Behind the scenes of creating a TV show in a pandemic

For the past year, Burnley based Jonathan Robinson, TV producer/director and Bellyflop managing director has been creating a brand-new TV show in neighbouring Yorkshire.

The show was commissioned by Discovery but soon after filming commenced the pandemic hit. The usual challenges of filming a brand new show were hugely exacerbated by having to deal with the complications of coronavirus.

The Yorkshire Auction House follows antique expert Angus Ashworth as he helps people realise their dreams, move on from tragedy or maximise their inheritance by selling items they believe are of value. Viewers see contributors at the auction parting with all manner of sentimental and interesting items all going to the highest bidder, some with jaw-dropping results. 

Talking about the project Jonathan said, “As with any new TV programme format the look, style and feel evolve as it is filmed. Commissioners state their requirements but filming constraints, (in this case a global pandemic), usually mean a change is necessary.

Working with an expert casting team is crucial. Finding the right people to be on camera is quite a challenge, especially when creating a new format. In this case, the target demographic for the channel needed to be factored in. I also had an excellent shooting team assisting me comprising of a shooting researcher and a general assistant.

In total, the programme needed 24 stories. We filmed the first in Filey and started to film the second near Solihull and then the pandemic hit.

Coronavirus had been in the news since the start of the year, and as February progressed we got nervous about how significant this virus would be, and what impact it would have on our lives. 

What followed was probably one of the most unusual filming situations I’ve ever encountered in television. We had filmed a house clearance with a lovely couple in Solihull who had decided to part with an amazing collection of football and Beatles memorabilia collected across 40 years.

We filmed The entire contents of their attic being removed, loaded into a van and taken to the auction house and then that was it. The lockdown announcement was made and filming had to stop so the story paused right there. That was in the second week of March 2020 and there was no certainty of what would happen next.

Four months later restrictions eased and we were able to resume filming. Covid safe training commenced and a whole new set of protocols were introduced including masks and temperature checks to name just two. Back at the auction house though we had an unfinished story. We needed to see the items being unloaded from the van so we re-loaded the van with all of the memorabilia that had been in a secure store only to film it being unloaded. 

That all seems fine but one staff member over lockdown went from being clean-shaven to having a magnificent grey beard which he had become very fond of. So, the problem we were faced with was our staff member loading the van in Solihull with no beard and arriving at the auction house with one. A challenge to say the least in terms of story continuity. I look forward to seeing how the editors handled that.

The focal point of the programme was the auction itself but, there were two problems. Although the auction house could still open we didn’t want to have a room full of people with face masks on, this would immediately date the programme and may limit its longevity potential for broadcast tv. So we turned the auction house into a closed TV set so everyone that was there had to be invited. The public was no longer able to just turn up, browse and bid.

Social distancing measures were implemented and adhered to and we used clever camera angles so viewers are not so aware of the distance between contributors. These direction styles have been used a lot recently in soap operas so actors are not stood close as they may appear.

Coronavirus also added unpredictability and the chance of contributors not being able to be filmed if they needed to self isolate. We often postponed filming and rearranged it at short notice.

At the auction house, a producer would liaise with everyone to make sure we all knew who was filming when and how we could piece together the stories to complete the show whilst trying to hide the fact that we were in a pandemic.

The filming was scheduled to complete by July but we were still filming in early February, it goes down as one of the longest-running shows I’ve worked on from start to finish as a single series.

I’m delighted with the result after all the effort we all went to. I am keeping everything crossed that the audience likes it and a second series is commissioned soon.”

With over 25 years of experience working in broadcast TV, Jonathan has focussed his work around entertainment and reality TV. Programmes you may have heard of include I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here, Four In A Bed, Dog Rescuers (which resulted in him adopting a dog), Homes Under The Hammer and Celebrity Love Island. 

Jonathan’s passion for film resulted in him setting up his own corporate video production company, Bellyflop in 2008. They use the same tools and techniques to create high-quality films for their clients. The company’s mission to make video affordable, achievable and accessible for all businesses regardless of how big or small they are. Bellyflop Operations Director, Mark Robinson said, "Professional video production and high-quality video marketing campaigns don't always have to be expensive and we are proud to support smaller businesses in getting off the starting blocks with their video marketing."

The Yorkshire Auction House started on Discovery Channel, Really on Monday, the 22nd of March at 21:00 (Freeview channel 17, Freesat 160, Sky 142, Virgin Media 128). It is also available on Discovery Plus.