The challenges of making TV during coronavirus

From Charlie Brooker’s Antiviral Wipe to the first ever lockdown TV drama, we speak to the people behind some of the most popular shows to emerge during the pandemic about their shared mission to keep the nation entertained

While there is nothing particularly ordinary about lockdown life, one of the more surreal side effects of the pandemic has got to be switching on the TV for a bit of light relief, only to be greeted with a socially distanced chat show where the presenters and guests are forced to shout at each other from opposite ends of the studio, or the new ‘virtual’ versions of comedy shows like Have I Got News For You – complete with glitchy Zoom calls and the eery silence of an audience-less studio.

When the UK government announced a nationwide lockdown in March, the effects on the television landscape were swift and vicious. Big budget TV dramas that were already shooting, including Line of Duty and Peaky Blinders, were immediately shut down, and broadcasters began rationing episodes of our favourite soaps for fear that they would run out. Meanwhile, commissioners and producers were forced to rethink traditional formats in creative ways, resulting in a new wave of programmes aimed at helping us get through these uncertain times.

Have I Got News For You is one of the spate of TV shows that have been reimagined during lockdown

One programme that felt almost ready-made for a pandemic was Charlie Brooker’s Antiviral Wipe, a revamped version of his satirical review show Screenwipe, which was produced by his and Annabel Jones’ production company Broke and Bones. Broadcast in mid-May, Antiviral Wipe succeeded in transporting us back to what felt like another lifetime but was actually just March – when Boris Johnson was still insisting on “shaking hands continuously” during visits to hospitals that were treating coronavirus patients, while the rest of the nation was desperately stockpiling for the toiletpaper apocalypse.

For production executive Holly Sait, who has worked on the Screenwipe brand since its inception in 2007 as a low budget BBC Four show, through to glossier spinoff shows in recent years, making Antiviral Wipe felt like things had come full circle. “The show started off whereby Charlie would self shoot it in his lounge and essentially it was him ranting at the TV holding a remote control,” she says. “As it turns out, Charlie’s au pair could shoot and he made himself a crappy desk, so what we were used to filming in the studio in latter years, we could actually just go back to him on a sofa.”