Comedic fiction and the heightened reality of hidden-camera mischief.

My first year as a TV runner dropped me into the nucleus of nineties comedy. There were only three UK terrestrial broadcasters and I notched up credits on all of them – yes, I’m that old! Starting out on C4’s live comedy fundraiser, The Big Snog. I rose from backstage bog-scrubber to Lenny Henry’s script holder and Steve Coogan’s gag-test dummy.

Bright lights, and hidden cameras

Next, I carried the oversized frying pans for my heros, Vic & Bob, on the Christmas special of their madcap Shooting Stars panel show. My fledgling career in TV then led to make a C4 pilot with the Crystal Maze team, earn a junior researcher credit on a kids game show and then helped set up a star studded Evening with Lily Savage for ITV.

I was pretty sure that humour would play a big role in my career but I was yet to discover how and I still needed to go to University in Leeds. During this period up north, I underwent some BBC training courses, worked on student radio and qualified with a bachelor of broadcasting degree. I also spent 6 months as a researcher in the BBC’s incubator for quirky telly types and made many friends in the Entertainment & Features department at BBC Manchester.

I was drawn into the Monkey Kingdom to set up a series of daft undercover stunts for C4’s Make My Day, a show where unsuspecting punters experience an amazing 24hrs. Who knew that hiding in bush with a camcorder could be so exhilarating?

My first directing job came soon afterwards on the infamous hidden camera show, SWAG. This was a series that performed entrapment for the sake of entertainment and delivered a comedic comeuppance to all. DV cameras and recorders had just become affordable and I got my hands on the tech and started to devise ways of hiding cameras in street furniture. My favourite was a wheelie-bin which could be innocuously positioned in any urban environment and was big enough for me to get inside. However, I came a cropper when a passerby dumped the remains of their chicken takeaway on me mid-shoot. There had to be a better way!

One of the great things about working on the many reality TV behemoths were the entertainment spin-off shows that transmitted on the digital channels. These were well resourced productions that required fast-turnaround VT inserts and we could be pretty anarchic in the early days. Many of the 2 to 3 minute films I made were totally bonkers including an animated WW1 reenactment with cheese graters and a furry puppet sketch show.

In the time between telly making I put my collaborative skills and creative effort into filmmaking enlisting cast and crew to enter numerous 48hr film competitions. It’s amazing what can be achieved over a weekend and one of these films, Lucky Old Bag, was nominated for an award at the Edinburgh film festival.

The chance to make longer form, scripted comedy started with with Sirens, the pilot episode of a sitcom. I directed Simon Wright’s original stage play about a honey trap agency for the Sitcom Trials and cast cosmetically enhanced celebrity, Alicia Douvall. Of course, she had a friend who owned a studio and owed her a favour and asked if I’d I like to film there? Too right I would!

A screenplay was hastily put together with telly scribe, Ivor Baddiel and soon a self-funded, gorilla style production resulted in a 3 day, multi-camera shoot. What Alicia didn’t tell me was that ‘Bluebird Studios’ had an XXX rated output and we’d have to clean up after their christmas party, I’ll never forget the smell of cherry lube and you’ll never guess the A-level a porn queen needs to further her career.

ITV’s Off Their Rockers had a cast of geriatrics who played hidden camera pranks on young people in the street. It was scripted like a comedy sketch show and the challenge was to shoot it covertly but still make it look and sound as glossy and polished as a sitcom, this called for a fresh shooting technique.Out went the minicams and CCTV style coverage, and in came large sensor cameras with long lenses – but how could these be concealed in the high street?

Becoming a dad changed my life forever – it’s wonderful to have kids who appreciate my sense of humour – but I also discovered the ultimate method of urban camera camouflage, the pram-cam. The bassinet style pram that everyone gets for newborns is the perfect cover for for a camera and servo assisted lens mounted on tripod head. They’re very portable, weatherproof and nobody bats an eyelid at a tired looking ‘dad’ who is attending to their ‘baby’ C300 camera. The trick works a treat when coupled up with a fraught looking ‘mum’ who is standing by with release forms! Here’s a link to my Pram Cam video so you can build one yourself.

Off Their Rockers became a big hit and four seasons were made, being part of a beloved comedy has done wonders for my career and I’m now one of the UK’s go-to guys for hidden camera entertainment. I still have ambitions in scripted comedy and have developed skills in writing, producing and using technology to innovate new ways of shooting covertly. There’s immense potential for covert recordings made in virtual reality and ultra high definition, plus there’s plenty more areas of real human comedy that can be exposed with mischievous subterfuge.