Soap vs COVID


By Meilyr Rhys

In our last term as undergraduates, film and theatre students are required to find placements as part of a course exploring aspects of Film/TV/ theatre industry practice. You can either do this or write a 6,000-word scholarly essay. Naturally, I decided on the first option.

Being a Welsh-speaker (and in possession of a Seat Ibiza), I thought I’d apply for productions based in Cardiff, seeing as you can always rely on a fellow Celt to help you out in your time of need. I also didn’t want to do my work experience from home like some other students. My thinking was that if I’m going to be working from the desk in my bedroom, it might as well be on the 6,000-word essay.

Photo by Warren Orchard courtesy of IMDb

Eventually, I managed to get in contact with a producer at BBC Wales, who kindly offered me two days shadowing runners for Pobol y Cwm (1974-) at their studios in Roath Locke. Even though this wasn’t nearly enough hours I accepted the offer, thinking it would look respectable on my CV and be a good place to make contacts.

The English translation for the Welsh soap on IMDb is People of the Valley (although I prefer The Village People). Each episode follows the residents of Cwmderi, a fictional village situated in Carmarthenshire as they try to overcome family conflicts and neighbourhood rivalries.

I got to the studios at ten o’clock, as planned, to meet one of the runners at reception. There, I had to sign an agreement disavowing the studio of any responsibility for me possibly catching Covid-19. I was introduced to the Pobol y Cwm crew at studio five and stationed in an area where I had a full view of the shoot while not being in danger of breaking social distancing.

Lois Meleri-Jones in Pobol y Cwm (1974)| Courtesy of IMDb

The crew is of course now much smaller, with Covid marshals as the only new addition. Every morning, before crews start shooting, marshals have a zoom briefing outlining the day’s work, discussing possible difficulties and how they will be resolved, and keeping up to date with coronavirus guidelines. In the studios, marshals have meticulously placed different coloured tapes to signify where crew members stand during rehearsals, as well as directions for entering or exiting the studio. A marshal must also be on set at all times, making sure social distancing rules are consistently followed. It’s no wonder that there have been no outbreaks during the production of Pobol y Cwm, while other soaps have had to ‘pause’ filming due to positive cases.

Before the actors arrive on set, the props have been put in place and disinfected. As the actors enter, so do the director and script supervisor, who rehearse (while wearing masks) and figure out blocking. For this, they also need the presence of a Covid marshal to ensure that the camera and the actors are two metres apart throughout the whole scene. They then must leave the set. Technicians, gaffers, and carpenters are called to help with lighting and the set if needed. Calls to start shooting then ring out through the studio for the sound department to then enter the set.

Courtesy of IMDb

When they finish, the actors leave, and the whole process begins again. The first assistant director is the only one who is on set at all times. They are the one who calls different departments to leave/join the set, delivers the messages of the director to the cast and crew, keeps the crew on schedule. Now more than ever, the role proves itself to be one cornerstone that keeps TV crews from collapsing. In front of the camera, it’s interesting to see which shows have included the pandemic in their storyline and which have not. Pobol y Cwm is one of the latter, the reason being that the show is supposed to take place in real-time. So, in between recording and broadcast, the writers have no way of predicting the changing effect of the coronavirus.

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However, when watching Pobol y Cwm, one can’t help but notice the actors keeping two metres from each other and the conspicuous lack of extras – including the pandemic into the storyline would provide an explanation for this. In embracing (what they can of) the pandemic, Emmerdale farm residents have admirably been reminding their viewers about handwashing, as well as including a heart-warming scene where a character receives a Covid vaccine.

Featured: Warren Orchard, IMDb

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