3rd November 2020
Steven Grainger has an enviable CV as an art director, including Porridge, Mount Pleasant and New Tricks, but taking the step up to production designer was still daunting. Fortunately, help was at hand from a number of sources, especially ScreenSkills.
In 2019, Steven was due to art direct the third series of BBC show The A Word, about an autistic boy and his family, having done so on the previous series. He had worked with the producers of the show, Fifty Fathoms, many times before, as he had done with the production designer, Paul Spriggs. But due to other commitments, Paul wasn’t going to be able to do the entire job on the third series. This presented a perfect opportunity for Steven.
“The idea of myself stepping up to take over from him was floated,” Steven says. He had been offered production design opportunities before, but didn’t feel he was ready or they weren’t the right fit. But this time was different.
Steven knew the show and all the crew so felt comfortable. But it was undoubtedly the support of ScreenSkills that gave him the biggest boost to step up. Through the Make a Move programme, Paul Spriggs was paid to mentor Steven into the production design role for the first 10 to 12 weeks of prep, and then once he left the project he’d be around by phone or email if Steven needed further advice or support during the production.
The scheme has proven extremely successful for many productions that pay into the High-end TV Skills Fund, which then supplies financial support to employ and train individuals into higher grades. The subsidy is flexible and can be used to cover salaries, mentoring or other expenses such as attending short courses.
In this case, it was very much about the mentoring. “Paul allowed me the freedom to design, because he knew he was essentially being paid to support me,” enthuses Steven. “It was nice because he’d been a strong advocate of my career. It’s unheard of for a production to pay two production designers for 12 weeks. There’s no need to do that normally. But it was possible thanks to ScreenSkills.”
It also gave Steven the confidence to take risks that perhaps he wouldn’t have done if he’d taken a production design job without the support there. “Having Paul there to confirm what I was doing was right was great,” confirms Steven.
However, it wasn’t an easy ride. The third series was due to be very different because the story line had developed quite a bit and was set in a different period of time, so new sets had to be built.
“We went in pretty much afresh because all our sets from the previous series had been scrapped. All the locations were new. It felt like I was doing a new job. That’s why I originally agreed to art direct it because it was going to be a progression of the story, which was going to be interesting from a design perspective,” Steven explains.
Fortunately, even after Paul left and allowed Steven to take over the reins, help was at hand from the producer, Clare Shepherd, and line producer, Nick Brown, who had pushed for Steven to go through ScreenSkills. Indeed, Nick had himself gone through the Make A Move scheme to take the step up from assistant director to line producer. “I always felt like I had their backing,” Steven says.
Paul was always on the other end of the phone too. “He was particularly helpful with political issues, giving advice like how to handle myself with producers, deal with scenarios and meetings. It was invaluable,” adds Steven.
The third season proved to be a success and everyone involved was impressed with the work Steven did. However, he still wasn’t sure whether this would be just be a temporary move and that he’d have to return to art directing. “The next production wasn’t necessarily going to say ‘Oh, he’s experienced now, he’s done one job as a designer,” admits Steven.
Fortunately, towards the end of The A Word, executive producer Marcus Wilson approached Steven and told him how happy he was with the way things were done, and suggested he get an agent.
“He put me in touch with Berlin Associates and contacted them on my behalf, telling them they needed to take me onto their books. They rang me and said this is not the norm. Usually people need two or three credits behind them before they look at them. But Marcus gave me a reference and he’s a big name, so they took me on."
As a result, he was put forward for another production design job working on a new, big budget ITV series Viewpoint, produced by Tiger Aspect, who are under the same umbrella of Fifty Fathoms who make The A Word.
“I was expecting an interview and that would be that, especially as I was coming up against other experienced designers. But I got the job. Again it was a big leap,” says Steven, who is currently immersed in the shoot in Manchester where he lives.
Viewpoint is a surveillance drama about an investigation into a missing girl, starring Noel Clarke as DC Martin King who sets up an observation post in a neighbour’s home. The shoot has been affected by Covid-19, which makes the pressures of the job that much more intense.
“I’ve had to adapt a lot of the sets for Covid management, including factoring in the way we operate, how to enter locations, number of people on set etc. Normally, we’d have free rein to go in and decorate, now it’s all about cleaning teams, masks, a lot of protocols, and we’re constantly tested,” explains Steven.
The locations are also continually changing, due to Covid outbreaks or government regulations. Steven, who is originally from Nottingham himself, has had to move from one location to another, repeatedly re-designing sets.
“Plus, buying things can be problematic. It’s not only more expensive, but turnarounds are tricky. I’m used to working in an industry where I have guys who can make blinds over night for the set. But now we’re thrown into a world where they’re saying they can’t do it because they don’t have the time or can’t get the supplies.”
However, not one to be disheartened, Steven has risen to the challenge and enjoys having to think outside the box. “You have to be flexible,” he laughs. “My training and background, and the teams I have who are used to working on fast-paced, big shows, actually don’t mind. We enjoy the pace, working on the hoof changing designs, and coming up with solutions. It’s a great challenge.”
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