Wingspan Productions: Programme research

Posted on 13 August 2013

My internship was with Wingspan Productions, a company producing television documentaries, working on a programme about the power of myths in the past, commissioned by the BBC.

The programme was mainly focused on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but ranged across subjects as diverse as medievalism to Luddism. I didn’t have any previous experience of working with television production, and I was very interested to see how history is presented to a television audience rather than through the more traditional routes of museums or academia.

As the company is based in London, all communication was done via phone or email. A few weeks before my internship officially started I was sent a draft script to get me up to speed with the team’s ideas. I spent some time reading around the topics to get some background information and made a plan of any ideas that came out of it. I also spent a lot of time watching history documentaries, although now from the perspective of someone wanting to learn rather than be entertained!

A few weeks later I was put in touch with the programme’s director who briefed me on his vision for the programme and gave me some areas of research to work on. I then went away to find out as much as I could about those areas and produce a condensed report of my findings. This was mostly done in university libraries and using the internet. I had to travel to other libraries to find certain key books and I spent a lot of time following up possible leads to try and find any entertaining characters or particularly fascinating objects.   

It was really interesting to learn about how documentaries are written and how the research process differs from that done in an academic environment. I had to find information that was not only factually correct, but that could join together to make a coherent and entertaining story.  The topics I was given to research were very diverse, ranging from the history of royal coronations to the nineteenth century Arts and Crafts movement, with a bit of early nineteenth century Luddism thrown in for good measure. I really enjoyed thinking creatively about how these topics could tie together centuries of history into an enjoyable narrative, and the more I researched and thought about them the easier this became. I also had to think how we could present the information visually, so I researched possible interesting objects or locations. I have always enjoyed watching documentaries but never thought in depth about how subjects get from an idea to the screen. I learnt that a lot of work goes into refining scripts and trying to create a story that will interest audiences.

What my internship did for me

I enjoyed researching topics which I wouldn’t normally have come across – I am now a bit of an expert on medieval coronations as well as nineteenth century stained glass! The internship enhanced the research skills that I gained at university, and developed my communication skills as I had to think of ways to present that information to a diverse audience at home. To do this I had to think more creatively about the subject matter, and how we could make it interactive, with a television presenter to bring it to life. I also developed my writing skills, as writing a script requires concision and wit which you do not usually find in academic writing.

The experience has encouraged me to think more about the different ways people have of accessing history, and that documentaries are a really important means of exploring different ideas in history that are still relevant today. I also learnt a lot about the whole documentary process, and just how much work goes into researching and writing what we see on television.

Kate Gibson

MA History
IPUP Intern