Following the last episode of the BBC2 documentary series, Great Ormond Street, we asked Simon Gilchrist, series producer and director, to talk about how he and his team went about making each episode. Simon also directed the first series of the programme in April 2010.
A second series of “Great Ormond Street”
The aim with the first series was not to make a traditional fairy story. We didn’t plan to make a second series but, when the BBC were pleasantly surprised at the critical response and the viewing figures of the first series, we were quickly asked whether we thought Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) would be interested.
Some of the episodes had a clear editorial aim from the beginning, such as ‘Buying Time’, which focused on organ donation, others were vaguer.
With the oncology episode, ‘A Difficult Line’, for example, the idea was just to portray how tough it must be to be an oncologist. Then we found touchstone moments within the stories we filmed.
For each episode, we filmed six to eight families who were suggested by the clinicians. We agreed that the first approach would always be made by a senior member of the medical team. It meant we weren’t walking up to people asking to film them in what are, obviously, extremely difficult circumstances.
Working with GOSH families
We visited the families at home and took copies of the first series to give an indication of where we were coming from. We were filming at very stressful moments for both families and staff; everyone involved had to understand why we wanted to be there.
People agreed to take part for lots of different reasons. I think that, although a lot of the families were going through their own private hell, to have someone say that their story was worth telling was a form of validation.
With the older children, we had to be careful that we didn’t make any promises we couldn’t keep about when they would be on television. At the same time, they did get excited by the process.
I tend to remember the bad news because it comes out of nowhere. But another time, I saw a family I knew from the first series in the corridor and the child had had a kidney transplant. I was just delighted. We hugged and they said, “We got it, we got it Simon!” I was just completely made up for them.
The potential of other stories
There aren’t currently any plans for a third series. For the time being, I think we’ve made all the good programmes we can without outstaying our welcome.
It’s a tough series and I can see the argument that we shouldn’t have focused so much on high-risk surgery. I think there are other stories to tell: we never did the chaplaincy justice, and there were other departments, like Palliative Care, that are extraordinary but we didn’t quite get to work, and we would have liked to have filmed more nurses.
Getting instant feedback
We did follow live reactions on social media. It’s fascinating to have instant feedback. It’s really interesting how they kind of break into categories: “I’m crying, I want to be a nurse, I can’t wait to be a doctor, makes you feel humble and glad to be alive…”.
Television doesn’t change the world, but what it does do is dripfeed ideas. Maybe someone watching will actually become a nurse or a doctor.
We made six hours of really good observational documentary and I hope that programmes like this mark a swing back to more traditional documentaries rather than reality shows. The way the audience responded, it’s clear the British public want to be told proper stories.