So far in 2020, the entertainment industry has been defined by the things it can’t do. Film crews can’t easily film new shows, to state the most blindingly obvious, as we all continue to social distance.
The virus has left the film and TV worlds paralysed, its pipeline badly ruptured as post-production houses work at a distance to finish sound mixes and edits for the lucky shows that wrapped before lockdown. Others that were mid-filming were temporarily abandoned, and then, at least in terms of traditional film and TV studios, the lights went out.
That isn’t to say filming stopped entirely. Some writers immediately responded to the virus, and a handful of digital dramas appeared online, including She Left Home For A While, a drama starring David Bradley, and the Unprecedented series starring Gemma Arterton.
But these are the few ambitious exceptions that were shot with difficulty from isolation, relying entirely on video conferencing technology when most writers and directors have naturally taken time away from producing new work.
But as the culture of distancing gradually erodes and opportunities to meet one another rise now that the virus is on the decline, and some filming tentatively begins again, such as Emmerdale and Coronation Street, it’s appropriate to begin wondering how the virus will be represented in drama and comedy more broadly.
What will Covid-19 look like on our screens, if indeed representation is even something we want as we slowly overcome the virus? Aren’t we all exhausted by it?
TV producers and writers HuffPost UK spoke to share the belief that representation of the virus in drama will need to be subtle to avoid the risk of audiences getting fatigued with excessive coronavirus content - especially when taking into account the relentlessness of the news cycle around the pandemic.
“In-your-face content will not work”
“Being the first time that most of us have lived through a worldwide pandemic, I do think that audiences are definitely interested,” reflects Mercy Murugi, TV producer of Togetherness Supreme, winner of Best International Feature Film at the African Movie Academy Awards.
But she warns: “We have to remember that the virus is the content the whole world has been consuming for several months now: in-your-face content will not work.”
The exception to this rule may be soap operas. Their dramatic purpose is to reflect real life, so unlike new stand-alone dramas they are far likely to convey the day-to-day realities of the crisis, as Emmerdale has done with its six Lockdown Episodes now it has recommenced filming. That said, soap experts including Inside Soap’s Editor Steven Murphy agree that nuance is essential.
“I think it should be there, but in the background, not really as a driver of the drama,” he suggests. “It’s good to put characters under new and different kinds of pressure, so I think the changes we’ve all had to make to our lives can help to add to the drama – I’m sure the writers will find a way to use it to enhance stories rather than stifle them.”
“It has been suggested we’ll get a wave of escapist drama – adventures in space”
New dramas and comedies are likely to avoid the virus altogether, to help lift audiences away from reality and offer an escape.
“I suspect people will be happy to move forward and try to forget about it for a while – especially in what they’re watching on TV,” reckons Alexia Skinitis, Radio Times Drama Commissioning Editor.
“It has been suggested we’ll get a wave of escapist drama – adventures in space with solo performances or small casts with lots of special effects – as well as the complete opposite, beautifully written, stripped-back dramas. Either way, it’s unlikely these will have Covid as their focus.”
But strict sanctions around best filming practice due to social distancing may mean the virus is still felt, even if the subject matter has nothing to do with it, suggests Mercy Murugi. “Everything about a film or TV set is against what a world with Covid19 looks like,” she posits.
Forthcoming dramas can expect to include less crowd shots and urban scenes in general, due to limitations on filming - which in turn must affect storytelling. “There is going to be more films and TV shows that have very few cast, skeleton crew, and probably a lot of post-production-heavy content with very little location or studio-set filming,” she suspects.
“We are not seeing a 50 Shades of Grey anytime soon”
“Think Tom Hanks Castaway. So maybe stories about claustrophobia, mental health... such storylines will increase while we will see fewer scenes with intimacy and physical contact. We are not seeing a 50 Shades of Grey anytime soon.”
Easier to film under social distancing are two-handers and human-led stories, perhaps tense, gritty and suspenseful narratives or aspirational romances.
“I’ve seen a couple of really great lockdown thriller ideas. I’m sure there’ll be some great conspiracy dramas and lockdown romances too,” says Ceri Meyrick, a drama producer at the BBC.
The shared common denominator of shows like these is promoting a sense of togetherness in the face of strife. A sense of community, camaraderie and kinship.
Ceri says this style of mid-Covid-19 drama writing will be defined by “lighter touches.”
“Commissioners are talking about wanting “uplifting” drama after all this”
“I can only speak for myself and some commissioners and writers I’ve talked to recently, but I would like to see the positive parts of the experience – the sense of shared experience, the sense of community and mutual support,” she says. “Commissioners are talking about wanting ‘uplifting’ drama after all this.”
One such drama inspired by the lockdown is called Indefinitely, by the indie production company Blackbox Multimedia. “
We have managed to assemble a fantastic cast and crew who share our desire to make something that reflects on the time rather than exploits it,” says the project’s writer Jackson Gregory.
“It seems far more pertinent to focus in on characters living through the crisis, rather than the crisis itself, as that is where the real drama can be found.”
Telling human-led stories rather than relying on the specifics of the virus isn’t only producing greater drama, it’s also fundamental for writers and producers while we remain amid the virus, with news headlines changing hourly.
At worst case, attempting to recreate the virus in drama could backfire, with shows being out of date before they air due to dramatic changes in lockdown rules around social distancing, or returning to the workplace.
“I anticipate a rise in scripts relating in some way to Covid - but not necessarily in the form of a Chernobyl-like virus-focused drama”
It may be years before we see a show specifically about the virus, not only because of practical challenges but because frankly, who wants to relive it so soon after it’s just happened, asks Celine Cotran, director of Indefinitely.
“I would certainly anticipate a rise in scripts relating in some way to Covid, but not necessarily in the form of a Chernobyl-like virus-focused drama,” she reflects. “Or at least not for another few years, before we see what it will actually leave in its wake.”
While we wait, the industry has the more immediately pressing question of getting back to work to overcome. As studios around the world lie dormant, writers continue to enjoy a period of introspection and calm.
But as the industry increasingly finds ways to get back to work amid the virus, audiences have reason to start speculating about what’s to come.