We spoke with Mark Tattersall, the executive producer of a series of recent TV documentaries recorded on operational RN warships and submarines. Here we look at the background and process of making these remarkable programmes.
For those that wonder what RN vessels do when they disappear over the horizon, several recent TV documentaries have helped reveal more about what happens at sea on operations. Making these programmes is not straightforward and is a lengthy process that involves considerable skill. The show must be engaging enough to have a broad appeal to an audience with a limited understanding of what navies do, while at the same time satisfying Operational Security(OPSEC) and Personnel Security (PERSEC) requirements.
Tattersall and his team have built up a considerable body of work, expertise and trust within the MoD for making this kind of production. Warship: Life at Sea Season 1 covered the adventures of HMS Duncan in the Black Sea (2018) and a second series followed her successful deployment in the Gulf. A one-off programme presented by Rob Bell; Onboard Britain’s Nuclear Deterrent (HMS Vengeance 2020) was the first time cameras were allowed onboard an armed nuclear deterrent submarine at sea. This was followed up by a 2-part series Submarine: Life Under the Waves (HMS Trenchant 2021) and Warship: Life at Sea Season 3 – (HMS Northumberland 2021).
Tattersall originally set out to make a documentary about life on a submarine but the RN was initially wary. Hoping to provide some more positive coverage of the Type 45 destroyers in action, the RN instead offered a chance to cover HMS Diamond’s deployment to the Gulf in 2017. Ironically Diamond suffered a propellor shaft defect in the Mediterranean and was forced to return home early. The documentary crew were switched to HMS Duncan and were fortunate to get footage of a significant interaction with Russian forces. There is always an element of luck involved in making such programmes, by nature RN operations are never predictable. Covering a frigate on Towed Array Patrol (TAPS) duty could have been very dull. Anti-submarine warfare, aka ‘awfully slow warfare’, can imply weeks with nothing much happening but HMS Northumberland’s trip in 2020 proved highly eventful and produced compelling TV.
These programmes have been a rating success and an average of 1.6 million people watched episodes of the recent series, Channel 5’s highest figures for those weeks and outperforming the BBC and ITV at times. Some of the programmes have been sold around the world and have been available on a variety of foreign media platforms including in the US, Canada and Russia.
For the RN, there are risks involved in allowing cameras onboard an operational platform but the results have shown the exercise to be worthwhile. The coverage has proved broadly positive in reputational terms and helps in recruitment. It is also another way for the public to understand and appreciate the purpose of the navy in more depth. For example, although going on for more than 5 decades, much of the public is unaware of the cat and mouse game with Russian ships and submarines coming close to the UK. For the crew, the presence of cameras adds another pressure to what may already be a tense situation, both in terms of personal scrutiny and having additional people in tight spaces.
Tattershall accepts documentary making means “you can’t please all the people all the time”. There are three types of viewers: 1. naval enthusiasts and experts who want every single detail and are frustrated by what’s obscured or omitted. 2. The ex-matelots who are likely to complain ‘it was all much tougher in my day’ or “we didn’t do things like that’. 3. The main target audience that just wants to see plenty of action and needs a commentary explaining what they are seeing in layman’s terms.
Under OFCOM rules a documentary must be truthful and events can’t be faked or edited to mislead. The complex OPSEC requirements mean that timing and continuity has to be adjusted more than normal so, for example, the reaction times to detection and operating procedures are not fully revealed. If you analyse the shows there are sometimes unanswered questions or the flow of the story may seem jumpy but this can be because the platform may be involved in a much wider operation with sensitive aspects that can’t be divulged.
Despite the rigorous checking by the RN and advice from experts, some minor errors get through (eg The Vice-Admiral Kulakov can’t be described as a “cutting edge” Russian destroyer – built in 1980 and HMS Northumberland has six, not four main engines). This is being pedantic, the main audience doesn’t care and is not really the fault of programme-makers who have striven for as much accuracy as possible. Commentary may sometimes over-dramatise what might seem routine events to seasoned sailors but the programme has to keep people’s attention. Inevitably mechanical breakdowns feature quite prominently and can erroneously give the impression of vessels that are falling apart but it does not make great TV to show the vast majority of time during a long deployment when everything is working fine.
Before production, the documentary makers have to sign the official secrets act and a contract that gives the MoD veto over the broadcast of any material recorded on board. The series are mostly character-driven, following the progress of particular sailors representing a cross-section of the crew but no one is forced to take part and anyone can opt-out of being shown on camera. For the recent series filmed on HMS Northumberland, Tattersall employed 3 camera operators who lived on board for the whole deployment and to a large extent had to share the ups and downs of the sailors they are documenting. Around 1,700 hours of footage was shot which had to be edited down into five 50-minute episodes. This process took about 8 weeks and involves some tough choices about what gets cut. A rough edit then has to be approved by a panel of up to 40 people from the RN and MoD who have a variety of perspectives on OPSEC. There are many hours of discussion over what can and cannot be shown. Further rounds of edits and approvals are needed before the show is ready for broadcast.
Tattersall is now working on the fourth series of Warship: Life at Sea to be filmed on an as-yet-undisclosed, ship.
(All photos: Shaun Roster, RN Media Operations Officer)