Plague and pandemic - filming in a time of COVID with Professor Alice Roberts

Alice Roberts - Historic Towns

Alice Roberts, Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham explains what it's been like, getting back to filming during COVID. 

"In late February, I packed my bags and headed off to start filming the new series of Historic Towns for Channel 4. We had seven cities to visit, seven different rich eras and themes to dig into.

The first shoot was in Plymouth, where we were delving into the piratic origins of the Elizabethan navy, and I met a whole pub full of contemporary pirates. This was series three, and many of the team members from the first two series had signed up again, so there was a real sense of excitement and reunion as we converged on Devon. On the other hand, coronavirus was all over the news - and the numbers of cases were rapidly increasing in Italy and France. Just as we were telling the story of England starting to flex its muscles on the high seas, a strange story of contemporary British exceptionalism was starting to unfold. It was easy to see the way things were going, and just how serious this pandemic was. And yet our national leaders seemed to be behaving like a rabbit caught in the headlights - delaying any serious attempt to suppress the spread of the virus, as though we might just all wake up one morning and discover it had all been a bad dream.

By the time we embarked on the second shoot, in Lincoln, in early March, I had stopped shaking hands with contributors and was nagging the crew to wash their hands as often as possible. I was fairly sure that Boris Johnson would announce a lockdown before the next shoot - which was scheduled to start on March 16th - but he didn’t.

On the evening of Sunday, March 15th, I drove up to London wondering what the week would bring. I got into my hotel that evening, pack of Dettol wipes in hand, and wiped down every surface before I settled down for the night.

The next morning, I made my way to the Wellcome Collection on Euston Road, where I met up with geneticist Pooja Swali from the Crick Institute. We set up to film in the beautiful Reading Room, where we leafed through the Bills of Mortality from 1665 to 1666 - the year of the Great Plague. Together we pored over those Bills of Mortality, looking at the mounting deaths, week on week. It was a bit too close for comfort. The Channel 4 commissioner wanted us to bring out as much contemporary relevance and resonance as possible in these history programmes. I don’t think she ever contemplated quite how shockingly relevant this particular programme could end up being.

As Pooja and I talked, two people had come quietly into the room and had started pulling down the blinds in the Reading Room. The Wellcome Trust was shutting down around us. The Crick, Pooja told me, was already shut for any non-essential business.

We did just one day of filming on that London programme in March. That evening, Boris Johnson addressed the nation again. I thought he would be announcing lockdown. Instead, he advised against unnecessary travel. I rang the Executive Producer, Dom. He was much more decisive than Johnson. “I’m calling it,” he said. I did a final piece to camera, then jumped back in my car and drove home to North Somerset. And stayed there for the next five months.

Once the full Lockdown was lifted, we started to have conversations about how to get back to filming. As an asthmatic, with a family full of asthmatics, I was extremely keen to avoid contracting this virus, and giving it to my kids or my husband. There seemed to be obvious and easy ways of reducing the risks for everyone on the production - and anyone we came into contact with, of course. Those included doing as much as filming as we possibly could outside, wearing masks at all times - except when I was actually on camera - and being very strict about social distancing. I’d also hoped that something in the way of a fully functioning test, trace and isolate system would be up and running in the summer. In its absence, we still set off to pick up filming in mid August - with a protocol which included regular COVID tests for the whole team, and twice-daily temperature tests. Filming’s not as glamorous as many might expect - but it’s certainly sociable. Not so much this time. There was no meeting up for a drink after work, no eating out for me. Each evening, I went back to the air B&B I was staying in, alone, and cooked myself dinner. I was away from home longer than usual as well, pushing two and then three weeks’ of shoots together to reduce the amount of time I’d have to spend quarantining before returning to my family. Technology certainly helped - being able to FaceTime my husband and my two children, seven and ten, made it more bearable. I would usually hit the hotel gym on shoots, but this time I relied on Joe Wicks - who had done such a brilliant job keeping me and my kids fit through lockdown - in the living rooms of various air B&Bs in London, Portsmouth, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Manchester.

And we did it - we completed the series. Plenty of other producers and presenters got in touch to ask me how we’d done it, and how difficult it was. And in fact it was not so much difficult as different. Getting used to a new way of working - but still doing what we loved and believed in, and making a new series that I hope will be loved by viewers too. Our own British cities are brimming with fascinating history and archaeology, and I think the lessons of the past can be illuminating and even comforting - as we face a difficult winter ahead. From the adventurous Elizabethans to the elegant Georgians, from feuding medieval kings to the height of empire - Britain’s Most Historic Towns is back."