This week, BAFTA-nominated Series Producer, Jo Bishop, discusses her career in television.
What made you want to specialise in making Factual Entertainment television and Observational Documentaries?
I started out in radio, making documentaries and social action campaigns for younger audiences on Radio 1. It wasn’t just the subject matter that needed to capture their attention but the approach. When I moved to TV seven years later, my style of programme making seemed to fit across both camps – entertainment and factual.
Amongst many other accolades, you have received two BAFTA nominations. What are the key skills involved when trying to convey a compelling story?
I don’t think I will ever stop learning from others and trying to improve on my storytelling skills, but I think compelling factual storytelling works in the same way as fiction. You need a unique angle or focus, a story that works on a number of levels, emotional drama and an element of surprise with twists and turns as the story unfolds. In observational docs you should be able to able to peel back your characters to enable the audience to make some emotional connection or at the very least have some understanding so they want to find out more.
You’ve recently completed a series for BBC1 called ‘Doctors are Humans Too’ where you delve into doctors’ personal lives. When working on these types of programmes, such as Junior Doctors, how important is it to build personal relationships with the people you are filming?
(Note – I can’t really comment on Doctors Are Human Too yet as it isn’t yet complete. However, I can speak generally about working on the first two series of Junior Doctors – I was series producer for the first series and series editor for the second series. The second series is just about to air in Australia.)
In all programme-making, building trust with your contributors is pretty essential to enable them to relax and be themselves so they’re emotionally open. Doctors by the very nature of the sensitive jobs they do, tend to operate behind a professional barrier to protect us as patients from their own fears and inadequacies. We expect doctors to be perfect and all-knowing. Tearing down those protective barriers and getting to know what it feels like to be them was at times challenging, but ultimately rewarding.
A lot of the series’ you have been working on have centred around some pretty sensitive, emotional and quite guarded environments – for example your series ‘Blood, Sweat and T-shirts’. How were you and your team able to negotiate and attain behind the scenes access?
Again it’s all about winning trust, being open about your intentions and making the proposition attractive to them. In the two series of Blood, Sweat & T-Shirts I was involved in, we wanted to show the hard work that went into the clothes and fast food that here in the West we take for granted. We were true to our word, the local workers that produced the clothes and food we consume were really the stars of the series.
How important do you think it is for Ob Docs and factual entertainment television to be as unbiased and neutral as possible? – Do you ever find this challenging?
I think being a programme-maker is a privilege and maintaining impartiality is part of that. At times it is challenging to get the balance right, which is why it is never left to one individual, it is the shared responsibility of the senior members of production and commissioning. On top of that, at the BBC there is an editorial policy team.
There are some point of views we may all agree on – for example, I filmed child labour in a clothing sweatshop in India. This is against the law in India but it was still important not just to give the factory owner a right of reply but to hopefully get a more fully rounded understanding of the issue.
Constantly challenging our own assumptions is part of what makes the job fascinating. I thought I’d planned the day well – setting up filming with a selection of Indian workers talking about their hardships in the slum of Dharavi – what transpired however was a very different theme – one of hope. Some of the new arrivals had travelled from far worse situations and they were making enough money to send home to their families; for others, they were second generation slum dwellers and this was home.
When overseeing a show taken all the way from pre to post production, what is your favourite stage?
I love being handed a great treatment or idea that gives you butterflies in the pit of your stomach. Then the first few weeks of filming is an exciting time, we are finally underway, carving out our stories in the field and the first rushes start to come in. But it’s the edit for me that’s the most creative time, piecing together the huge jigsaw puzzle of a series. When a show finally clicks together, everyone feels it, you can’t see the joins and it just flows, as though it were the easiest thing in the World.
Most of your credits include programmes made for either the BBC or Channel 4. Do you see a difference in the needs and requirements between the two broadcasters? If so, how do your adapt yourself?
I mainly worked on features for Channel 4 and docs for the BBC, so I can’t really compare the experiences as the slots have different demands. Features tend to TX at 7 and 8pm – with a more distracted audience, whereas at 9pm, or even 10pm, docs are played to a more settled audience. So your storytelling and scriptwriting is different for each.
You originally started your career in Radio, what made you want to move into TV and how did you go about doing it?
I spent seven years working in radio and loved every minute of it both in BBC network and commercial radio. As a programme maker it gives you huge scope to be inventive and diverse. I did everything from journalism to live magazine shows to writing and producing drama and comedy.
Then one day the opportunity came up to spend a year training in TV as part of a BBC training scheme. But it wasn’t straight forward getting an attachment, TV producers were sceptical about the skills a radio producer could bring to their productions. Luckily not every one was closed minded, a brilliant programme maker called David Okuefuna had started up a digital arm of the BBC Arts unit and welcomed me into the fold. His team was a real mixture of talents from editors, to APs and researchers, all keen to learn how to self-shoot and edit their own stories. There was no hierarchy, everyone just pitched in together. We made an arts magazine programme called the “Frame” for a now defunct channel called UK Arena. It had a tiny but loyal audience. I remember a lovely lady from Devon who wrote in regularly telling us all to keep up the good work. It’s still the best time I’ve ever spent in TV.
What encouraged you to make the move from Producer/Director to Series Producer?
I think I will always be a director at heart. My move to series producing came after I had my son for purely practical reasons: The contracts were longer, and you had more control over your own schedule. However I now realise that series producing can be just as creative as directing if you want it to be. I don’t think I will ever stop being hands-on.
In the coming years, how do you think factual entertainment television and observatory documentaries will evolve?
I think that is best answered by the commissioners but it seems to me that factual entertainment will still have a place in the future of television. It’s relatively cheap to produce, high volume and lucrative – if format rights are also sold worldwide. Crucially as a brand it can stand out from the crowd in an increasingly crowded market and help brand a channel.
Observational documentaries have more of a fight on their hands and will have to continually re-invent themselves to get prime-time slots. Recently fixed rigs have helped secure huge audiences for docs on Channel 4 and our imagination will always be captured by great stories and new windows on the World.
Ideally, where would you like to see your career take you in the future?
I would like to have more opportunities to try and push back the boundaries and develop interesting new ways of making television and help bring on new talent from different backgrounds. I’ve been working as a series editor for the past couple of years, so my next step in the near future will probably be Exec Producer but for me it’s the project that will always be the main attraction and not the hat.
Jo Bishop is a freelance Series Producer and ProductionBase member.