How Jeff Pope Turned Around ITV's Lockdown-Themed Drama Series 'Isolation Stories' in Just 30 Days

Jeff Pope - H - 2020
Credit: ITV

From an idea the Oscar-nominated writer had as the U.K. entered lockdown, the series of shorts was shot amid strict social distancing rules inside actors' homes, with family members on camera duty.

With an ensemble cast of renowned British names, including Sheridan Smith, Robert Glenister, Eddie Marsan, David Threlfall and Angela Griffin, Isolation Stories — which starts airing Monday evening on U.K. broadcaster ITV — looks at first glance like the sort of premium TV drama that has been long in the making. 

However, initially announced only in mid-April, the series has been put together in near record time — just a month from conception by Jeff Pope, who landed an Oscar nomination for co-writing 2014's Philomena and penned the Laurel and Hardy biopic Stan & Ollie, to transmission.

And it has also defied the odds, shot within the U.K. under a tight novel coronavirus lockdown as practically all other productions have ground to a halt, but still following all isolation and social distancing guidelines. 

A four-strong series of 15-minute shorts written by Pope together with Neil McKay, William Ivory and Gaby Chiappe and set during the pandemic, Isolation Stories was shot entirely inside the actual houses of its actors, with wives, husbands, partners and children all playing key roles — sometimes acting, sometimes working the camera. Meanwhile, the production team — working from their individual homes — chimed in remotely over Zoom, giving tips on makeup, wardrobe and lighting.

Effectively, Isolation Stories is drama that has been produced in isolation, without any member of the team — with the exception of the cast — going anywhere near one another. 

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Pope explains how it all came about, the complications of casting when you practically need the actor's entire family and why the strict rules meant that one toilet trip could have put the production back a day.

Where did the original idea come from? Was it something you started thinking about as soon as we went into lockdown?

I actually had a very worrying time in the early days. My family all got ill to a greater or lesser extent, and we assumed it was the virus, although we couldn’t get tests. But all the symptoms were a complete match. The worst of us was my wife, who really was very ill for two or three days. We were right on the cusp of thinking whether we should take her [to the emergency room], but she thankfully pulled through and she's fine again now.

But it did make me realize that there will be a drama that takes a wider look at what this all meant and what was it about. But we’re right in the middle of it, and I don’t think we know the answers yet. So my mind wasn't working like that, but I did feel that we were all, very much like the isolation experience, just seeing fragments of it and they were all very vivid. Like me with my wife, one of the writers on this series was telling me about trying to stay in touch with his grandchildren and how he can walk past where they live because it's on the way to get these groceries, so he can see them. But they're behind glass and two meters away, so he can't go in and cuddle them.

So I talked to ITV and felt the approach should be short stories, which don’t really feature on television. I felt that was exactly the right way to try to tell stories about what’s going on now. ITV commissioned four of them and I spoke to four writers who I admire a lot and we wrote them very quickly, in days. And our absolute focus was to get them on air while the crisis was still ongoing, because in that way I think you hold a mirror up and you reflect what people are going through.

Were the logistics of how this might be put together something you were thinking about right from the start?

My very first thought was do they shoot it on their own phones, and then the idea gradually grew. We had to do it in a way that kept everybody safe, that didn’t put their health at risk and obeyed the law. 

So we delivered sanitized camera equipment to the homes of the cast, and then from a two-meter distance a technician would give the families a rudimentary outline of how to operate. They were sterilized, and then I think the families sterilized them again with their own stuff. And then it was yeah, this is what you do, that’s what you do, this button means this and this button means that. And away we went.

So what you had was a house, which was the houses of the actors that we had chosen. And we had to have at least one member of the family in each of those houses who could operate the camera for us, otherwise it wouldn't have worked. Which made casting very difficult. In the story I wrote, we had Robert [Glenister] and his son Tom, playing the leads, but we also needed Celia, Robert’s wife, to operate the camera.

And once we’d got the equipment into the house, what we then had, through Zoom, was maybe between six and 10 people from production — the director, cameraman or -woman, the first assistant, some advice on lighting and technical backup. So whoever was operating the camera, for us, we could see what the camera saw and then, through an earpiece, we were giving that person advice. So you’ve got the house, the people in the house and then all these other people in their homes all contributing. And there were all these little boxes around the main image of what the camera was seeing. So it was a fascinating way to work

What were the actual legal lockdown restrictions that you had to abide by?

Well, unless you’re a key worker you must stay isolated, and unless there’s no other way of carrying out your work, you must stay at home. You can go to work if there’s no other way of doing your job, but even then you must follow the rules of isolation. There are certain rules, like you can go out once a day to exercise and go to the shops to get supplies.

So while we very scrupulously observing all the rules of the lockdown as a production, we felt we had to be very careful on screen not to do anything irresponsible or have the characters break the lockdown. There’s one character that’s outside a house, which is a granddad who passes by his son-in-law and grandkids on the way to the grocery store to get supplies. We had to make sure that we were showing that’s what he was doing — he wasn’t just going around and visiting.

As far as the actor David Threlfall was concerned, the only way he could do that job was to leave his house and go to the house of Eddie Marsan, who’s playing his son-in-law. But even then there are certain rules about how far away you have to be, and you have to be under the age of 70, where there’s a total restriction about staying indoors. So we had to cast someone who wasn’t in their 70s. And you can’t travel more than an hour to work. Now David is originally from Manchester — we didn’t say to David to drive down from Manchester. That would have been irresponsible.

With David it was the one shoot where if he needed to go to the toilet, we were going to lose 40 minutes out of our day. He couldn’t go into Eddie’s house. He’d have to go back home. I think in the end we did manage to get a portable loo, which promptly got a parking ticket. I was amazed the parking wardens were still out there.

So the restrictions made for a very complicated addition to the casting process?

It was like a Chinese puzzle! It was fascinating, because If we were to take Eddie’s story...he plays a character called Steve who has two kids. So already we needed an actor with two children who could act. So we all thought of Eddie, and I knew he had a family. But his kids might not want to take part. God bless them, his sons Blu and Bodhi did and were brilliant, and actually Janine Marsan, Eddie’s wife, was happy to take on camera duties. So she shot it all.

What was the experience for the directors, directing actors via earpieces and on Zoom?

I think there was such an esprit de corps. Everybody really plugged into it in the most wonderful way.

But it was difficult. We learned an etiquette in the end, because if on set a director watches a take and there’s something not right, he will take the actor to one side and talk to them. Obviously you can't just blurt that out, because everyone's listening. We were working with really brilliant actors, but even then there can be a slight misinterpretation or whatever.

So I think directors found it, on one level really liberating, because everything they need is already there on the screen — the main image is what the camera is seeing and all around the edges are little boxes with all the other crews, feeding in. But if he wanted to give a note I think he then logged off, or hit mute and called the actor, so that would be private.

But what I do know is that everyone I've spoken to found it immensely rewarding. I certainly found it incredibly moving and a really humbling experience.

Was there any element of improvisation?

It was very tightly scripted and no, it wasn’t an improv exercise. Because I felt that this was what it was about, it was about scripted having a say uniquely, because the turnaround is never this quick. But this was an opportunity, because these were short films, for scripted to have a say, so that meant I wanted the voice of the writer to be there and the clever way they picked through these stories. These are proper dramas.

What was the turnaround?

From first idea to transmission, it will be about a month. Scripting was five or six days. The shoots were all around two or three days. And they’re 15 minutes, so that’s a lot. And the editing process is the same as the shooting process — the editor is in his house with a kit and he then bangs that down the line to the director and the producer and we review and have a virtual note session and it goes back. So all of it has been done without anyone having any physical content other than those actors in their homes.

Are these techniques you’ve drawn from scratch or was there any tool kit or template you’ve been using?

That thing of taking cameras into homes and a link so we could see what they were seeing, that was there. But we adapted that and then added different jobs in. It sounds weird, but even on a computer screen a first assistant's job is to drive the thing along. We still had a first, even though he or she was in their home and it was just a voice.

So essentially now you’ve got this tried and tested method for scripted shooting under lockdown that you can use?

Yes, although I hope it doesn’t have to get used much more. I hope this is over soon. But who knows. If we’re are still like this in a couple of months and depending on the public reactions, if they do plug into them and do enjoy watching them, then we now have a system to make some more. We know how to do it now.

With much of the world having similar experiences right now, Isolation Stories is obviously an idea that can be transplanted internationally. Has there been any interest from other producers elsewhere about doing the same thing or copying your method?

It’s a little early at the moment. But I’d love it. And we can certainly give them the benefit of our experience and roll it out in other countries. Storytelling and shared experiences are something that’s very important in moments like this. One of the few things we’ve still got as humans is to tell stories to each other.