I could barely contain my delight: ‘The Prince of Wales says ‘Yes.” The call from Clarence House last March was the culmination of six months of negotiations, and His agreement to introduce our drama documentary series on the history of the Victoria Cross helped to secure a commission within days. Five grabbed hold of the project even though we were a relatively young production company with no real track record in this genre. A budget of £1.1 million was put in place – the only caveat was that transmission was to be this November. We had just six months in which to translate what everyone knew was a brilliant idea into a three-hour tribute to the incredible bravery of the men who hold the Commonwealth’s highest gallantry award. For Empire – which previously had concentrated almost exclusively on documentary productions – a specialist factual, drama doc was a quantum leap.
The immediate issue was finding the right people with the relevant experience who could take the proposal and bring it to life. We were fortunate to find Peter Georgi as an exec and Steven Clarke as series producer, both of whom are authorities in the complex field of history filmmaking. Next, the key issue was finding a way of bringing together two very distinct genres, that of drama and documentary, on a scale that would do the Victoria Cross justice within a frighteningly tight time scale. Ambitions were high. The potential for disaster was huge.
By definition, history programs have to be based on fact. And, also by definition, dramatic reconstructions must be dramatic. Peter, Steven and their team spent the first few weeks working out how to break up the programs: should we tell the story of the Victoria Cross through the three forces of Army, Navy and Air Force, or should it be by different notions of bravery? In the end, we felt the best way was to do it through some form of chronology. Not always the most creative idea, but with 150 years to cover and three different eras of warfare, it turned out to be the only solution. With that decided, the producer and directors of each show set about researching and writing the individual scripts.
It was then that the true complexity of the series began to show itself. With drama, everything you put in front of the camera has to be decided in advance. The costumes, the characters, the props and even where a scene will be shown in the final show can all go hugely wrong if you don’t have people working to a locked-off script. Conversely, with traditional documentary, the script isn’t finished until the final online, and an hour before the commentary artist comes in. This is the internal conflict at the heart of all drama docs. You must get people who are good at their part, be it setting up 10 mini period dramas or constructing elegant sequences from archive stills and interviews. But, most of all, you must have people at the heart of your show who understand that these are two completely different ways of working, and that no matter what you say, it is not going to be easy.
We shot drama for six weeks in the uk and Spain, filmed Prince Charles at Highgrove, and interviewed some of the 12 holders of the vc still alive today. As the programs come out of final post, I am struck by two things: first, that we have created a fitting tribute; and second, after six months of hard work, the production team is not only still talking to each other, but would work together again. Now, I’ve just got an idea about…