Mary Beard: A Don’s Life November 19, 2017


I am still a relative novice in TV documentary terms, but I have done enough of them to know that some of the trickiest (and intriguing) parts of the whole process are that most people don’t think about the microphone booth

It doesn’t take much to get the idea of what shooting film on a Roman site means, even though it all takes much longer that one ever imagines. You do the whole chat perfectly but then a noisy plane goes over in the last 15 seconds, or everyone realises too late that your microphone lead was showing (that one always baffles me a bit as every viewer KNOWS that the presenter is wearing a mic — what is so special about concealing it?) — and that is before you repeat the performance to a different sized lens.

And it is, needless to say, much harder work and much less glam than it looks. Up and off at 6.00 am to get to the site before anyone else turns up, and back at 7.00 pm isn’t uncommon.

But I am talking about the other bits of the process. I realise that some readers of this blog are pathologically opposed to music in documentaries, but I can assure you it is very carefully planned indeed (even if you don’t much like the result). And what I have been doing today is another long. long time consuming process. That is the voice over.

In principle, it is all very simple. You sit in a dark little booth with microphone, reading out the linking bits of the script that you have helped write, between your pieces on film. But in practice you are always wanting to changes things, even if ever so slightly. That’s sometimes because you realise at the last minute that you have made some dreadful howler, sometimes because you find that you have been repeating some favourite word far too often (‘glimpse’, in my case, is a common one) — or because at the last minute you realise there is just much more elegant or punchy way of making the point.

That is all well and good, but by this stage the pictures are ‘locked’ and nine times out of ten the clever little adjustments prove to be too long (or will only fit if you gabble them horribly), or just as bad they mean that the  words and pictures get out of synch (so that you find you are talking about the luscious pottery over images of the luscious goldwork and vice versa).  Some of those carefully planned words just have to be taken out, with the kind of pain and time that fine-tuned excision always demands.

So today, I am confident that we have made all kinds of clever little improvements to half the programme we were trying to finishing, but it has taken all day, and it will take all of next Sunday too. Will anyone appreciate the effort? I hope so.