They say write what you know, and in Jeff Pope’s case, he knew coronavirus was an unwelcome intruder on his home. The BAFTA-winning producer of Stan & Ollie was laid low by the dastardly disease with his family, and although it was not so serious as to warrant a trip to hospital, it was profound enough to inspire Pope into making a drama about the experience.
His idea was simple: an anthology series of short stories about people coping with COVID-19 while being confined to their homes. The execution was far from simple, however, with the rulebook on writing, casting, filming and post-production ripped to shreds by strict social distancing measures. Oh, and there was the small complicating factor of having to rapidly deliver the series at the heart of lockdown so it didn’t lose any of its topical potency.
Executive producer Tom Dunbar says Isolation Stories has been around a month from idea to execution, which must be some sort of record for a primetime TV drama. “I’ve never worked on a drama like this,” he says, in something of an understatement during our conversation over Zoom, ahead of the series premiering on May 4.
“It came out of Jeff himself and his family — they believe they went through the virus. When Jeff emerged from that, he felt that what would really resonate with people is stories they can relate to about what’s going on now. We thought let’s try and create something that’s relevant to people,” Dunbar reflects.
Pope has built a stellar reputation on creating factual drama, having retold stories on the vanishing of Lord Lucan and British songstress Cilla Black, so he was well placed to dig into the coronavirus crisis. He has written one of the 15-minute episodes, Ron And Russell, which stars Robert Glenister as a coronavirus sufferer receiving care from his reluctant son, played by Robert’s son Tom Glenister. For the remaining three installments, he turned to other British writers.
Gaby Chiappe pens Mel, starring BAFTA-winner Sheridan Smith as a heavily pregnant mistress cut off from her lover, while Eddie Marsan and David Threlfall will lead Neil McKay’s Karen, in which Threlfall plays Marsan’s father-in-law who stops over to entertain his grandchildren through the window. Finally, William Ivory has written Mike And Rochelle, featuring a neurotic Darren Boyd offloading his anxieties about coronavirus onto therapist Angela Griffin over a video call. The episodes are directed by Louise Hooper, Paul Whittington, David Blair and Paul Andrew Williams respectively.
“We wanted to bring authorship to each of the pieces,” says Dunbar. “Together they workshopped the ideas. It was a very intense writing period. They’ve come up with excellent scripts in a short space of time.”
The casting process was equally intense, with the task being to find the right actors, but also the right environments. They had to be in self-isolation with others who could be part of the show, so as not to break any social distancing rules. In Marsan’s case, this involved his two young children being on-camera, while Dunbar says they were “very lucky” to find a dynastic acting family living together in the shape of the Glenisters for Ron And Russell. What’s more, family had to muck in behind the scenes to actually film the mini-dramas.
In the Glenisters’ case, Robert’s wife, radio producer Celia de Wolff, took on the challenge with relish, completing filming sequences that were not easy for a novice. “Celia was straddled across the bed, with her husband in bed and her son trying to lean into the scene to get a top shot. A whole family balancing on one bed,” laughs Dunbar, who was overseeing the shoot remotely. Elsewhere, Sheridan Smith’s partner Jamie Horn played a key role in shooting his pregnant fiancé. They joked that the drama’s credits could all be Horn.
“We really recognize it’s been a big challenge for the cast [and their families] — they’re constantly switched on, there are no breaks. As soon as you have done a shot, somebody has to move the camera, something needs to be dressed, there are costume changes,” Dunbar says.
The majority of filming on the three-to-four-day shoots was done via top-of-the-range Samsung smartphones, which relayed a picture of what was being shot to a remote director over Zoom. The Filmic Pro app was used to tap into the phones’ manual settings, while the actors and their self-isolating crew were given other simple equipment, such as an Osmo Gimbal, which allowed for smooth camera moves. Lapel mics and audio receivers were also used. Ultimately, it was a balance of having the tools to make a high-end drama, but not so much tech that it would “overwhelm” the actors and distract from their performance.
There was a director of photography assigned to each filming unit, as well as remote camera technicians. Other experts were roped in, including makeup artist Janet Horsfield, who worked with Robert Glenister remotely to help him apply the makeup that would make him look sick with COVID-19. “It felt like everyone was in the room as they normally would be, without them actually being there,” Glenister says of the experience.
Dunbar recognizes that the Isolation Stories won’t look as polished as the usual big-budget ITV dramas, but he hopes that audiences will be forgiving. “Our aspiration is to push the technology as hard as we can, but we also hope there will be a recognition that we have given something new a go. It will be a different beast, but so many things are at the moment,” he says.
The four dramas will be aired over consecutive nights on ITV, with a special behind-the-scenes episode airing at 11PM on May 7. Dunbar says it has been full of learnings, which will help ITV Studios get drama productions back up and running again when coronavirus restrictions begin to be lifted. As for Pope, he hopes the series will be a “relevant, funny, poignant and heartrending” document of an extraordinary period for people who have had similar experiences as his family.
Isolation Stories premieres on May 4 at 9PM on ITV. The series is distributed by ITV Studios.