Behind The Scenes Of Single Father

With just five weeks until filming was due to start, writer Mick Ford has a problem: there was no cast, no director, and he still had to finish the scripts.
Getting Single Father greenlit went something like this: four years were spent on the first episode while we moved from the BBC to ITV and back again. Then, when we’d clocked up another 12 months on episode two, there was a sudden injection of pace: David Tennant said yes. Great. But to get him, we’d have to start filming in five weeks.
A bit of a challenge, since we had no producer, no director, no cast, no locations and no scripts for episodes three and four. There was going to be one director for all four hours, with no gap between blocks one and two, so those scripts had to be done by the read-through - in four weeks - and there were revisions needed for parts one and two.
Executive producer Nicola Shindler and I had some interesting conversations around that time. We’d become very fond of the project and didn’t want to mess it up because there wasn’t enough time to prep it and write it. And this was a tricky piece, with young children in so many scenes. If we couldn’t create a believable family and we weren’t ready…
An old caution started ringing in my ears: “If there’s one thing worse than not having your script done, it’s having your script done.”
Nicola insisted on one more week - and got it. I felt quite calm suddenly, perhaps because I’d known the characters for five years, but also because I instantly discovered that I spend most of my writing time weighing up choices and expanding options. My deliberation went straight out of the window, and prevarication with it. It was liberating: I made decisions, acted on them, wrote the two scripts in the allotted time, and was happy with them. I had to do loads of rewrites but the story was playing itself out and the structure was sound. I’d reached the end.
The first idea for the series came on a visit to Deal in Kent, where I heard about a bandsman who was killed in the bombing of the Royal Marines’ barracks back in 1989.
At the time, this bandsman’s wife was working in the cafĂ© at the end of their bleak pier and, because the wind was blowing off the sea, no one heard the blast. At the exact moment her husband died, for no apparent reason, she apparently blurted out: “I love you too!” She then felt an intense sense of warmth and wellbeing.
That story set me off. What we’ve ended up with has nothing to do with bandsmen or bombings, and it’s set in Glasgow, not Deal. It’s about the “I love you too” that contains everything.
Single Father was the first project I pitched after three years on ITV’s William And Mary. At pitch stage, we made Dave, the single father, a photographer and came up with the shoots he could do during the series.
What’s interesting is that as the project tried to find its home, stories of visiting characters, at the bequest of the broadcasters, began to melt away until they disappeared altogether, leaving us with a completely uncamouflaged relationship drama.
There were sometimes four children under the age of 11 in a scene, plus a 15-year-old, all with different licence limits and all interacting with each other and adults. I obviously had to keep the work restrictions in mind - but even so, I knew I was giving them scheduling nightmares and a fast, two-camera shooting style evolved.
Prior to filming, I remember talking about how the adult actors would have to steer the scenes when the kids lost their way, because they had a lot of intricate dialogue.
The casting videos looked promising, but it was diffi cult to tell what would happen when they were with other actors. How would they react to being Doctor Who’s children? I needn’t have worried. The children, from start to finish, are brilliant. Not only are they word-perfect, but they don’t act, they’re just the kids to whom this terrible thing happens: they lose their mum.
I know from my acting days that the best way to be good is to work opposite good people - and they defi nitely had that advantage. David is immaculate on set; a rare combination of focus, enthusiasm and perfect pitch during the emotional content of a scene. The children couldn’t help but pick that up. There are moments of family life captured during the four hours that are a joy to watch, and make me glad we’ve told this story every time I see them.

My tricks of the trade

  • Get them to let you see daily rushes and don’t be put off. Watch the storytelling: you can help, but don’t be a pain in the neck
  • Stack up your story from the top. Life is going on, heading in a definite direction, it’s unstoppable - and you’re about to derail it
  • If a scene won’t write, it’s not right. Find out what’s wrong
  • Before you agree to cutting that insignificant scene, think about why you put it in there
  • Work with nice people who are talented.

Peter Gallagher, Producer
My first thought on reading the scripts was how brilliant they were. My second thought: there are children in nearly every scene, how are we going to film this?
The child licensing laws in Scotland are the strictest in the UK.
We would be allowed only a minimal number of working hours with each child on any one day. We looked at editing the scripts to reduce the number of scenes with children, but they were crucial to every scene.
The challenge was to find a style and method of working that would allow us to film quickly while ensuring natural, spontaneous performances from the children. We decided to shoot, as much as possible, in story order, so the young cast could feel their way through the scripts.
We shot two cameras at all times; sometimes three. We needed to shoot on as lightweight and flexible a system as we could, so we opted for HD camcorders, which avoided trailing cables and an excess of monitors. We kept lighting minimal, with small lighting units, and the house was pre-lit where possible.
The coverage was not going to be conventional. We didn’t ask the children to hit marks or repeat takes for technical reasons. After a simple walkthrough, we shot straight away, allowing the cast to develop their performance from take to take. The pressure was really on the camera and sound teams to capture the action as it developed.
Keeping the children interested was a challenge. We avoided having them on set a moment longer than necessary so it remained an exciting place for them to be.
My third thought on reading the scripts: they have a dog… but that’s another story.
Peter Gallagher’s previous credits include: The 39 Steps, Ae Fond Kiss, The Flying Scotsman and Ultraviolet.

Thanks to Broadcast Now.