Blog #5: A Short Break

What happened in Birstall yesterday was an horrific tragedy, and will rightly cast a pall over British politics for weeks to come. Jo Cox was an excellent new MP and committed champion of issues she took to heart. Constituency surgeries, held by MPs in their local area, are the uncynical side of politics, it's as simple as that. It's a million miles from ambition or spinning or electioneering; it's just trying to help people out with their lives.

In light of what happened, we've decided that now isn't the right time to release the next episode of SpadsSpads has always been intended to be a light-hearted, gently mocking look at British politics, but I don't feel like this is the moment for it. Now is the time to be grateful for people who commit to public service and angry with those who seek to destroy that relationship. 

We will still be releasing the final 4 episodes of Spads, after a short break. People who work in politics are just as funny, just as silly, as people who work anywhere. But they're also just as fragile, and, at this point in time, it's more important to reflect on these issues than to satirise them.

Blog #4: Dealing with Criticism

So we've now released the first two episodes of Spads and the reception has been fantastic. People seem to really enjoy the show, and we've had a number of well respected and interesting figures praising it. Which is all great.

But, equally, I have to deal with the fact that not everyone loves it. I had lunch in Parliament with a friend a couple of weeks ago, and he told me that while he had enjoyed the show, it would make a lot of real-life spads angry. I sort of laughed this off and proceeded to promote the show to anyone in the political establishment who seemed interested. The idea that a show, lampooning political staffers, would offend actual political staffers seemed ridiculous to me. After all, I work in a bookshop but would never take offence at Black Books. Nor would I expect doctors to be offended at Green Wing, scientists at The Big Bang Theory or paper salesmen at The Office.

But yesterday, after Tory MP Michael Fabricant tweeted praising the show, a few spads and ex-spads came out to attack it. If people find it unfunny or badly made, my response is generally 'fair enough, I can't question your subjective opinion'. But the comments they made were rather odd to me. 'Stereotypical and demeaning rubbish', one ex-spad said, whilst another said 'SPADS are some of the hardest workers in Westminster. Rude, patronising crap.' Fair enough.

I will say, however, that I find these responses weird. The latter particularly as it seems to think that satirising a profession is 'rude' but publicly telling someone the work they've done is 'crap' is not. But I also find the defensiveness hard to comprehend: are people that self-righteous? Do they take themselves that seriously?

The counter argument would run something like: well, we only objected to the show cos it's unfunny and badly written. I can understand that reaction because it's one I've had plenty of times, to plenty of shows. And some people have responded to that and I've had to shrug it off and realise that I can't please everyone. Others have made more niggling claims, like the assertion that I stole the brainstorming scene from The Thick of It. I haven't watched the coalition series of The Thick of It since it was broadcast, so I can't remember the scene very well although I remember that it culminates, brilliantly, in a children's playground. I can't find a clip of the brainstorming sequence online but I'd be very surprised if the content shared any similarities to our scene in Spads. The only thing I've 'nicked' is the idea of a brainstorming session, which, to be honest, I've not so much stolen as lived through. I've been in ball-tossing blue-sky idea forums and that's where the scene comes from. It's actually something of a trope in comedy series, because it allows characters to throw out lots of ridiculous ideas. There'll be more brainstorming later in Spads, and perhaps I'll be accused of stealing that too.

The endless comparisons with The Thick of It are inevitable but hard to digest. Our budget was probably about the same as a day of make-up for Peter Capaldi. But, more than that, The Thick of It is a classic of British TV. It's accepted as brilliant. It defeats the spirit of new satirists if anything less than that standard is being dismissed.

So, in conclusion, I hope people can lighten up. The show has a lot of affection for spads, but, even if it was persecuting them relentlessly, being a well-paid professional in politics is an enormous position of privilege, and people ought to remember that before they get on too high a horse.

Blog #3: Post and First Festival!

Last Friday, we took Spads to its first film festival, the Unrestricted View Film Festival in leafy Islington, which is a bit like driving your kid to their first day at big school. 

To tell the truth, the show wasn't quite ready, though we were delighted to have the opportunity to show it in competition so soon after completing filming. The episode we showed at UVFF is the fourth episode of the series, but, in terms of edit and sound mix, was the furthest along of the ones we've been working on. So we screened it there and, though we didn't win the Best Web Series award (there were some phenomenally accomplished shows in competition there, showing the strength of the market), it was great to watch it on a big screen surrounded by loads of great people from the Spads team (if there had been an audience award, we would certainly have won!).

Post-production is always a tricky period to navigate for indie productions, because you're trying to maintain enthusiasm without the financial clout to really pay for it! We've got four different editors working on the first five episodes, which has made it quite an effort of coordination. But I'm enormously grateful to all our post team who are still working on the show.

Our post-production workflow, for those interested, goes something like this:

The editor gets the footage and puts together a rough cut of the episode. After a few rounds of feedback on different cuts, we have a locked edit. The locked edit then heads in two directions: firstly, the sound goes to our sound designer, and, secondly, the footage goes to our colour grader to finish. Once the sound mix is locked off and the grade is finished, those two threads join for the final export. Tah dah, we have an episode!

I'm hopeful that we'll have some episodes to show you shortly after this coming Thursday's local and London mayoral elections. We're trying to beat the Internet rush on politics by launching a couple of days after that, but it'll be exciting regardless. Stay tuned to our Twitter and Facebook for all the updates you could dream of!

Blog #2: Annotated BTS Photos

This picture shows me, Nick, in the white t-shirt, along with DoP Courtney (in the middle) and gaffer/B-cam operator Keif, on the left. This was on our first day of shooting, which was Courtney's only day on the show. In this shot, we're reviewing some footage on the C100's fairly small onboard screen. Due to my own incompetence, we had a proper monitor to view the footage on, but, at the start of the shoot, no HDMI cable to connect it to the camera. Hence why we're clustered round like penguins trying to review the footage (which is not a standard penguin activity, I should add).

This picture shows, from left to right, Scott, Sophie and Evie on the shoot for Episode 9. I won't spoil to much of the episode (which won't be out for another few months!) but it's one of only two episodes that takes place entirely outside the office. In this scene, we were shooting at Keif's lovely flat in Covent Garden. Even though Sophie is apparently enjoying a morning cup of coffee, this scene is actually set in the evening and involves a drinking game. Even though we – obviously – didn't use actual vodka, the sheer quantity of water consumed in the various shot takes meant the scene was disrupted by queuing to pee. Still, it'll be nice to see the characters letting their hair down and getting to wear some civilian clothes!

From left to right, Michaela, Holly and David during a break in shooting at the Labour office. For our shoot in the Labour office we were in the offices of the King's College London student media team. They have a beautiful office with lots of glass, fancy Macs and an A+ view out over the thames. One of the challenges we faced, from a set decoration perspective, was cheaply dressing the set so that we hid all the KCLSU branding. We figured that, given it was the Labour office, the word 'union' could be allowed in the frosted glass, but we needed to cover up the rest. Behind Holly you can see a 'Sworn at my John McDonnell' score chart, as well as that iconic photo of the Bullingdon Club. There are several other posters that will be easter eggs for eagle eyed viewers when the series airs. 

This is me, again, on the right, and our primary DoP Ollie, on the left. There was a real, desperate dearth of mugs during the Labour office shoot, so, for the second day, I brought this big metallic bad boy from home. It's too much liquid though; there's a reason why mugs have reached a standardised size. I assume that, at the point this photo was taken, we were prepping for a scene. In fact, pretty much all the BTS photos that were taken come during breaks in shooting. This is because our BTS photographer was none other than Jack, our sound guru. When we had stopped rolling, Jack put down the boom and picked up his camera and shot some beautiful stills. There's a meme going around the internet about finding a guy 'who can do both'. I would say the same about sound people!

Blog #1: Spads in the Can

So, after two long weekends of filming, we now have the vast majority of Spads shot, locked and lying in various hard drives around London. It seems like it would be a good opportunity to review how these past couple of weekends came about.

Given that the majority of the show is split between two offices – the Tory office and the Labour office – we split the shooting into two blocks, with two locations and two sets of actors. So our first weekend of shooting was spent with the Tories and our second with Labour. 

As is always the case when you start a shoot, there was a bit more trial and error to be found in our first weekend. Charles, Evie, Sophie and Scott, the actors on the Tory team, were, thankfully, all very game and patient as we constructed the tone of the show over the first day. We had made some style plans at earlier meetings, but, because this was a super low budget shoot, the opportunity to get a camera into the location hadn't happened. Additionally, other than a table read a week earlier, the cast hadn't had a chance to go through the scripts as a whole.

Our first shoot was smack in the middle of the City, which is deserted at the weekend (practically the only time the area is bearable). This definitely played to our advantage, especially during a scene that will appear in Episode 7 of the show, but which I won't spoil for the time being.  But, equally, that raises issues about catering services and prop acquisition if it hasn't been organised in advance. All things considered, the shoot ran smoothly, especially because, for the first time since I started filmmaking, we ran a two camera set-up which massively expedited the whole process.

The next weekend we were down near Temple, in an office with a spectacular view over the Thames. This was our appointed home of the Labour team. The contrast in the offices is something I'm pleased with visually: the Tory office is somewhat stuffy, cluttered and with lots of individual workplaces; the Labour office is cramped but modern and with the desks built into an L-shaped arc. I think that when these offices are played side-by-side, the juxtaposition will be quite aesthetically effective. That's the hope at least.

The second weekend was, to begin with, somewhat trickier that the preceding one, largely due to access factors with the location. But once we were in and the set was dressed, things began to click into place. Having a location with a spectacular view is a massive boon, though it's not always easy to engineer it into the rhythm of the shoot. When you watch Spads, you'll probably barely notice the fact that we were in a location that most no-budget filmmakers could only dream of, simply because of the proliferation of such imagery in mainstream TV and film, and because it was very rarely natural for us to draw attention to it.

The crew (all of whom had worked on the show the previous weekend) were more comfortable about the process of shooting the show. Obviously, everyone is experienced in their respective roles, but the Spads shoot was fairly atypical in that it was extremely fast shooting for a low-budget narrative project. We shot almost 15-pages per day, which, if you don't realise it, is pretty crazy.

After those two weekends, we've wrapped all the office shooting (and some non-office stuff too) for the show. We're now moving towards post-production, though there's still, as ever, more shooting to be done.