Research and pre-production – by which I mean the first day on a new project until the last day before filming – for a factual TV programme, usually lasts for a few weeks. Many historians, authors and academics I have met during different productions are often surprised by this short period of time – but I have yet to work on some lavish production where research time is more generously allocated!*
I have spent anything from 8 days (one prog.) to about 5 weeks (series) before the first day of filming. Research and producing are often mixed together but it is important to know that in reality the majority of this time is used finding the right contributors, locations, permits and working out the logistics for filming – rather than sitting and reading up on a subject.
In England, calling up a museum or location and arranging to film there, is fairly straightforward… but in Poland, a lot more time is needed to first establish a contact and then later arrange the various permits needed – Though, it must be said, that in my experience, once this has been done, most Polish institutions, organizations and museums are unusually accommodating and helpful during the actual filming.
So, it’s obviously a clear advantage to work on subjects one already has a certain familiarity with – and a few established connections – as time can then also be spent on more ‘traditional’ archive based research.
” A different kind of Narnia…”
For the episode of ‘Żegota’ (Code name for the Council to Aid Jews in occupied Poland) part of the forthcoming History channel series “Heroes of War: Poland” – I visited the Polish Underground Movement Study Trust in London.
About 90% of the funding for Żegota came from the Polish Government in Exile, and I was looking for some of the documents relating to this, when I came across a different document:
A radiogram dated 24th of April 1943 briefly and simply stating: “… Since the 19th of April, following the continuing German liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto the Jews have begun battle. The Germans are surprised by the resistance. The battle continues, many fires….”**
There is something incredibly moving about holding an original document of this kind – for a moment, as you are reading it, it speaks to you in the present. In these words the past is happening right now. The connection through physical objects is often very powerful.
Another advantage of working on subjects within your personal field of interest is of course the opportunity to meet and discuss matters with the authors of some of the books on your very own bookshelf!
I will put together a recommended reading list, for anyone interested to find out more on the subjects in the ‘Heroes of War’ series, in a separate post…
*Please note that this post refers to research periods for factual network television productions. Larger channels often have bigger budgets (more time), whilst independent documentaries are governed by very different rules and time frames!
**The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began on 19 April 1943. Estimates of fighter strength usually range around 1000 to 2000 (very poorly armed) combatants – the majority from ŻOB (Jewish Fighting Organization) and ŻZW (Jewish Military Union) against approx. 2100 German troops (with heavy weapons, incl. tanks, armoured vehicles and air support).
Estimates of Jewish inhabitants still in the Ghetto at the outbreak of the Ghetto Uprising differ – from around 40, 000 to 70,000 people. (Historian Richard C. Lukas therefore makes the argument that between 3-5% of the Jewish population took part in combat during the Ghetto Uprising).
Most of the significant fighting had ended by the 29th of April, with the final German suppression, of the heroic but doomed Ghetto Uprising, on the 16th May 1943.