How Dragonfly filmed frontline paramedics during the pandemic

Safely and successfully following NHS workers during lockdown for Channel 4 impacted us all

By Peter Wallis-Tayler 13 Aug 2020

How Dragonfly filmed frontline paramedics during the pandemic

April 2020. The UK was in the midst of lockdown, and never did we believe that we would be asked to make a brand new 3 x 60-minutes series for Channel 4, with just three days for pre-production, three weeks to shoot, the films to be edited remotely and the broadcast to begin just weeks later.

All of this was to be done against the backdrop of a global pandemic, during which the government was demanding that we stay at home. It seemed an impossible task.

Simon Ford, Tom Currie, Ros Ponder and I all have extensive experience working with various emergency services and we collectively felt a responsibility to document the biggest challenge to the NHS in its 72-year history.

We could live up to this duty because Dragonfly has a strong relationship with NHS England, built up over years of medical programming, and we were privileged to be granted access to West Midlands Ambulance Service to see from the inside their battle against the virus.

Danny Horan and Fozia Khan at Channel 4 were excited we had won unique and important access and quickly greenlit the series. 

With the anticipated peak of the pandemic fast approaching we needed to get cameras rolling quickly. Our brilliant senior producer, Nabila Hussein, and I left for the West Midlands to ascertain what the real story was on the ground and to try and build relationships that would normally be the product of months of work.

What we discovered was a heart-warming story of over 500 students, many in their early twenties, who were prepared to step up to the frontline as part of an ambulance crew.

There were also over 400 new recruits being trained in less than three weeks to answer calls to the ambulance service – this recruitment was an unprecedented move and we knew it would be rich territory for us. We felt we had our starting point for the series.

Filming suspected Covid-19 carriers

Undertaking any filming during this time was no easy task let alone on the disease’s frontline; it required close collaboration between the senior team and our fantastic line producer James Mudie to continually monitor the latest government advice.

We were sending our directors to film patients who believed they had Covid-19. At a time when we weren’t allowed to visit our own relatives, the directors would be standing in people’s homes trying to capture a unique perspective on lockdown.

Protocols needed to be drawn up quickly that would enable the team to mirror the ambulance clinicians’ PPE at all times. The ambulance service gave us clear instruction that to have unfettered access our teams had to be safer than one of their own members of staff. 

My tricks of the trade – Peter Wallis-Tayler 

  • Look after your team. It has never been more important to look after your team’s mental health and make sure they have time and space to feel well supported.
  • Always be approachable. Create an environment where your team can come to you no matter what the issue is.
  • Hold onto relationships and access – you never know when you will need to call on people again. Leaving those precious relationships in a good place will pay dividends in the future.
  • When things go wrong, don’t panic. Mistakes will ultimately make things better. Create an open and honest climate in the team, where mistakes can be shared, and you can solve problems together.
  • Trust your team – you have hired them for a reason. Allowing your team to be creative and intuitive will ensure you create better films. 

In a short space of time, we built an exceptional team of directors and producers. We were acutely aware of the stress and anxiety patients could be feeling and had robust duty of care procedures in place to support those families throughout the process.

Our teams had the challenge of capturing intimate moments while observing social distancing themselves. Gaining access to patients and their families and building trust in sensitive situations was made harder while wearing PPE, including a mask. You could only communicate with your eyes.

The ambulance service were clear that to have unfettered access our teams had to be safer than one of their own members of staff

We knew that the key to the series was a focus on our frontline heroes.

With limited time we made editorial decisions quickly. We met a key contributor from episode one at the training school on the Friday and instinct led us to follow his very first shift on the frontline at 7am the next day – thankfully, he turned out to be a complete star.

The series was shaped via nightly senior team meetings over Zoom, where we would collectively plot the emerging storylines and how best to capture enough footage in just three weeks.

The remote production process continued into the edits, where we and our team of film editors each worked from different parts of the UK, with constant dialogue on how to shape the new series.

We’re incredibly proud of our entire team for taking on the challenge to get inside the biggest story of our lifetime and when we look back, we will do so with a sense of awe at our incredible NHS staff. They have kept us all safe and we’re humbled to have been able to capture their work for the whole nation to see just what practical heroism really is.

Sourcing safety equipment for our NHS shoot

James Mudie
Line producer

We started production at the height of the government lockdown. As we were working for a public service broadcaster, we knew our team would be designated as key workers but there was still the question of, ‘How on earth are we going to keep them safe?’

We spent two days phoning over 100 suppliers to find a particular type of mask that we needed to wear while filming the most high-risk patients – the ‘FFP3’.

At a time when some NHS services couldn’t get enough PPE, we did worry about the ethics of us obtaining it, but we worked with a media and entertainment industry supplier.

Ultimately, we felt that it was justified by the critical journalistic importance of getting out and documenting what was really happening on the frontline. 

We had to find a company that could travel to our hotel and ‘fit test’ the masks on our team to make sure they were safe. The same company also taught the team to properly ‘don and doff’ our PPE – how to put on and take off PPE to avoid contamination.

We decided to travel the crew individually to location in hire cars. With local shops closed, we liaised with our hotel about delivering room service safely outside the crew’s room doors and so the protocols continued.

Our main concern was for the PDs that would be working on the front line. We wanted to write protocols that could easily be adapted and allowed our team to make choices based on the level of risk on the ground.

As a basic principle our team mirrored the PPE of the frontline clinicians, who were following the latest advice from Public Health England.

However, we needed to ensure that the advice we gave covered what to do while filming. For example, when following a patient story, they were given three options of how they could manage the risk while journeying to hospital:

  • Option 1 Wearing level 3 PPE (hazmat suit, gloves, goggles and mask) and film in the back with the patient.
  • Option 2 Wearing level 3 PPE (hazmat suit, gloves, goggles and mask) and travel in the front compartment of the ambulance, with the door closed leaving Go-Pros to capture the story in the back.
  • Option 3 Travel in the follow car, therefore eliminating risk with Go-Pros running.

It was reassuring to us and the crew that they were in control and the risk could be dynamically assessed.

Our shoot was three weeks’ long and the team on the ground was 15 strong. They stayed on location for the entire time and all of them came back Covid-free.

This article originally appeared on sister site Broadcast.

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