a. Pre-Production

Obtaining the Necessary Permission

In order to film the Elinor M. Brent-Dyer centenary celebrations, it was first necessary to obtain permission from the organisers, Polly Goerres and Clarissa Cridland, who formed the Friends of the Chalet School Centenary Committee. Fortunately I had been in contact with Polly Goerres since 10 December 1992 (archived correspondence), towards the end of my first term of research. Her details had been passed on to me by Rosemary Auchmuty, who had been contacted by Goerres following the publication of Auchmuty's study of girls' school stories, A World of Girls (The Women's Press, 1992). Auchmuty later told me that the Committee was interested in having the celebrations filmed, and in my fourth letter to Goerres, on 1 February 1993 (archived correspondence), I accordingly asked if the Committee was already working with a production company, and if not whether they would be interested in exploring the idea further with me.

By 10 February 1993 (archived correspondence) we had discussed this by phone, and Goerres had had initial discussions with Cridland. On 2 March 1993 (archived correspondence), following a phone conversation between myself and Cridland, Goerres wrote: "I gather Clarissa has been in touch with you regarding the documentary. It would be splendid to have a true Chalet fan like you, especially one with your media experience, involved in it." Shortly after this, a letter (undated) arrived, endorsing the planned documentary and giving permission for the centenary events to be filmed. This meant that I was granted the necessary permission twelve months before the first of the events to be filmed took place, and this was extremely helpful in planning the filming.

Exploring Funding Opportunities

Although I eventually made the film by myself, with no outside funding, I first explored the possibility of obtaining funding from the BBC, working together with an independent production company. I had previously worked with a number of television production companies, but chose to approach Kingfisher Films first with a written proposal. This was a company owned by producer Ian McAuley, whom I had met when working at the University of East Anglia student television station, Nexus, in 1980, and whom I had met again whilst working on the Channel 4 Cutting Edge programme, No Home for Barry, in 1989. McAuley was immediately enthusiastic, and by 15 April 1993 he had drawn up a draft proposal for presentation to the commissioning editor of BBC 2's Bookmark series. This was the only possible "slot" at the time; one of the problems of programme-making in the UK, particularly in 1990 when satellite and cable broadcasting was still in its infancy, is the limited number of screening opportunities available compared to a country like the USA. After some discussion, the final proposal was submitted at the beginning of May 1993.

On 15 June 1993 the proposal was rejected by the new Bookmark editor, Roland Keating, on the grounds that: "popular as [Brent-Dyer's] stories are, I don't really feel there is enough in them to sustain a full-length documentary. So with some regret I must say no." (archived correspondence) However, on 28 June McAuley wrote to me that this was: "Very disappointing for me personally - I really thought this was an excellent proposal with an excellent chance of production." (archived correspondence), and this gave me the confidence, on 28 July 1993, to write personally to Keating, enclosing a copy of my MA thesis and asking him to reconsider his decision (archived correspondence). As a result, McAuley and I met with Keating in September 1993, having provided him with some additional information about the interviewees we could expect to include, and after a successful hour's meeting the programme was shortlisted for production.

Unfortunately, Keating eventually decided to commission a programme on the Trollope centenary celebrations which were also taking place in 1994, since Prime Minister John Major was known to be a Trollope fan. This programme was felt to be too similar to the premise of our proposed film for Keating to commission both. At this point McAuley felt that there was little chance of obtaining funding elsewhere, and withdrew from the project. I explored the possibility of obtaining British Film Institute and Arts Council funding, but discovered that my student status prevented me from applying for these.

I was therefore left with the choice of abandoning the project, or of developing a means by which I could continue with the project alone and unfunded. Since I had always intended to include a video with my final thesis, and since I believed it was important that the celebrations were recorded, I decided to continue alone. (Low-budget, lone film-making has been brought within the reach of many more film-makers in recent years by new technological developments. Given that the British film industry is both extremely small and dominated by white men, this is often the only viable option available. )

Choosing a Format

The first decision which I made was that I would strive to produce a film which was technically of as high a quality as possible, and as close to broadcast standard as could be achieved - otherwise, its potential uses would be severely limited, and it would not meet the PhD definition of "publishable quality". I then had to consider what equipment I could use to achieve this, given the limitations posed both by my impairment and by working alone, as well as by the lack of funding. Shooting on film was immediately ruled out, partly because the sound would need to be recorded separately and so would require more than one person (I could not afford to pay a volunteer's expenses), and partly because of the cost of developing and printing film stock. Video was therefore the only option which I could consider seriously, leaving me with a choice of formats.


Today, the other alternative would have been to use a digital video camcorder (DVC), and this is likely to have been my choice if it had been available at the time. DVC is a more stable format than Hi8 and generally performs better; it is the format which I will opt for as soon as I can afford it and a miniaturised model is released. However, at the time of writing (1997) it is still considerably cheaper to use Hi8, and this will continue to be a viable alternative for many researchers.

Putting Together a Shooting Kit

Having opted to use Hi8, I purchased a number of video magazines, all of which tested and recommended equipment (I would always recommend this course of action when purchasing electronics equipment, both in terms of quality and of price guides). At the top of the range, the semi-professional Hi8 cameras cost between £2,000 and £3,000, and as such were beyond my budget. Perhaps fortunately, they were also too heavy for me to use comfortably, and so were ruled out on the grounds of inaccessibility. This left cameras with an average price of £1200, which I discovered from the magazines were generally obtainable from electronics warehouses for around £1000.

I opted for the Sony CCDTR1E, because it was the lightest Hi8 camera available on the market and, unlike other Hi8 cameras, it used lithium batteries which were both very light and long-lasting. Its picture fell short of the optimum quality achievable with Hi8, but this was inevitable because of the miniature nature of the camera. I chose to pay the additional £100 for a model with a colour viewfinder, and I would strongly recommend this course to other researchers. (Although conventional wisdom dictates that it is easier to set the focus and exposure using a black-and-white viewfinder, I find the opposite to be the case with LCD screens.) The camera had few features aside from the option of manual control over exposure and focus, but this was typical of the Hi8 cameras available at the time. Its biggest design fault was in the remote control, which was switched off by pushing the switch forward, when I felt instinctively that this should switch it on.

In terms of accessories, I purchased four additional batteries, since one battery would power only approximately 50 minutes of shooting and would then need an hour and a half to recharge (manufacturers' estimates). I also purchased several yards of extension lead, in order that I could use a mains power supply where this was possible (the camera offered this option), since much of the shooting would be concentrated over several days and I was concerned about whether I would have enough power available to me. In addition, I purchased a shoulder bag which was designed for the camera, and a head-cleaning tape to prevent problems later on.

Next, I looked at whether the camera's lens could be improved upon and added an ultraviolet or "daylight" filter; this was essential to obtain the maximum performance when shooting outside, particularly in the sunshine. (Otherwise light tends to have a blue tinge and colours become washed out.) I also purchased a lens cloth and brush, in order to prevent dirt from interfering with the picture quality.

Next I looked at the camera's built-in microphone and decided to add an external microphone which I would use whenever the filming conditions allowed, for the following reasons. First, it was important that the microphone was placed as close to the source of the sound as possible in order to obtain the best possible sound quality, but the camera would often have to be further away than this to obtain the required picture. Second, testing showed that the built-in microphone tended to pick up the sound of the camera's motor and zoom mechanism when filming in quiet conditions. Third, there was no means of filtering out wind noise from the built-in microphone, and this is generally necessary when filming outside.

I wanted an omnioid (picks up sound from a wide range), stereo microphone, since I prefer to work with ambient noise as I feel that it conveys more of the atmosphere of the place where filming took place. (Most sound recordists would use a mono microphone with a short and narrow range, and record the main sound source only.) I therefore purchased a semi-professional Sennheiser Mike 66, which also had a bass filter to cut down background noise and a separate wind shield.

While this microphone proved extremely satisfactory, it became clear that in certain conditions it would have been better to record interviews using a mono, uni-directional tie-clip microphone with a shorter range. I was unable to afford this too, but would strongly recommend it to other researchers. The other problems in practice were that the wind shield covered the off/on switch to the microphone, meaning that I could not easily check that the power supply was switched on; and that it proved possible on occasions to push the connection to the camera in far enough to cut off the internal microphone, but not far enough to connect the external microphone properly, resulting in a buzz on the sound track.

Since I would have no assistant to hold the microphone, I adapted a bulldog clip to attach the microphone to the tripod (see below) when using it near the camera, although this often fell apart and needed tightening with the screwdriver. I also purchased a desk stand for when the microphone was being used away from the camera. One problem which I had was in changing between the bulldog clip fitting and desk stand, since the microphone required a different fitting for each.

In addition, I added a pair of headphones or "cans" in order to monitor the sound, both as it was being recorded and as it was being played back (the camera not having built-in speakers). In practice, the headphones needed using with care, since the cable could bang against the tripod with the sound being picked up by the camera. However, their use is essential to ensure the quality of the sound track.

Next, I bought a tripod, since this was essential to obtain steady shots (and would also be easier for me than lifting a camera the whole time). I looked for one which was both lightweight and stable, with a built-in spirit level. Unfortunately, a professional tripod with a fluid head was beyond my budget; the result of this during filming was that pan shots were difficult to shoot and had to be avoided where possible. However, it is likely that a professional tripod would in any case have been inaccessible on the grounds of weight. As with most tripods, the camera was screwed to a shoe which dropped securely into place on top of the tripod. Although this shoe was uncomfortable when using the camera for hand-held shots, leaving it in place meant that I could switch easily between the two types of shots. Nonetheless, I added a screwdriver to the kit in order that the shoe could be removed when the tripod was not being used (the tripod's weight meant that I could not always take it with me when filming, however desirable this was from a technical point of view).

Next I looked at lighting. Most of my filming would take place under natural lighting conditions, but I wanted to boost this where it was both necessary and possible. I already owned a basic studio light, and I purchased daylight as well as spotlight bulbs for this in order that it could be used to boost natural lighting conditions too (tungsten bulbs add a yellow tinge). Later, when I went to Guernsey and was unable to carry the light with me, I used daylight bulbs in domestic light fittings to improve interview conditions. I also purchased a mini-reflector, to reduce shadows on interviewees.

Finally, I bought tape stock. Hi8 tape comes in two different types: Metal E (for Evaporated), which is best for image definition; and Metal P (for Particle), which is best for colour; I therefore decided to use Metal E for filming interiors, and Metal P for filming exteriors. As a result of my limited budget, I purchased Sony Metal E and Maxell Metal P domestic tapes which I used for most of the filming, limiting professional-quality Sony Metal E to Helen McClelland's scenes. In the event, the professional-quality tapes performed the worst.

In terms of carrying the equipment, I needed one bag which could accompany me on the flights to the celebrations held in Guernsey and Austria as well as when travelling overland within the UK. I looked first at purpose-made camera bags, but these were both extremely expensive - up to £200 each - and generally unsuitable for me (most were heavy and designed to be carried over a shoulder with the tripod slung underneath, meaning that they could never be put down). Eventually I opted for a large, strong, waterproof nylon holdall costing only £18, which I strengthened further by padding the bottom with foam rubber. This holdall had two wheels on one end and a handle at the other, meaning that it could be dragged as well as carried by separate hand straps and a shoulder strap. There was plenty of space inside for the camera, tripod, microphone, reflector and power supply, with light if necessary, while two zipped compartments held smaller accessories. I also purchased a rucksack which could contain a smaller shooting kit, for when filming conditions made it impossible for me to take the larger bag.

The kit then contained:


Finding Interviewees

Essentially, the people who appeared in the film The Chalet School Revisited fall into one of two categories: either they are a "key character"; or they are a "fan". "Key characters" had become obvious during my contact with Friends of the Chalet School in 1994: they included Elinor M. Brent-Dyer's biographer, Helen McClelland; the Centenary Committee members Polly Goerres and Clarissa Cridland; the bookdealer Gill Bilski; Sue Sims, a leading collector and co-editor of the fanzine Folly; and the founder of Friends of the Chalet School, Ann Mackie-Hunter. Fortunately, all but Mackie-Hunter (who lived in Australia, and who was visiting only for certain of the celebrations) were already working with me on the Bettany Press book The Chalet School Revisited, and were happy to cooperate with the project. Mackie-Hunter I did not approach until Hereford, but she was also pleased to cooperate and I carried out an interview while she was staying with Gill Bilski following the Hereford weekend (FOCS 2).

Due to the fact that I had secured the cooperation of the Centenary Committee more than twelve months before filming began, finding fans to interview also proved to be relatively easy. First, at the beginning of April 1994 the Centenary Committee referred to my plans in a mailing sent to everyone attending the Hereford weekend - over 150 people - making it clear that the filming had the committee's full support. Then the committee provided me with their mailing list, and on 8 April 1994 I sent out a standard letter - which I had first cleared with the committee - explaining in detail what I was doing and asking for volunteers. I also provided a basic schedule, so that volunteers could suggest when would be most convenient for their interview to take place, and a time and date when they should phone me if they were interested. In addition, I asked people to contact me if for any reason they did not want to appear in the film, in order that I could avoid them. (I made it clear that they did not have to give a reason.) I added personal notes to some letters, when it appeared that the addressees would be particularly interesting (for example, where mothers and daughters were both attending the weekend).

As a result of this mailing, over 9 & 10 April 1994 I had twenty telephone calls from volunteers, involving twenty-five potential interviewees. Some volunteers turned out to be from Scotland and Guernsey, or were attending the Austrian trip, and I arranged to interview them at these locations; the others I arranged to interview at Hereford. My film diary reads:

Only one person, a recipient of one of the hand-written notes, wrote back asking not to be interviewed, and in fact she proved happy to appear as part of the "background". Following this initial contact, the only location where I did not gain enough interviewees was Edinburgh - possibly because many Scottish FOCS members found Hereford too far to travel. However, I was given the names of eight possible interviewees by the then Scottish organiser, Fen Crosbie, and with these leads found it easy to arrange to film a group of fans (Edinburgh 3) as well as carrying out three more interviews (Edinburgh 2 & 3).

The lesson which I learned from the above is that it is best to be absolutely open with interviewees - "key characters" had already got to know me before filming commenced, and I included details of my CV and invited further questions about my background and my work in my letter to fans - as well as to have the public support of anyone in authority and/or who is known to potential interviewees. This combination seemed to give volunteers the confidence to phone me, and generally meant that people cooperated with the filming. While I did experience hostility from a few people attending the celebrations, particularly at the beginning, I believe that this would have been much greater and could potentially have caused me problems if less had been known about me - since the hostility appeared to be based on fear - and/or I had had less enthusiastic support from the committee and other organisers. It should also be noted that, from an ethical point of view, it is best to be open with interviewees so long as this does not interfere with the aims of the research.

Next: II. b. Production
Return to: Making The Chalet School Revisited Index
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