Dluxe Magazine’s Richard Doherty goes behind the scenes of the BBC’s Award Winning daytime drama series Doctors, filmed on location in Birmingham’s Selly Oak.
The day was sunny, the breeze was rustling through the bushes and trees of the University of Birmingham campus in Selly Oak, home of the BBC Drama Village in Birmingham and I arrived to begin my tour of the sets used for the award winning BBC daytime drama series ‘Doctors’.
This was the first time access had been granted to anyone and a Ticket Ballot had been held to secure one of the 100 tickets available for fans to come along. 3,500 people applied for these 100 tickets, such is the die-hard fan base of this show. Suffice to say I think they will probably do it again in the future at some point. The desire is certainly there!
The list of previous stars of BBC’s Doctors is like a Who’s Who of British acting talent. Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne cut his teeth on the show, as did Claire Foy (currently starring in Netflix Original’s ‘The Crown’). Brian Blessed did the show twice because he loved it so much!
Peter Lloyd, Series Producer, and Kate Horlor, Production Co-Ordinator, were our guides for the day and first stop was Wardrobe. No, not a wardrobe but the Wardrobe department. Racks upon racks of outfits and uniforms were ready for use by cast and crew. Buttons, hats, gloves, suits, fancy dress all sit in boxes and bags lining the walls from floor to ceiling. Coats specifically just for keeping cast members warm in the cooler months (yes, they have coats just for that purpose) sat alongside costumes being prepared for future episodes and storylines which, if I mentioned anything about, would see me hung, drawn and quartered. Interestingly, the most closely guarded outfits of this entire department are the Police uniforms. Why is this? Because these aren’t copies or ones that have been run up on the sewing machine, oh no, these are actual, proper, real life Police uniforms. Can’t be having anyone run off with those!
The Wardrobe department has to clothe around 800 guests a year! And should any visiting cast member have fibbed about their sizes when putting in their dimensions (would they ever do such a thing? lol) then the seamstresses of this department will soon have to go to work to make their outfit more…acceptable.
Second stop: Make-Up. This rather snug area gives way to brushes, wigs, prosthetics and the talented ladies and gents that wield them. If a cast member is pregnant (in the storyline, not in real life) then they have different types of ‘baby bump’. There are the flesh coloured ones that are seen and then there the unseen ones for under clothing. These are all labelled in varying degrees of time passed. For instance, there are ones for someone who is 1 month pregnant, then a slightly larger one for 2 months and so on until we have the big ol’ full term ones. The Make-Up artists are mostly freelance and many have experience of working on programmes like ‘Casualty’ so, should a wound be needed, in to their box of tricks they delve to come up with something suitably ghastly. Kate Horlor, Production Co-Ordinator, even said that she has a friend in the industry who, should she get injured in any way, takes a picture of it to help with her ability to recreate it in make-up form should it be called upon. Well how else is she going to practice something like a splinter that’s gone septic or, as may be prevalent these days, the thoroughly middle class injury of Avocado Hand?
On a top shelf, above the mirrors, sit a row of 6 polystyrene heads, upon which sit Mrs Tembe’s wigs. Mrs Tembe is one of the main, pivotal characters of the programme and apparently, each of her wigs has a name and a particular emotional resonance!
People nip in and out all day to get ‘touched up’ so that their look remains constant throughout the shooting process. Continuity is key! Through a set of doors and we found ourselves in a kind of Reception area in the corner of which sits a trophy cabinet…and my, my…what a selection of Awards they have amassed! The previous night they had garnered yet another gong at the British Soap Awards 2017 with Lucy-Jo Hudson collecting her Award for “Villain Of The Year”. Best get another cabinet!
Next up: Scheduling. My word. This really drove home just how confusing and intense shooting ‘Doctors’ actually is. If any department made you forget about the glamour of being on TV and how much work actually goes in to putting this show on the air, THIS was the one. Headshots of Actors adorn the wall, above which sit Production Block numbers, with different Actors under columns for their Episodes. Colour coded paper is used to show which Actor is shooting which Episode in which Block under which Director in which location at any one time. Confused? I was! This is like a military operation and it goes on all day every day. At any one time an Actor can easily have between 6 and 9, maybe even more, scripts on the go at once. I found it difficult enough to remember my lines in a school production back in my day and that was just one script! Imagine what it takes to have to jump from one part of an emotional journey as a character in one scene to another part of that same character in a different scene at the drop of a hat. Sometimes an Actors first scene is their characters death! I doff my hat to them. And yet, despite the surely intense pressure, people were going about their business at their desks in a measured and calm way. OK, they may have been like swans and been frantically been trying to make sure an episode or production didn’t implode but it didn’t look like it as we moved off.
Fifth stop: Art Department. Just as the Wardrobe Department had floor to ceiling outfits, here we have cupboards bursting with Doctor’s bags, cards for Birthdays, Christenings, Anniversaries, a selection of lamps (“Do we have a storyline based on lamps coming up?” asked Kate, jokingly) and all manner of paraphernalia. The Art Department also deals with the vehicles and makes sure that the continuity of a scene is correct. If someone’s drinking at a bar, they have to make sure that the drink level doesn’t go back up if it’s meant to be going down. A nifty trick they have is to try and have scenes where food is concerned taking place at the very start or the very end of the meal so that they don’t have to keep a record of how much food had been eaten in the last scene they were shooting. Apparently the NHS is very good at supplying posters that would be displayed in real Doctors Surgery’s to help with authenticity too. However, if it’s a made-up poster by the Art Department, the people featured in it are more than likely members of the Crew! They also have to make sure that any telephone numbers featured aren’t actually real ones on any self-made posters.
Sixth stop: University of Letherbridge Campus Surgery set. Upstairs from the Art Department, and frantically being cleared having just been used for shooting a scene in, is the second of the Surgery’s used in the programme. Having two locations helps to spread the burden of filming and also helps with the younger and Student storylines. Whilst the main surgery, The Mill Health Centre, is meant to represent the more mainstream, appointment based Dr Surgery, this set is meant to represent a younger, more drop-in friendly set up frequently found on University campuses. This set is actually quite cunning. It’s all modular and walls can be moved in panels and there are no pieces of glass where you think there are internal windows. Taking a look around, you still get the authenticity of the medical profession in each room. The equipment, the hardware, the masses of paperwork…all make it feel like a bona-fide Practice but the lighting rigs, the taped marks on the floor for Actors to ensure they’re positioned in the right place for a shot remind you that this in, in fact, a TV show.
After swinging by The Icon nightclub and the Letherbridge Police Station, we found ourselves in the main Mill Health Centre set. The usual haunt of many of the main characters and, for some time, the haunt of the formidable, yet soft, Mrs Tembe. This Surgery marked the end of our Tour but not the end of our experience. From behind the many lamps, cameras and TV screens came two of the shows stars: Dr Al Haskey, played by Ian Midlane, and Dr Heston Carter, played by Owen Brenman. Yes, OK, so I got a little bit Star struck at this point. I’d been watching these people on TV and now, here they were, in front of me, in real life! Another member of the Production crew explained a few more points to us about what went on where and by whom before we were asked if anyone would like a try at being in front of the camera. I SO wanted to say yes but my nerves took the better of me. In fact no-one stepped up so it was left to these guys to have a bit of an ad-lib/unrehearsed run through of a pretend scene. All did not go well and there were more laughs than should probably have been the case but it only served to show us how human everyone was.
And that concluded our Tour but didn’t conclude the behind the scenes secrets being shared for example 50% of the show is filmed on location, away from the BBC Drama Village. One of the hardest locations for them to find for filming are run-down estates due to ongoing gentrification and when they do go out to film it’s possible that there would be around 30/40 people involved on site. So before you volunteer your home for filming, think of your carpet!
Other surprises included the use of Stirchley High Street for regular filming – the interior sets for the Hospital and the Police Station are actually located just off it and when they blew up the old Health Centre in the show, that actually took place for real as part of the demolition and destruction of the old BBC Pebble Mill studios. Two birds, one stone!
To find out more about BBC tours visit www.bbc.co.uk/showsandtours/tours