Interview: Robert Glenister and Celia de Wolff talk making ITV’s Isolation Stories under lockdown
Ian Winterton | On 10, May 2020Reading time: 12 mins
As the coronavirus lockdown was instigated across the UK, writer-producer Jeff Pope – head of ITV factual drama – decided to create an immediate response to the new normal. The result was four short films under the umbrella title Isolation Stories, which went out last week on ITV (read our review here). As well as being drawn from real life – and the ongoing crisis – the films had to be shot in a way that adhered to lockdown regulations. Social distancing had to be maintained, and the actors in each piece communicated via Zoom or in accordance with social distancing rules. And, what’s more, all locations had to be the homes of the actors involved.
The anthology stars Sheridan Smith – heavily pregnant, just prior to the recent birth of her baby – Eddie Marsan, David Threlfall, Angela Griffin and Darren Boyd. In the second episode, Ron & Russell, Robert Glenister (Hustle, Spooks) plays a father, already suffering from early stage dementia, struck down by the virus and locked down with his ex-convict son, played by his real-life son, Tom.
Locked down with the two actors is Celia de Wolff, the well-known radio drama director/producer and Tom’s mother and Robert’s wife, whose many credits include BBC Radio 4’s War & Peace starring John Hurt, the Harry Potter audiobooks read by Stephen Fry and, most recently, fantastic drama-musical Return to Vegas. For Isolation Stories, through, she found herself learning new skills when roped in to be the episode’s camera operator.
We spoke to them both – via video call – about creating TV drama in this strange new reality.
It seems like the project was written with you and Tom in mind. How did it come about?
Robert Glenister: It wasn’t, actually. Jeff had the idea for the films and commissioned the scripts, and wrote our one himself. I’ve worked with him before and he put the feelers out for a father and a grown-up son – hopefully both of whom could act – and also lived in the same place. He put feelers out through, I think, Amy Hubbard and Amy Jackson, who were casting the whole series and it came our way. Jeff phoned on the Friday night, we got the scripts on Saturday, we spent Sunday and Monday learning, we had a rehearsal day on Tuesday and started shooting on Wednesday and finished on the Saturday.
It all sounds very straightforward – but the logistics under lockdown conditions must have been challenging.
RG: Oh, definitely. But it helped that we had the best camera operator in the business.
Celia de Wolff: It was hard work but I did really enjoy it.
RG: [Laughs] And you were a natural. We started calling her Celia B. De Mille!
How did they get the cameras to you?
RG: On the Sunday they left all the equipment outside on the street and it was all sterilised beforehand, so I just went out and got it, picked it up. It was everything – cameras, tripods, lights, props. Not costume because we were wearing our own.
And you had to be your own art department too – advised remotely?
RG: Yes. But, for instance, we had to change the curtains in our bedroom because they were just wrong for the characters so I had to get on a step ladder with a load of crocodile clips to pin the prop curtains up.
Did you take lots of things down off walls?
RG: Loads. It was like living in a slum for the week.
CdW: Our house was a complete-
RG: Shit tip.
CdW: Indeed. So I dressed the set, so to speak. I found a book on card trucks behind the bed Rob was in and I thought that might be the sort of thing his character might have. And I found an old football trophy and put it on the bedside cabinet.
Did the props box include all of Ron’s stockpiled food? I take it you didn’t already have dozens of cans of Spam in your house?
RG: No. That all arrived in a big box, too, and when we finished on the Saturday the props guy came and took everything and took it to local food banks.
Although it was just the two of you and Tom insde the house, in accordance with lockdown rules, you had the full array of crew working on the piece, only remotely?
RG: Well, there’s no way we could have done it without them. We head the various HoDs (Heads of Department) on Zoom, giving advice, instructions.
CdW: We had a DoP [Director of Photography] and a focus puller who were remotely putting me in position and making sure the camera was in the right place and focusing on the right things.
RG: But you were doing all the tilting and actual camera operating weren’t you.
CdW: Yes. And when it came to handheld, it was on a gimble, which was really hard to control, especially because Rob’s character has coronavirus so he was coughing and I had to sit on the bed and be as still as I could. He was coughing his guts up, which was a little distressful. But as well as all the expertise avialable via Zoom, we had two vans parked outside.
RG: The sound supervisor and all his gear outside. And the DTI guy, who was doing all the technical wizardry.
CdW: We had three cameras so when the battery would run down we’d take the camera to them and they’d recharge it and we’d take another one up that they’d disinfected. They adhered very strictly to the rules – didn’t come anywhere near us.
RG: They didn’t accept a cup of tea, wouldn’t accept anything.
From what I understand, the project took the lockdown rules very seriously.
RG: Oh, absolutely, for a number of reasons. Obviously, there was the legal aspect, in that if they broke the social distancing rules or whatever, the project’s insurance might be invalid if they got ill or anything bad happened. And also, if it got into the media or something like that, that people were breaking the isolation rules, then it would reflect very badly on the whole project. It wasn’t jut about getting these four films made, but about the industry as a whole – can we safely make drama under lockdown?
Have you read about Neighbours in Australia making plans to shoot new episodes but adhering to social distancing rules?
RG: It will be interesting to see if it can be done safely. But over here, too, they must be worried – they’re running out of episodes on the soaps, the continuing dramas. Certainly the three biggies – Corrie, Eastenders and Emmerdale. Are these shows going to be able to continue?
Over on BBC Radio 4, The Archers has run out of episodes…
CdW: They’re recording that remotely now so don’t panic!
And you’re as busy as ever with your radio drama work, aren’t you? In a way, is audio drama built for these times?
CdW: It’s definitely less of a challenge than making TV or film, but it’s still tricky. At the moment I’m putting together an eight-hour adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, and I’ll be recording my actors remotely. I’ve got them all over, some in London, some over in Los Angeles, and Emma Mackey [star of Netflix’s Sex Education] in France. How we’ll piece it all together and sound like drama I don’t know. It’s a good job I like a challenge.
Indeed. Aside from having to get to grips with the technology, some of the scenes between Robert and Tom are emotionally very hard-hitting. What was it like being in the room, seeing your husband and son acting their socks off I such a moving way?
CdW: I had to distance myself from the fact that they were my son and husband, and I was more concentrating on the fact I was holding the camera straight. I felt slightly, not disassociated as such, but I just had my job to do. But when I watched it as a member of the audience I found it incredibly powerful. And also, because my step-father’s going through the early stages of dementia there are all sorts of resonances and also that whole thing with the son, you know, trying to work out what he was going to do.
What was the most challenging sequence to shoot?
CdW: The bathroom scene.
RG: Yes, that was tough. Aside from the emotional aspect to it, and the fact I was exposed, half-naked and sweaty, it was the technical stuff that was difficult. Like trying to get the sound right and turn the shower on, which made dialogue impossible. It was very challenging.
CdW: In the end we didn’t turn the shower on at all – just shot the dialogue in the bathroom as Russell was getting his father ready for the shower.
RG: It wouldn’t have been a problem in normal circumstances but things like you just can’t do because we had very basic equipment.
You look convincingly ill and sweaty in some scenes – were you smeared in oil or something?
RG: It was a water spray for the hair and the T-shirt but, for my face, they’ve got this non-alcohol, custom-made, alcohol-free artificial sweat. It’s literally in a bottle and you spray it on your face and you look clammy and sweaty. The old alcohol stuff we used to use could get quite unpleasant but they use this stuff now if thy ever need a sweaty actor.
The four films are, I think, a brilliant and honest reflection of what we as a nation are going through.
RG: It’s that sort of thing with this crisis, people are just thrown together whether they like it or not. There must be many many families or whatever all around the country who don’t get on and now they’re locked down, they just have to get on with it.
CdW: And that can, you hope, bring about a necessary reconciliation, as it does in our film between father and son.
As terrible as the crisis is, you’d like to hope there might be some upside – not just in terms of the planet’s environment, but in how it’s reshaping our society.
CdW: Within families I think what’s interesting, and that’s part of the story in our film, is that as adults we’d normally be setting out the parameters of what is right and wrong. But, if you’re in the situation as we are where your 23-year old son is locked down in the house with you, he has very fixed and firm feelings about what is right and wrong, and the fact we shouldn’t be going out. If I was to go and carry a cup of coffee, say, from one side of the street to the other, he only barely thinks that’s OK. He feels very strongly. It’s interesting that the youth are sort of more tolerant than the adults, in a funny sort of way.
RG: It’s interesting because, certainly in London, people tend to walk around looking at their feet and don’t make eye contact. And now, standing in queues in the supermarket or whatever, strangers are starting to talk to one another. They’re being accommodating and kind in a way I don’t think they generally were before the lockdown. Myself, like most people, I think I’ve just lived in a sort of little bubble.
It’s a grimly fascinating time we’re living through and these four films capture that perfectly. Some in the media have grumbled, though, that the tone is too depressing, and that what we need now is upbeat escapism.
RG: The intention wasn’t to make four happy films to make people feel better – it was to reflect what’s going on. I think the fact it was made during the crisis as opposed to afterwards makes it very immediate and very instant.
CdW: I think it’s a historical documentation because it’s being recorded as you’re doing it, so you’re within the history that you’re responding to. If you did it on reflection, it would lose its power. A film about the coronavirus crisis made in a year, a decade, 25 years will be informed by hindsight. But, here and now, in the midst of this global crisis, we don’t know how it all pans out.
It reminds me of Casablanca, made before America had even joined the Allies to fight Germany. But, I’d say, your film isn’t grim – like the other three episodes, it’s very real and human and life-affirming. The scenes of the street clapping for the NHS, are wonderful – there’s a lovely, documentary feel. That is your actual street, I take it?
CdW: That’s absolutely our street, yes. And also, we have clapped every night, not just on Thursdays, since lockdown so that was a very real thing. But Thursday is the big one so we did actually record it on a Thursday and at the time, at 8pm.
How did you, as camera operator, come to be in the shot clapping?
RG: We tricked her.
CdW: I was tricked into appearing. I shot the footage of Tom leaning out of the upstairs window clapping. I’d set a camera in position and they tricked me by asking me to stand in shot to be a sightline and they filmed me and so I was given my Hitchcock moment.
Isolation Stories is available to watch on ITV Hub until 7th June 2020.