EXCLUSIVE: The Pursuit Of Love, an adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s classic novel, was one of the first high-end TV projects to resume production in the UK after the initial COVID-19 lockdown ended this past summer. Produced by Moonage Pictures and Open Book for BBC One and Amazon, the Lily James-starrer had any number of hurdles to jump through in order to get back up and running, including deciphering early sanitary protocols, location shifts and hanging onto in-demand talent. Also among the cast are Andrew Scott, Emily Beecham, Dominic West and Dolly Wells.
Written and directed by Emily Mortimer, The Pursuit Of Love postponed an original spring shoot when the virus kiboshed plans. Ultimately, the three-part mini got back on track in July, and wrapped in mid-October, just before the latest lockdown. “We seem to have been very fortunate and managed to fall in the gap,” Moonage co-founder and The Pursuit Of Love executive producer Frith Tiplady recently told Deadline. In the Q&A below, Tiplady discusses the experience of being one of the initial UK shoots out of the gate — including “moral and safety pledges” from the cast and crew, as well as lessons learned.
The Pursuit Of Love is based on the first book in a trilogy about an upper-class English family between the two World Wars. The romantic comedy/drama deals with issues of growing up and falling in love among the privileged and eccentric. The mini will debut on BBC One and Amazon Prime Video in 2021; BBC Studios handles international distribution. Executive producers alongside Tiplady are Charles Collier and Matthew Read.
DEADLINE: What was the status of The Pursuit Of Love before the first UK lockdown?
FRITH TIPLADY: When the lockdown happened, we were three weeks away from filming and were about to go do a reccy in Paris. As a production, we were in really good shape and we’d been really lucky because we’d got this really amazing cast together.
DEADLINE: So, you’re ready to go, then lockdown comes — and you need to hang onto talent — and then things open up again. What was the process of getting ready to shoot in July?
TIPLADY: It became obvious with this show in particular that if we didn’t go, the show probably wouldn’t happen. Lily is in great demand, Andrew Scott’s got lots of stuff on. We had to look at ourselves and say, “This has got to go.” But we were really lucky we were a 10-week shoot so most people weren’t on for more than a couple weeks.
We’d actually kept on the heads of departments, and Emily used the lockdown as time to talk to them and really storyboard, so we did very lightly carry on working all the way through. We ended up with something like eight weeks prep when we came back. We knew that half of that was soft prep, but we had to re-envisage a few things.
I think a big aspect of our decision making was that we were going to be two weeks in one big stately home and two weeks in another stately home and then two weeks in the studio.
DEADLINE: Despite the fact that you were suddenly subjected to unforeseen constraints, you were better able to manage because of that schedule?
TIPLADY: Considering COVID, we were actually quite a self-contained unit. I think if we’d been doing a contemporary drama in London, we wouldn’t have been able to do it.
There were probably about five days to be shot outside in the Bristol/Bath area and we were going to have five days around the UK coming from London, so we decided we weren’t going to travel and we would concentrate on being in the Bath area. Once we had that decision, we had to find some new locations.
DEADLINE: And you were due to shoot in Paris, did those plans require tweaking?
TIPLADY: We did end up going to Paris, but there’s bits in Paris that we did in Bristol. We found a very big factory that with some clever CGI will become the Gare du Nord. Basically the team got very inventive very quickly.
DEADLINE: Was there anything editorially that needed to change because of safety concerns?
TIPLADY: We were very, very conscious when we went forward that the show needed to be the show that Emily wanted to make from the outset. So, people are going to do stunts, we have some ball scenes and dance sequences. All of that needed to happen.
We pushed it to the latter end of our schedule to make sure the show could shoot under COVID, but then all those people needed to be tested and we got a group of about 40 extras and we used them for various different scenes rather than going for brand new people all the time. We approached things where everyone became part of the shoot team.
DEADLINE: And how did you handle scenes of intimacy?
TIPLADY: The scenes aren’t that intimate, it’s things like dancing. Everybody wore PPE until the point that they were on camera.
DEADLINE: What were the testing and other protocols? It was early days when you had to implement all of this…
TIPLADY: Looking back, it’s all this stuff that is now in everybody’s understanding. But we, with BBC and Amazon, had to go make due. We were definitely at that point where nobody quite understood. It was a bit of a leap in terms of what it could be.
We had a lab on site with three people working very hard inside it. We created a filming bubble with the team around camera of about 25 people who got tested twice a week and then the rest of the crew got tested once a week.
We never had anyone test positive, but we had what is now called a false positive which at the time nobody quite knew what it was. It meant we could find that out within two hours, and knew within four hours it was totally fine. So it was really really great and I think now with all the pressures, that might have been a luxury that we had that I don’t know we would do again because obviously testing and turnaround time is changing all the time.
For us, the big questions were: Are you actually removing cast and crew from their sort of lives and asking people not to interact with their home lives for 10 weeks? How does a testing regime fit into this? So, the next step was protecting people and minimizing risk. What are the risks? What do we do if something happens?
If you’d gone on our set you would have seen the crew with armbands indicating if they were the standby filming bubble or on-set and that would tell you whether they could be on set when an actor was on set, whether they could be on set with or without PPE — but nearly everyone did wear PPE.
Our health and safety person was talking to people on other sets as well, so I think everybody was learning all the time.
DEADLINE: And what about insurance?
TIPLADY: We had cast insurance in place because our insurance had been taken out before the pandemic. The bit that was uninsured was the indecision of finding out if an actor had it or not. So that was why we made the decision to go to the lab, so we could have a good quick turnaround.
We couldn’t afford to wait for two days to discover they were negative because we as producers would have to cover those two days. So that’s why it felt important to get this quick turnaround. Weirdly, you’d be covered if they were ill and then you wouldn’t be covered if they weren’t ill.
DEADLINE: Were there waivers for cast and crew?
TIPLADY: Part of our protocol was unusual because we got the cast and crew to sign up to what we called a “moral and safety pledge.” We gave bullet points, if you like, it was our version of lockdown: If you are going to take on this job, this is how you expect it to be. It broadly mirrored the UK rules that were in place in May — it meant that people couldn’t go to big parties and so on, or on public transport. We tailored it so they were workable and I think it was good to give clear instruction of what needed to be done.
The biggest challenge of this time was sort of mythbusting. Everybody was reading protocols from all around the world and different people’s opinions and the mythbusting was very important so as to be clear about “This is what this show is doing, this is why this show is doing it.”
The other thing key for us is we had our health and safety advisor on set all the time and that really was invaluable to us as well.
DEADLINE: Those things add up. What kinds of extra costs did you incur?
TIPLADY: Testing itself is expensive. Having a COVID team on the locations — we had about four people. Then you’ve got PPE, but that’s quite minor. The bigger things are all the cast. Nobody is going on public transport and the cost of a car to Bristol can really add up. It’s not just getting to work, it’s then getting to testing and fittings. It’s a very hard thing to project.
DEADLINE: It helps to have big partners like the BBC and Amazon, I would imagine…
TIPLADY: Yes. I think COVID probably put 5% onto our budget, but we were quite a small shoot and we were backed up with Amazon and BBC and BBC Studios hand-in-hand. Maybe the fact that they were partners and sharing that risk made it less a hit individually
DEADLINE: How was it shooting on location in the UK?
TIPLADY: The West Country had very low infection rates and we were going to period houses that would have no interaction with the public and that we could really make secure. It did work really well.
The first two weeks were in a house in Oxford and we put all of the crew up in a hotel so nobody was going home. Being in the stately homes really allowed us the space to spread out and then make sure people felt really safe and secure.
Everyone was so excited to be back at work and really wanting it to work, but you turned up on set and it just looked like a sort of beer festival. There were tents and tents with different areas for people to eat and PPE tents and so on.
DEADLINE: And what about outdoor scenes?
TIPLADY: When we did the latter part of our schedule, we ended up in central Bath and central Bristol and that was more challenging because the public were quite nervous to suddenly see a group and suddenly a hundred people on the streets together.
Because we have a very rigorous testing regime we could do that, but I think for the general public it was quite a shock not having seen groups of people in such a long time.
DEADLINE: How is post-production being handled?
TIPLADY: Emily is in New York and the editors are in the UK. We have a remote system that allows them to essentially be side-by-side and working together.
DEADLINE: Is there anything you learned during this experience that stands out? Any protocols you might continue to use, virus or not?
TIPLADY: On a personal note, it’s just been amazing working with great production people. You know, our jobs are to look forward and to anticipate, and it sort of stops everyone in their tracks when you can’t anticipate. The broadcasters were really good and I think the network of support in the UK production community has been fantastic, everyone sharing approaches and successes or not successes. I hope that will continue.
Making more health and safety, just acknowledging that, I think we might firm up what we do. We’re all going to have cleaner hands, that’s for sure.