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"People Find it Cathartic to Talk About What They've Gone Through"

Opinion and Insight 174 Add to collection
2AM director Dan Dewsbury explains his experiences after spending seven weeks on the Covid-19 front line for BBC documentary 'Hospital'
"People Find it Cathartic to Talk About What They've Gone Through"

2AM documentary director Dan Dewsbury has just spent seven weeks on the front line, filming ‘Hospital – Coronavirus Special’. 

It aired over two nights on BBC Two last week and is an incredibly intense portrayal of life dealing with Covid-19 for the NHS staff and their patients, filmed at London’s Royal Free Hospital from day one of lockdown. Dan tells Nick Crabb about his experience on the front line…


Q> Dan, how did it all come about?

Dan> I had been working on a Louis Theroux project, it was all ready to go, and I was due to fly out to the US then everything was suspended because of the Coronavirus. The very next day I got a call from the BBC Hospital team, they said we have this going on from tomorrow (a Covid Hospital Special) do you fancy doing it?

I was just really curious about what was going on in hospitals and also thought there are not many times in documentary where you get to see something like this and be able to tell what is going on as it’s happening, usually it’s news people and we’d normally come after the fact.

So, I went from something relatively comfortable in as much as knowing what you are going out there to do, to being in an Intensive Care ward within the space of 72 hours! 

It was very discombobulating for the first couple of days, everyone was under pressure, everyone was running around and you’re thinking how am I even going to begin filming this?


Q> So there wasn’t much prep time by the sounds of it?

Dan> Zero.

Hospital has been an ongoing series for the past few years now, which in itself is turned around pretty fast, I worked on the first series. The execs from Hospital spoke to the NHS in early January who suggested The Royal Free, but it took a while to get access, so when it came to the first day of lockdown, that was the first day we were there filming. 

In terms of prep, normally you’d have a producer in the hospital for a couple of months, but we had no access to the hospital other than a couple of top-level meetings until the first day of filming.

On a personal human level it is the most awkward thing in the world, to have a camera, and walk into a room full of intelligent, intellectual people, and go “oh hello you don’t know me and you don’t know this, but we’re allowed to film in here, has anyone got any objections? …If anyone has any objection, I won’t film you” and then you’ve already started rolling, but you have to get over that awkwardness very very fast. And then you’re following people and trying to hang onto the coattails of their stories.


Q> Were there many nurses, doctors or patients that weren’t keen on being filmed?

Dan> The biggest question when you normally get institutional access is “why are you here?”

But with this, the why was just so obvious to everyone. So, because of that implicit knowledge, it allowed us to go into rooms and everyone just got that there was a bigger thing going on here. And they wanted to show the pressures and what was really going on, because they felt that no one was showing what was really happening.


Q> You directed this as part of a team, how did that work?

Dan> We had six, two-person teams overall (a director and producer) working in different areas of the hospital.

Hospital is normally a team of directors, the idea being that you try to intercut things that are going on on the ground like in Intensive Care or A&E, with things that are going on at the top level, and how those things are interacting. 

The oxygen story is a good example, I was with the guy getting the call, my colleague was with the chief operating officer, you intercut that and it feels immediate, you can never go back and pretend to do that stuff, it just doesn’t work like that.

Having good directors all working in different areas (the Royal Free is 11 stories high) you need to pick and choose where you are going to place your directors. I was in Intensive Care, a colleague on the wards, another in A&E, enabling you to follow someone early on, coming into A&E and having permission to film them straight away.

Some directors would be like ‘I have to make this myself’, but you can’t work like that with Hospital, you have to share the stories, you have to be able to tell all the aspects of the story and the only way to do that is having enough directors that are editorially minded to be able to cover it.


Q> Had you worked with the directing team before?

Dan> I did know a couple of my colleagues so that was nice to see a familiar face and have a shared understanding from director to director, but we all became a tight unit after a week, especially with what we were seeing and what we were bonding with. In documentary you always talk about trust, but trust within your team is also important. We’d talk about it a lot, we also had exec producers who we’d bounce ideas around with.

We obviously have to ask the questions, e.g. what is so interesting about Nancy’s story, which was the first Covid laryngitis, although we didn’t know that at the time. In the back of your mind you’re thinking what is the minimum I can film to still make this into a story, if I’m not there how is my colleague going to feed that through and vica-versa, like them saying to me Peter is a really good guy, can you film him leaving in a way that captures some emotion. 

That is really nice that you’re not on your own, you’re all in it, you’re all in danger in some kind of way, but you’re all desperate to collaborate to try and get the best story out of there as you only have a limited amount of time. For instance, Nancy is going to leave today, what can we do to film it in a way that can bring about the most emotion, so you’re thinking about what are the things Nancy has talked about off camera, but with her it was completely unexpected that she was going to deliver a big speech. Whereas with Peter, his daughter talking about him liking mint liqueur, all these things feel so strange when you’re in the middle of a coronavirus crisis, but they all contribute to how you like the person. 

Sean and Sinead the Matrons, we filmed them for two weeks, but all they talked about was how resilient they are, but I told them that the reason I was there was to also show that they were as vulnerable and fallible as everyone else, but they couldn’t give it to me until it happened, then what happened was their colleague doctor (being treated for Covid) took a turn for the worst and had to go into Intensive Care.

We worked really hard to keep that in the program and it took a hell of a lot of compliance; talking to the family of the doctor, it took persuading a Consultant, a psychological test for capacity of consent, all these things went on to get that 60 second clip.


Q> Were you frightened about potentially catching the virus? Did it play on your mind?

Dan> I’d love to say I was really worried, really really scared, frightful and all that kind of stuff but the honest truth is that I was just really interested in what was going on in hospitals and that’s the reason why I went in, and I wanted to be able to tell that story, and I knew we could with that kind of access and a really good team and that’s what I wanted to be a part of. 

Did I ever feel worried? Well about 500 people died in that hospital while we were filming, the only way you could get through it without thinking about it too much was humour, by not thinking about it too deeply, by just being in the moment, like thinking what’s in the next scene, by using that as a distraction.

What was interesting being in the hospital for that length of time was observing how quickly the illness can change, you know we were talking to people who seemed absolutely fine, then we’d look at their scan and see their lungs were covered with 90% Covid, and then two hours later they can’t breathe, three hours later and they are in Intensive Care, and in a lot of cases they passed away, that is so hard as normally with these things you understand that someone is really ill, but someone just being given oxygen just doesn’t seem like that big a deal and that was really hard to get my head around. Having a conversation with someone and the next day they’ve tragically passed away or conversely 48 hours later they are leaving the hospital absolutely fine. And that was the challenge for the audience too; we had to balance anxiety with the truth.

At the very start, even though they were prepared, it was just massively hectic, because the worst thing to happen to any hospital is a change of protocol; all big institutions never handle change very well. But what was amazing was that after three weeks they understood the new normal, the new protocols and everything felt a lot calmer, an Intensive Care ward is actually a very calm place, I felt anxious for the first couple of days, but you can only stay anxious for so long before you have to relax into the situation, and what I’m doing constantly is having conversations with people and distracting myself in some kind of way, and then you are interested in them. I’ve gotta be honest filming with Nancy was fun, she is such a strong person and knows herself.

Sometimes I’ll ask such stupid questions to people, that they lower their shield down, but it’s completely unintentional really, I think if you show you are vulnerable and fallible it’s like they know you’re not going to be asking really difficult questions, so you get a really good conversation


Q> How did you manage your home life? What was normal life like for you between all of this?

Dan> We have a two bedroom flat, so I stayed in one bedroom and my wife (Caroline Paris creative director at Brave) stayed in the other, I’d change clothes before leaving the hospital, never taking my camera kit home, and as soon as I’d get home I’d wash, shower, and we did that for about seven weeks. It didn’t really disrupt things too much other than just being separated and having separate bedrooms. But it was definitely a concern about bringing it home. Luckily Caroline didn’t get it or is A-symptomatic. 

Some days were really difficult days, it was always in the back of your head, what are we going to do, how are we gonna film it, so I wouldn’t talk about it much at home. 

And I didn’t want to scare Caroline either, I didn’t want to create any anxiety at home.


Q> There was quite a backlash against Ross Kemp for the program he made, what were your thoughts about this and the fact you were allowed in, but the patient’s own families weren’t?

Dan> We thought about that loads. I think with the Ross Kemp thing and using a presenter, you are highlighting the fact that you are making TV, whereas when you are making something observational or fly on the wall, even though there is a lot of process going into it you feel a bit more distanced.

And it was interesting watching Twitter (during the broadcast of Hospital) because no one was talking about that too much, whereas with Ross Kemp there was a huge backlash in the newspapers.

We went in as someone trying to portray the stories; you’re going to tell me the stories and I am going to use my skills to try and present that, that’s what we did with Hospital, it’s a change of tone I guess. 

Also, something that happened was that their families would call us to ask how they were doing as we were with them every day. People find it cathartic to talk about what they’ve gone through, and process it and help process it, like Peter talking about that “he’s had a good run” is him thinking about his own death and him thinking about that out loud, things start making a bit more sense, rather than just internalising it, and we saw this often, the people who we liked filming were always those people who find the process of TV or just talking to someone, almost like a psychologist, they’re getting something out of it too.


Q> There must have been many difficult conversations? 

Dan> One of the things I spoke to the Clinicians about was the oxygen crisis before it went out to TV, as they were pretty close, about 24 hours away from a critical incident, where the oxygen supply could stop working and risk the lives of everyone on oxygen, so we obviously have to portray that and show it in some kind of way. We had this amazing shot of the frozen oxygen covering everything, a bit Stars In Your Eyes, a bit oh my God the end of the earth is gonna happen, it looked like we’d used a smoke machine, and we wanted to use it, to make you want to watch episode two, and we asked if they were ok with that, and they were laughing about it, so what I mean is when you are honest with people they get it, and that could have been a very anxious moment showing it to the Trust, so you’ve gotta have that difficult talk first.

You have to start the conversation very early rather than hiding away from it, you have to have that ‘conversation of doom’, you talk to a patient about the fact that they could pass away and how would their family feel about that, and that we want to talk to their family about this, as it’s really important to show, but fundamentally we won’t show it if you don’t want to do it.


Q> Was the intention to show more people surviving? To give it a balance and some hope? 

Dan> Our stories were our stories, we had no idea how it would turn out and it could easily have been a program about everyone passing away, and I can’t emphasise enough how close so many were to this happening. So there’s a truthfulness to it, ultimately if you get Covid, you’ve got a good chance of surviving, but the trouble is if you need intensive care, you’ve then just got a 50% chance of surviving, and that’s what we tried to show. 

I am always keen to show hope and I think Nancy really exemplifies that, and Hussein and Peter. The editors also felt that was the right thing to do, because even though it’s anxiety inducing watching the program, you want to know that things are alright, that Clinicians are doing the best job they can, and they are pretty good at that job, it’s just the instruments they are using are quite basic, at least at the moment until it becomes more medicalised


Q> What’s been the reaction from the hospital? 

Dan> It’s been incredible from the hospital, they’ve never had a proper documentary being filmed there over a number of weeks, and it’s hard to underestimate what a big risk that is, allowing someone to come in anyway is a risk, but during a pandemic, it’s unbelievable, and they did that, they put trust in us, so credit to them. 

The Clinicians have absolutely loved it, no one has complained about it. And I was always very forthright and saying look, I can see what you guys are going through, but we are just making a documentary, and we are never going to be able to show the full experience of what you guys go through, but what it will do for an audience is show a little bit of that and that’s the biggest thing I can achieve in this documentary and it’s important that you guys know that. 


Hospital – Coronavirus Special is available to view on iPlayer 


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Genres: Documentary, People

Categories: Hospitals, Healthcare and Wellness

2AM, Tue, 19 May 2020 14:12:16 GMT