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Liverpool Covid Lab: Production in a lock-down

Posted 12th May 2020

antibody test in Liverpool

On 6th April, our film ‘Liverpool Covid Lab’ aired on The One Show on BBC1. Nothing unusual in that: this is our fifth year as a supplier of films to the BBC1 show.  But production of this film was like no other, as we were by then weeks into COVID-19 lock-down.

As with so many industries, we got hit pretty swiftly when restrictions were imposed in March. Taking a look at the films we were due to shoot in the following weeks, it became clear that none of them could go into production. Several featured elderly contributors – we couldn’t risk exposing them. Others involved gathering together groups of people, then adding our crew to the mix. Those were a no-no. A further set centred around public events, all of which were cancelled. We either had nothing to film, or couldn’t do it safely.

TV, however, rolls on. The One Show studio became like so many others – a pair of distanced presenters, with interviews on a big screen via FaceTime, Skype, or our new favourite, Zoom.  Quality of connection: variable. However, the show is a magazine, and two or three 4-min-30-second films are a crucial part of each episode. Unable to continue with our commissioned slate, there was an appetite for films about the crisis.

Thus on 1st April 2020 I headed over from Leeds to Liverpool to make a film about research on new antibody tests. Normally, I’d have spent the 2-hour journey discussing the film with PD Helen. But BBC ‘distanced shooting’ rules meant we had to travel to location in two separate cars. The motorway was spookily empty, as were the car parks.  Our mission was to film scientists on the front line, to get to the people behind the stories. Our main subject was Dr Emily Adams, a dynamic researcher heading a team at Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. She was testing one of the rapid antibody tests – it looks like a home pregnancy test. These were very much in the news as supposedly providing a way out of the lock-down. We also talked to Prof Tom Solomon, a media friendly bloke who heads Liverpool’s National Institute for Health Research Health Protection Research Unit in Emerging and Zoonotic Infections. They’ve got to get a snappier title.

To make the film more personal, we asked Emily and Tom to make video diaries. When we got there, only Tom had been able to do his, which slightly changed the focus. It soon became clear that health restrictions would make filming tricky. The safety of our staff was my top priority, but I hadn’t anticipated the limitations this would impose. We needed to rent a camera, but our usual Leeds supplier wasn’t able to operate. Helen had to head over to Manchester, to the home of a technician, and pick the disinfected kit up from the end of his drive. She handled it all with gloves, and in theory it was safer for her to be the only one touching it. But I couldn’t leave her to cart the kit with me just watching. I’d brought latex gloves so I could help. They immediately fell apart.

A big surprise was how relaxed about social distancing etc some of the scientists seemed. They’re on one of the front lines of COVID-19, and I guess have to carry on regardless. There’s lots of hand gel, but the labs they work in aren’t designed for 2 metre separation. So they just get on with it. On the other hand labs not working on the corona virus were completely empty, researchers sent home.

The interview with Emily went fine. She’s passionate about her work, and has spent years traveling around the world to places where nasty disease outbreaks pop up. After TB and HIV, the coronavirus must seem quite tame. The antibody test was just entering trials. We were only able to film a non-working dummy version in the open lab. Everything else is in the level-3 containment lab. This has double glazed windows and an air pressure system to keep the virus in. But there’s a communication problem. We had to film from outside, through the window. The PhD students manning the benches work at extraction hoods, backs to us, and unable to hear us. There’s no phone reception inside the lab. We made inadequate hand signals, or held bits of paper with scrawled notes up to the window. Mostly their work was hidden from view. We got shots, but not many.

We’d brought our own packed lunches, for safety. The researchers seemed quite happy getting theirs from the canteen. We were late getting to Tom Solomon, but he had anticipated that everything would be super-slow. He was keen to get his Liverpool football shirt in the back of shot, and his Olympic torch from the 2012 torch relay. But his interview was excellent. Unexpectedly – by us, and by him – he became quite tearful talking about his own parents, and a potential decision to not let them go into hospital and die alone.

After backing up all the media in the car park, I headed back over to Leeds, pausing to leave a hard drive of rushes on the doorstep of editor Noel Curry. Tom had confessed that he won’t bring his lab clothes into his house. So I phoned home and got Barbara to bring my dressing gown down to the utility room so I could slip in the back door, strip off, and put everything directly into the washing machine, before heading for a shower.

Noel and I edited remotely, each at home. In truth, that’s something I already did a lot, and suspect I’ll do a lot more of in the future. When will directors and editors next want to cram themselves into small rooms?  The edit went fine, except we weren’t allowed to use any shots that showed scientists not distancing. Again, we’re used to The One Show reviewing our films remotely, so this was nothing new. Fortunately they agreed a Monday transmission would be best, not the original Friday slot. Tom’s video diary appeared over the weekend, and everything was ready to upload to the BBC on Monday. Bizarrely, this was a coronavirus bonus:  we usually have to deliver on discs to Bristol by post. This felt very 21st Century.

The film went down well, picking up viewers during transmission. Emily and Tom were both happy with the result. It turned out we were lucky; Panorama interviewed Emily a couple of weeks later, and by then all filming in labs at Liverpool was banned.

antibody test in Liverpool

A quick Covid-19 antibody test


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