And You Thought It Was Easy!

When you watch one of Replay's DVDs, we aim for you to appreciate, perhaps unconsciously, the presentation and quality of the product. We try to provide additional entertainment in the shape of enjoyable extras, surely the result of a smooth production that went like clockwork.

But sometimes the end result can belie the headaches and the dramas. Perhaps you've never given a second's thought to what goes on behind the scenes? So let me present to you the reality, the previously untold saga of the making of the second Joking Apart DVD, the truth behind both what is and isn't on the DVD, and how I aged ten years in the space of a morning.

Such was my enthusiam for this project that I started work on the extras some time ahead of securing the rights for the second series. To be fair, it was a mixture of enthusiasm and practicality.

The release of the first Joking Apart DVD had been delayed by production work on the extras. Trying to get five busy people into a studio on the same day was never going to be an easy task and so it proved. The anticipated November date got put back and back so far that Christmas then got in the way. We eventually managed to get everyone together on 4th January 2006 - I say everyone, but sadly Paul Raffield had to withdraw on the day. With everything I needed in the can, it then took another month for me to edit the featurette and mix the commentaries, each of which took between 15 and 20 hours' hard work.

Learning from that experience, I decided that I would do everything the other way round on series 2. I really wanted to have Paul Raffield involved this time (and he was very keen not to miss out too) and with time on my side, I could postpone the commentary recordings indefinitely until a day could be found that suited everyone. For the main session, there would be six participants because, to my great delight, Andre Ptaszynski asked if he could join our merry throng.

Of course, there was one drawback to this approach - Replay hadn't yet secured the DVD rights and was by no means guaranteed to do so. I was always fairly confident that negotiations would end successfully, but if they didn't, then the money I had invested in the extras would be money down the drain. Undeterred, I pressed on, not only with trying to set up the commentary recording but also with an idea I'd had for a fun featurette. "What featurette?" you might well be wondering. It was to be a tongue-in-cheek look at the real life locations that appeared in the series.

THE LOCATIONS FEATURETTE

It's not uncommon for such featurettes to appear as extras - usually as a then and now comparison detailing the changes over the years - but that provided no story here since essentially nothing had changed at all. Instead, the focus was on the things the production team had craftily kept hidden from the viewer. For instance, would you really want your wedding photos taken here? (Move your mouse over to see what was concealed by careful positioning of the actors)

So whilst I was waiting impatiently for the commentary recording to come together, I wrote a script (available as a pdf link further on) and organised a video shoot which would take in Chelsea, Chiswick and White City.

I'd been to all the locations before but I decided to recce them anyway two weeks ahead of filming to double-check that all the shots I had planned in my head would actually work. I also had to create a fake street sign to cover the real one that adorns the railings directly outside Mark's flat - not only did I not want any subsequent complaints from the residents that I had led hoardes of ardent fans straight to their doorsteps but there was also a danger that my licensor might refuse to let me include the featurette on the DVD for the same reason. So with tongue very firmly in cheek, I put together this prop.

Before you can do any filming in a public place in London, you have to apply to the local councils for a permit. They require you to do a risk assessement for health and safety reasons. Even if they didn't, you need public liability insurance and the insurance companies would not pay out if you omitted to do one.

So having done my homework and prepared everything so carefully, I really couldn't have anticipated the incredible bad fortune that would beset us on the day of the shoot. There are some just things that even the most meticulous planning simply cannot allow for...

It all started to unravel as I was driving with my cameraman to Chelsea. As we approached Clapham Common, we found the road ahead closed by an accident, so we had to detour. That delay cost us half-an-hour out of an already tight day. I phoned my reporter, Nicky, to warn her, only to be told that she had been caught up in a separate accident and was running even later! Anyway it was decided that we would grab some general shots of the first location while we waited for Nicky to arrive.

As we parked up near Mark's flat, we were greeted by two more unwelcome revelations. Less than a hundred yards from most of the places we wanted to shoot, they'd suddenly decided to replace the pavements...With pneumatic drills! There had been absolutely no sign of this during my recce. Plus they were also doing major renovation work on a house opposite Robert and Tracy's.

On top of this, the traffic seemed unexpectedly heavy. Okay, so it was still the tail-end of the rush-hour but I'd never seen it remotely like this here before. I just hoped it would start to calm down before we needed to start shooting Nicky's "pieces to camera" (PTCs).

We proceeded to knock off some general views, including some matching shots i.e. ones that were framed as closely as possible to certain shots that appeared in the series, so that we could dissolve from one to the other during the featurette (e.g. the churchyard, earlier on this page). These can be fiddly to get right. When Nicky finally turned up around 9.40am, an hour and ten minutes late, she said she'd been held up by another accident as she'd got closer. I now decided to prioritise her PTCs - as long as I managed to get all those done, I could always return by myself another day to complete the other shots.

Everything I'd been fearing came home to roost. Even though most of the PTCs were only 10-15 seconds each, we almost never seemed to get a long enough gap in the traffic. The vehicles just kept funnelling past us with monotonous bad timing. And when we did get a brief respite, the drilling would start up! I just couldn't believe it! This went on almost unabated until midday, when, with precious little in the can, I belatedly suggested we abandon this location until later.

We drove about a half a mile to where they did the filming for the first episode in series two (as depicted by this animated aerial view created for the featurette).

Apart from the hassle of a few parked cars, everything went as smoothly as I'd originally planned and we were able to return to the main site by 2.30pm, in the welcome knowledge that at least we had something under our belts.

By now the traffic was calmer but still not as quiet as I'd anticipated. It was becoming a race for time. We not only had to get all the PTCs shot before all hell broke loose with the evening rush hour, but we also had to somehow get to two more locations in Chiswick and White City and complete everything before the light started failing around 6pm. Of course, I'd overlooked the school run, but we wrapped up everything in an hour and three-quarters.

Needless to say, time was far too tight by now and we only succeeded in getting to one of the other locations - the Chiswick setting for the wedding group shot (the interiors were shot elsewhere). But considering everything, we'd done well to get all the PTCs completed, with the exception of the very first one in the script.

It so happened that I was working at Stamford Bridge the following day and as I drove along the Fulham Road, close to the scene of our filming debacle, I spotted signs from the police appealing for witnesses to a fatal accident the previous day. It turned out, of course, that they had closed the road, thus diverting much of the traffic past precisely where we had been. Of all the days for it to happen...

I was left with a logistical headache. I still had one PTC and an ad-lib sequence to record with Nicky, plus a variety of general shots in Chiswick and Chelsea. Because of noise considerations, I also wanted to do a couple of pick-ups for links we'd already shot. The problem was, we needed a day when we were both free and the weather matched the first shoot. It proved to be surprisingly difficult, and almost two months would pass before we were able to finally wrap up everything. On top of this, I had to drop the cameraman and take over his role because it simply wasn't economic to have him repeatedly on standby for a day's work that the weather kept wiping out. It wasn't ideal. Operating a professional camera isn't hard but operating it well is.

Shooting the final PTC outside directly outside BBC Television Centre proved to be a real challenge for a variety of reasons. The shot called for me to film from the other side of the road, starting tight on Nicky before pulling back so that you finally see where she is as she finishes her words. When she got it right, I didn't, and vice versa. I also had to fight off a BBC security guard who tried to intervene.

But once again, it was transport noise that was the real headache. Not just cars this time, but also tube trains on the Central and Metropolitan lines that run overground here plus a seemingly endless stream of aircraft overhead.

The day we were filming, they'd closed one end of the road due to building work. There were big signs saying, 'Road Closed - Access to BBC Only'. Brilliant! That should stop the cars, I thought. Like hell it did! What we got instead was a succession of idiots who chose not to believe the signs and drove straight past us, only to hit a dead end and have to come back the other way. Some people..!

Nicky passed the time by engaging in some light-hearted banter with members of a studio audience who were queuing outside as patiently as we were waiting our opportunity. It was quite fitting, seeing as Nicky's link was about studio audiences. When we eventually got the take we needed, there was a moment of spontaneous comedy as I gave the thumbs up from over the road. Take a look:

The ultimate irony is that all our efforts in adversity went to waste as the featurette never made it onto the DVD. Why? Because it wasn't good enough? Not at all. You can judge for yourself and take a look at the script that starts off being very straight but soon takes itself rather less seriously. The truth is it got strangled by red tape and vetoed, for reasons that I am not at liberty to divulge. If I had my way, though, it would be very much a part of the DVD and you'd all be enjoying it. Instead, it's a thousand pounds down the toilet, as well as the occasional moment of inspiration.

One shot that was simply amazing took me half-a-day to create. Do you remember the scene in the fourth episode of series one where Mark comes running out of his flat in his dressing gown, jumps in his car and drives off? Well I set up a shot that was identically framed, then stood Nicky the other side of where the car would have been. By meticulously hand-drawing a matte in the shape of the car's hatchback as it drives away, I combined the shots so that Nicky appeared out of thin air as the car moved off. It was so spooky. It was like, "Where the hell did she come from?" It was as if she'd been standing in the shot with Mark all those years ago, only you hadn't noticed. It's such a shame just a mere handful of people will ever see it - it was both eerie and stunning.

THE FIRST COMMENTARY SESSION

In between the two day's shooting for the featurette, the main commentary session had taken place. For series one, the choice of studio had been dictated by the combination of a tight budget and the need to film the interviews for "Fool If You Think It's Over", the backgrounder that appears on that DVD. Tin Pan Alley in London's Denmark Street was primarily a music studio but fitted the bill, although it lacked a degree of sartorial elegance. Not surprising when you consider that it had been The Sex Pistols studio of choice just before they hit the big time. For series two, though, I wanted to find somewhere with a touch more class.

I looked at various facilties in the West End that all would have been fantastic, but then so were the hourly rates. The problem with having such well-specified studios is that I would end up having to pay for a lot of equipment I didn't need. Then I discovered somewhere that was the perfect combination of facilties and price, allied with a wealth of experience of voice recording - Broadcasting House, home of BBC Radio.

The contributors to the main session were to be Steven Moffat, Robert Bathurst, Fiona Gillies, Tracie Bennett, Paul Raffield and Andre Ptaszynski. Having spent so long setting the day up, I was feeling very confident...Until the night before. Now, it looked like I might lose two commentators for an unspecified part of the day. Thankfully, that wasn't how it worked out but it was a heartstopping moment nevertheless. Just as well because something else did intervene on the day.

I'd reckoned without the vaguaries of public transport in London. That made the simple task of getting to the studio something of a trial for several of the party, not least of all, me. Yes, I was late! No so embarrassingly late that the guests were ahead of me but late enough to prevent the studio being ready to go at the appointed hour. And I knew even before we started that it would prove costly as there was no possibility of overrunnning since the studio was required for a live broadcast later on. So the first decision of my day was not one I'd planned for - which episode to drop. At Steven's suggestion, we elected to skip episode two and I spent the rest of the day hoping that by some miracle we might make up the time...But, of course, we never did.

I was really lucky to have Andre Ptaszynski join the commentary team after lunch. I say 'lucky' because he is a seriously important and busy man these days as CEO of The Really Useful Theatre Company. I'd known from the outset that he'd only have the time to do two episodes, so I'd opted to record out of sequence just so that he'd be involved on the first and last episodes of the series. That was the plan...Unfortunately, events on the day overtook Andre and he found himself having to dash off unexpectedly after completing just the one. I still feel so fortunate that he gave up what time he could. And like everyone else involved, he was charming and delightful.

There was one other interesting and notable event that day. Steven had advised me that someone would be turning up with some important paperwork for him to sign. As you might expect, when they arrived, we were in mid-record so they had to wait for a break. In the meanwhile, they got chatting to a journalist friend of mine. They told him they'd come with a contract from Dreamworks for Steven to write three screenplays to bring Tintin to the big screen. Yes, Steven actually signed the contract in the middle of our session! I don't think he was entirely best pleased to discover his big secret was out, but I think he knew our lips would remain sealed.

Overall, it was a successful day. To me, the commentaries were as much fun as those on the first DVD and it was wonderful to see Paul Raffield genuinely crying with laughter during the recording. But it seriously rankled with me that I'd lost the opportunity to record a commentary for every episode, particularly as I knew there was no realistic chance of doing it ever again. I wasn't happy...

THE SECOND COMMENTARY SESSION NIGHTMARE

But I'm a firm believer in channelling anger in a positive way, so I started thinking. Perhaps there was a way of turning this failure into a virtue? We'd heard a lot from Steven Moffat and the cast but on neither DVD was there a purely production based commentary. I realised that there was now space for one, and what's more, it would look like it had been planned from the outset! It was a great idea but one that would ultimately give rise to a hair-whitening morning.

The most obvious person to involve was still an unknown quantity to me - Bob Spiers, the director of the series with a CV unparallelled in British comedy. The other ideal candidate was Stacey Adair, the production manager on the series, with whom I'd been in regular email contact since the early stages of production on the first DVD. She had frequently regaled me with fascinating anecdotes from behind the scenes so I knew she'd be perfect. There was only one problem - she'd emigrated to Australia - but was I going to let a minor issue like that stop me? Not on your life!

So that was how I hatched a plan to link two studios on opposite sides of the world and plug the gap. By now, I knew that the location featurette had been vetoed, so I was determined to do this, despite the cost, and bolster the extras count. I had a comfortable three months to get this in the can before the DVD production deadline.

I enlisted Stacey's help in finding a studio in Brisbane and Broadcasting House was once again lined up for the London end. Two and a half months later, I'm genuinely fearing this isn't ever going to happen. Everything was in place except for a definite commitment from Bob Spiers. His agent had made all the right noises and told me that Bob wanted to do it, but still the weeks and days ticked by. Just as I was on the point of reluctantly abandoning the idea, a breakthrough...Although it wouldn't have happened if I'd stuck to the production deadlines. The date was set for 1st November 2007, fully two weeks after the DVD should have been completed.

I confess I was relieved but I still had misgivings. Although I'd tried to leave nothing to chance, in all this time I'd been kept very much at arm's length by the agent. Unlike every other commentator, I'd had no direct contact with Bob which was extremely disconcerting. I only fully relaxed and felt confident this was actually going to happen at 4pm on the day preceeding the studio when Bob's agent phoned to find out what time I would be sending a car for Bob. It was agreed that a taxi would collect him at 8.00am the following morning in order to get him to the studio for 9.00am and start recording at 9.30am. Finally, I was reassured. Little did I know what was to come.

It started to go wrong from that moment, when I tried to book a taxi with the big firms. You either need an account, a credit card or cash. I offered my card but was then informed that if I wasn't there when the taxi arrived to pick up Bob, the driver would just turn around and go. I pointed out it was for a client. "Sorry, you'll have to use cash." "Fine. I'd like to book a cab for 8.00am, please." "We don't accept cash bookings in advance!" It was the same story everywhere. Now I was worried - I really didn't fancy my chances of securing a cab in the middle of the rush-hour.

7.40am the following day: On my way into Charing Cross on a train, I try to make a cash booking. After holding on for a couple of minutes, my booking is accepted. Phew! I'm put on hold as I'm transferred to the despatch department which will allocate the nearest taxi. Thrity seconds later, I hear the following chilling message: "Sorry, we currently have no vehicles in the area. Goodbye!" And with that, I'm cut off. I try again but find myself on hold...All the way to Charing Cross.

8.00am: Time for Plan B. I abandon the phone booking and join the taxi rank. I enquire the cost of a taxi to the studio via Chelsea, give the driver an extra ten pounds, then send him off to collect Bob. In the meanwhile, I start making my own way to the studio. Once again, I relax; once again, it's misguided.

8.30am: I get a call on my mobile from the cab driver. Supposedly, he's at the address but he's getting no answer. He asks if I have a phone number, but, of course, I've never even spoken to Bob. I say to hang on while I try the agent but I'm not particularly optimistic as we are outside office hours. The good news - I find the phone is manned by a locum; the bad news - he doesn't have access to Bob's details. He says he will try and get in touch with the agent proper and call me back.

8.35am: True to his word, he calls me with Bob's mobile number. Thank God for that! But it goes straight to voicemail. I try the agent again but it just rings and rings. Ten minutes later, after much knocking from the taxi driver, I agree that he should call it a day. I wouldn't mind - it's still only 8.45am but it feels much, much later!

8.55am: From the studio, I finally manage to get through to the agent again. He agrees to phone Bob at home and call me back.

9.00am: He duly calls back with news that Bob is there, waiting! How the taxi driver and Bob didn't meet, I shall never know, but the fact remains, they didn't. At least, I now don't have to break the news to Stacey that she will be commentating solo. The studio manager books another taxi on the BBC's account but it will be 9.25am before it sets off. I thank my lucky stars that I had the foresight to book the studio until 11.30am, just in case we had technical problems! But for that...

9.10am: Having established contact with Brisbane, I take Bob's seat in the studio to test the link. Speaking on Bob's microphone and listening on his headphones, everything works perfectly - I can hear Stacey, she can hear me. I fill her in with the morning's adventures and we pass the time in very pleasant but expensive conversation as we wait for Bob to arrive...And wait...And wait...

10.35am: With 55 minutes of the booking left, Bob finally makes his entrance. I spend five minutes settling him him, giving him my pep talk and letting him get reacquainted with Stacey.

10.40am: Finally, we start recording with just 50 minutes left. Unfortunately, we don't manage to get beyond the opening titles at the first time of asking, so it's take two. Just as we start rolling again, there are flashing lights in the studio control room. It's a fire alarm! The studio manager says it's not a full alarm, so we can keep recording. That state of grace lasts less than thirty seconds. It's now a full alarm and we have to evacuate the building.

10.55am: Still in the street, waiting for the fire brigade to arrive, I broach the question of a possible overrun with the studio manager. His intake of breath doesn't bode well. He says he might be able to stretch it to 11.45am at the most as KT Tunstall is due in after us to do a live session. I realise it's now touch and go. And because we are already a fortnight beyond my intended DVD production deadline, there is absolutely no chance of doing this on another occasion.

11.10am: Now we're really down to the wire. If we're not back in the studio and recording in the next five minutes, the commentary will never happen. Mercifully, we get the break we need - we're allowed back into the building. Now we have to get to the studio as fast as we can and go for it. We're going to have to nail this in one take.

11.15am: We've re-established the link to Brisbane and we're underway again. I've gone from the luxurious scenario of having fully 2 hours to acheive a really polished result to now being grateful for whatever I get. Then another problem rapidly starts to emerge. The link that had been perfect all morning whilst I was chatting to Stacey starts to intermittently break up. We have absolutely no time to stop and sort it out so we have no option but to live with it. Luckily, Stacey is being separately recorded in Brisbane so I'll be able to repair her contribution but it makes interaction very difficult for Bob as it's sometimes impossible to hear what she's saying.

11.45am: By some miracle, we've got to the end of the episode and, in spite of everything the morning has thrown at me, I've stayed calm throughout and I've ended up with what I believe is a more than passable commentary. I beg the indulgence of the studio manager to record two brief pick-ups, just to cover myself and we're done.

11.46am: KT Tunstall's roadies start to file in and I leave with my precious, hard-won recording in the bag. It's been one of the longest mornings of my life.

I remarked to a friend of mine later that day that it's just as well I'd planned everything so carefully otherwise who knows what might have happened!

When you come to listen to the commentary, no doubt you'll remember this story and be expecting the worst; on the contrary, unless I'd told you, I don't think you'd have ever guessed that it was acheived in such adversity. Still, if it's all the same to you, I'd prefer it to be just a little easier next time...

CRAIG ROBINS

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