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Behind The Scenes

Born To Be Different A Decade On, C4

Our series following the lives of disabled children has had a huge impact on everyone involved, and hopefully the viewers too, says Anna Strickland

Anna Strickland
Producer

Ten years ago, six families from across the UK signed up to be part of a documentary for Channel 4. They agreed to share the first year of their children’s lives, and saw this as an opportunity to get the often-overlooked subject of disability to a mainstream audience. A decade on, Born To Be Different is still being filmed.

In 2001, it was becoming clear to everyone involved that the initial hour-long documentary was turning into a unique longitudinal project. I started on the series as a production co-ordinator, and at that stage I had no idea that Born To Be Different would continue to have such an impact on my own life.

Since filming started, the series has documented the initial shock at diagnosis, pregnancy, birth, life-changing operations, childhood milestones, and even the battle for life or death. The trust and consistent relationships that have developed over 10 years between the families and the production team can never be underestimated. When you are involved in a long-term project like this, you cannot rely on access from the past. Children grow up, family situations change, people respond to previous transmissions in different ways. Nothing can be taken for granted.

As the emotional and medical issues affecting some of the children have changed as the years have gone on, the parents’ dedication to continue to let their families’ lives be documented has been extraordinary. Ten years on, any initial excitement about the filming process has faded, yet the commitment and relationships that have developed between everyone involved endure. We are in contact with most of the families and children at least once a month, working out when we think a visit is needed, with or without cameras.

At the same time, we are continually trying to adapt our limited fi lming schedule to the changing lives of the six children. We often have to drop everything at short notice to film something we feel is an important event in their lives.

As the series has evolved and the children have grown, it has become vital that they too give consent for their lives to be filmed. Ten years ago, it was their parents who made the decision for their child to be part of a documentary; now it is just as important to make sure the children themselves are happy to continue with the fi lming process. With their permission, we can spend many hours with the camera rolling while we chat about everyday life, laughing and just enjoying each other’s company, and then – when you least expect it – the most profound words come out.

Spending so much time with these six remarkable children has had a huge impact on everyone involved in the project. When I first met these families, I was new to television and had no idea what becoming part of this series would entail. All of our lives have moved on and the resilience and humour of the children has taught me more than I would have ever imagined.

In the past two years, three of the children have had to undergo major surgery. Not long after I had been in the operating theatre f ilming with them, I had to go into hospital for an operation of my own. The way these children had so bravely dealt with such diffi cult circumstances had a strong impact on my own experience, and I hope that viewers watching the programme feel the same way.

Every few years, after each series finishes in production, we invite all the families to get together. This year, as the weekend came to an end, I started to thank the families for continuing to share some of their most intimate moments with us. After stumbling my way through a few words, I had to stop as emotions overcame me. That moment really summed up what working on this series has meant.

The commitment of the families to continue to share their lives, and from C4 to keep showing the issues surrounding disability to a mainstream audience, has reinforced the importance of TV as a vehicle to bring to the fore issues that are often overlooked.

But at the very heart of Born To Be Different are six absolutely amazing children: Zoe, Nathan, Shelbie, William, Emily and Hamish. Despite their disabilities, they continue to inspire so many around them.

 

We made this latest series over two years, filming 25 crew days and more than 70 selfshot director days. Knowing when and where to use these filming days over the year is my biggest challenge.

Born To Be Different documents an ongoing story, but it also follows compelling present-tense narratives. Unlike Seven Up, we do not just turn up after a set period of time and film updates with the children. Our aim is to follow observationally all the challenges and breakthroughs the children experience over a two-year period.

In this series, with William deteriorating and needing urgent medical attention, Zoe undergoing further pioneering surgery, and Emily finally having the major operation she has waited years to have, we had many important stories we needed to follow.

While the tariff for the series is good for a Channel 4 hour, it is no more than one would receive for a Cutting Edge shot over a month or six weeks. So we face the constant juggling act of making sure we can respond and follow the most important stories without blowing the whole budget in the fi rst six months.

Shelbie is in and out of hospital constantly, William (above) has had a major health scare, and Zoe’s operations call her into hospital regularly. We have to be able to respond to these events at any time over the two years. Anna and Marc have a brilliant relationship with the children and their families. Even if they’re working on something else, both are in regular contact with the families, listening to their concerns and thoughts. Both have extraordinary antennae, knowing when it is important to go and see the families, and when it is crucial that we drop everything to go and film.

We made this latest series over two years, filming 25 crew days and more than 70 selfshot director days. Knowing when and where to use these filming days over the year is my biggest challenge.

Born To Be Different documents an ongoing story, but it also follows compelling present-tense narratives. Unlike Seven Up, we do not just turn up after a set period of time and film updates with the children. Our aim is to follow observationally all the challenges and breakthroughs the children experience over a two-year period.

In this series, with William deteriorating and needing urgent medical attention, Zoe undergoing further pioneering surgery, and Emily finally having the major operation she has waited years to have, we had many important stories we needed to follow.

While the tariff for the series is good for a Channel 4 hour, it is no more than one would receive for a Cutting Edge shot over a month or six weeks. So we face the constant juggling act of making sure we can respond and follow the most important stories without blowing the whole budget in the fi rst six months.

Shelbie is in and out of hospital constantly, William (above) has had a major health scare, and Zoe’s operations call her into hospital regularly. We have to be able to respond to these events at any time over the two years. Anna and Marc have a brilliant relationship with the children and their families. Even if they’re working on something else, both are in regular contact with the families, listening to their concerns and thoughts. Both have extraordinary antennae, knowing when it is important to go and see the families, and when it is crucial that we drop everything to go and film.

BORN TO BE DIFFERENT CATCHING KEY MOMENTS

Patrick Holland
Executive producer

We made this latest series over two years, filming 25 crew days and more than 70 selfshot director days. Knowing when and where to use these filming days over the year is my biggest challenge.

Born To Be Different documents an ongoing story, but it also follows compelling present-tense narratives. Unlike Seven Up, we do not just turn up after a set period of time and film updates with the children. Our aim is to follow observationally all the challenges and breakthroughs the children experience over a two-year period.

In this series, with William deteriorating and needing urgent medical attention, Zoe undergoing further pioneering surgery, and Emily finally having the major operation she has waited years to have, we had many important stories we needed to follow.

While the tariff for the series is good for a Channel 4 hour, it is no more than one would receive for a Cutting Edge shot over a month or six weeks. So we face the constant juggling act of making sure we can respond and follow the most important stories without blowing the whole budget in the fi rst six months.

Shelbie is in and out of hospital constantly, William has had a major health scare, and Zoe’s operations call her into hospital regularly. We have to be able to respond to these events at any time over the two years. Anna and Marc have a brilliant relationship with the children and their families. Even if they’re working on something else, both are in regular contact with the families, listening to their concerns and thoughts. Both have extraordinary antennae, knowing when it is important to go and see the families, and when it is crucial that we drop everything to go and film.

BORN TO BE DIFFERENT

Production company Ricochet TX May (date and time tbc), C4

Series producer Anna Strickland

Executive producer Patrick Holland

DV director Marc Lewis

Editor Kevin Austin

Production manager Katrina Chaloner

Post house Shed Media

Summary Series Following the lives of six extraordinary children.

My tricks of the trade

Anna Strickland

  • In moments of downtime, keep rolling. The best things often happen when you aren’t expecting them. No matter what you have set out to document, it’s real life
  • Know when to cut. If the contributors aren’t happy to be filmed – no matter how important it seems – no amount of footage is ever worth ruining relationships for
  • Be sensitive with material that you have earned trust to gain. It may be a killer bit of sync or actuality, but if it exploits a contributor’s trust, it’s not even worth bringing into the edit

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