs with a second source of income, will be people in the same position.
He said: “Showbusiness is not well-paying unless you’re in the big time really so I would say there are a number of people [in my situation].
“Being a jack of all trades, being someone that does everything, means you don’t have one solid plank to stand on.
“If one of them is taken away in such a massive way it has repercussions.”