On standby to commission

On standby to commission

Italy’s Frontline: A Doctor’s Diary

As Head of International Current Affairs at the BBC, Sarah Waldron is used to commissioning documentaries at very short notice. Even so, the speed with which the BBC got behind Sasha Joelle Achilli ’s new film, Italy’s Frontline: A Doctor’s Diary, was impressive.


“This was a random call from (producer) Dan (Edge) on a Friday night who said I’ve got this film. I think it’s really special. Do you want to have a look at it?”


Waldron was sent about 35 minutes of material of the film, which shows harassed but heroic doctors and nurses trying to cope as COVID-19 takes hold at a hospital in Cremona. She watched it that evening and texted Edge back to say she was interested. She then sent the film to Patrick Holland and Joanna Carr (the Controller of BBC Two and the commissioner for television current affairs respectively). By the end of Saturday, they had come back and said: “We think this is very exciting. We should do this.”


In other words, it had taken the BBC only a day to decide to board the project. The film had been developed and funded by US partner, PBS. Waldron and her team were buying the UK rights.


This wasn’t the first COVID-19 related film that Waldron had backed. In March, the Our World strand on BBC News had made a film about Wuhan, where coronavirus had originated. There had been other COVID projects too, among them the ground-breaking “Hospital” programmes following the staff at Royal Free in London as they battled the virus.


“We’ve been making coronavirus-related films all through the lockdown, remotely and in other countries but this was the first long-form (one),” Waldron says of Italy’s Frontline which is being shown on the BBC in a 59-minute version.


It’s highly unusual for BBC current affairs docs to have cinema lives. “It’s something we’d be interested in but usually the channel (BBC2) has a delivery date. We deliver to the channel and they are the major funder.”


Waldron has stayed busy commissioning during lockdown. Forthcoming projects she is overseeing, some being made in house and some from independent producers, include “a two-parter on the global story of COVID,” a three part Bollywood-related doc being made by Grain Media, and a three-parter on the “story of oil going back to the 60s and 70s.” 


Although she is working in the current affairs field, Waldron is ready to back directors with strong personal visions. “I feel very lucky. We have a strand which is very open to storytelling forms and documentary is something that (BBC2 Controller) Patrick Holland is very passionate about…I can’t really talk for the rest of (BBC) documentary but as far as I am concerned, we have a great opportunity to commission single 60-minute documentary films, which I do think there are fewer of these days – single subject one hour films – but we are lucky that we still have space for them.”


Waldron cites titles like Olly Lambert’s One Day In Gaza, Jane McMullen’s The Day California Burned (made through Brook Lapping) and Marina Parker’s Anna: The Woman Who Went To Fight Isis as examples of director-driven docs that haven’t just been made to fit into some pre-existing format.


“I strongly believe that if you hire a director, then you should empower them with the creative freedom to make the film. I see myself as a supporter and a talker-through of problems,” Waldron says.


If directors are in “high risk environments,” Waldron and her team will speak to them daily. “We want to give them the confidence to make the right film and the support to do that.”


Waldron points to films like Escape From Dubai: The Mystery Of The Missing Princess, again directed by Jane McMullen, as an example of the Beeb’s continuing willingness “to find stories that are difficult to tell and then trying to tell them.”


Asked how she measures success and whether ratings are always the main criteria and Waldron responds: “It’s beyond ratings definitely. Obviously, you want people to watch the films but you can’t chase ratings as your primary objective. That would be crazy. You have to do what you think is important as far as journalism goes and as far as storytelling goes. There is a balancing act obviously.”