The physical and mental toll of coronavirus restrictions mean people working in film and television are at “great danger of burnout”, a leading writer has warned.
Filming work has now resumed after the initial Covid-19 lockdown, but Bill Armstrong, the Scottish chair of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain, said the second lockdown has pushed many workers in the sector into “really quite desperate uncertainty”.
Mr Armstrong, who works on BBC daytime drama Doctors, said the Covid-19 crisis has for many writers “exposed more than anything else the precariousness of their livelihood”.
He said coronavirus restrictions “slow down production to about a third of its normal speed”, adding this then has a knock-on impact on commissions.
Speaking to MSPs on Holyrood’s Culture Committee, he said: “Most of our film and television writers record a loss of half to two-thirds of their income, that is from a very low base to begin with because it is a very precarious livelihood.”
He said stress and anxiety caused by the pandemic has affected the “deep creativity needed to initiate a project”, adding this is now “almost impossible” to do.
Addressing the impact of safety measures put in place on sets, such as social distancing and the requirement to wear masks, he said: “There is both an increase in the time that it takes to film and an increase in the effort… there are endless variables that are unexpected that come up.
“If everybody has to stay two metres away, if everything has to be cleaned after every time somebody touched it, if everybody has to be masked and separate, it just slows down the speed at which something can be filmed, and time is very much money when it comes to filming.
“The longer it takes the more it costs, and the longer it takes to film the less you can do in a week.
“The show that I write for they used to work, they would do about 22 minutes a day, which is incredibly fast for film. Most filming will work about seven to eight minutes a day.
“As you slow that down, that increases your cost, increases the effort you have to put in, there is a great danger of burnout of people.
“If you are a lighting cameraman and you are working every day with a mask on and very, very hot film lights, it physically takes a toll on you and takes a toll on your mental capacity to be creative.
“When you have actors who are doing a scene together and they cannot meet unmasked until the first time they are doing that scene together, that creates problems of its own, that will probably involve you doing more takes than you would normally do, the more takes you do, the more that expands the time.”
Meanwhile Lucy Mason, the interim chief executive of the Federation of Scottish Theatre, spoke about the “bleakness that is starting to emerge” in her sector.
She told MSPs: “The longer this has gone on, the less opportunity there is for people to work. People have just not had the opportunity to work in the jobs in which they are trained.
“Theatres closed in March and the majority have never reopened. And with that goes an extraordinarily large workforce of individuals.
“While there have been some commissions for work online, that doesn’t include a lot of people who work in very practical, very technical roles.
“As an industry that is predicated on bringing people together to share something together, we haven’t been able to do that, so the life-blood, the purpose of our industry, is starting to completely be questioned.
“A lot of people have lost jobs and the prospect of people coming back to employment in the sector is really hard to anticipate.”