As someone who was born and raised outside the UK, there are certain British things I’ve simply never experienced: bonfire night, vinegar on chips and queueing for bus stops are only a few examples. So when I was one of the two FTV students invited to film behind the scenes at this year’s Royal Institution Christmas Lectures in London, I didn’t know what to expect.
Of course I was very excited, because any project like this is an opportunity to practice the filming and networking skills necessary in our field. But when I told my partner, who is British as well as a chemist, he informed me that the Christmas Lectures are actually a big deal. They were first presented by Michael Faraday in 1825, and have been shown on television since 1936. Through accessible language and examples from everyday life, the Christmas Lectures aim to translate scientific concepts for a young and general audience. In 2018, the lectures were all about evolution and the question of how humankind became what it is today.
After some phone and email contact with the team at the RI, it was decided we would film during two rehearsal days. This meant a three-hour train journey and a brisk walk through the crowded streets of rush hour London while carrying kit, which as fresh FTVers, we’re not quite used to yet. Luckily we received a very warm welcome at the RI. As the video we’re making will mostly be for internal use, we could film anywhere we wanted, which is quite a privilege as normally only a small section of the building is open to the public. The crew were very friendly and even within their busy schedules, many were happy to have a quick chat on camera. One of them was the director, a media professional with over 40 years of experience, which as aspiring media freelancers was very useful to us. Minutes before we left on the second day, we also got a chance to interview this year’s presenter, Professor Alice Roberts, who also works at the University of Birmingham. We talked about the importance of a friendly relationship between media such as television and the sciences, and she explained to us how the Christmas Lectures make complex science accessible for the general audience: not by dumbing down, but by breaking difficult concepts down to their building blocks.
From our position close to the action, we experienced up close what goes into the production of a large-scale television event such as this. Much of it seemed like organised chaos at the time, from practising demos with imaginary volunteers to making script amendments in the final days before filming. However, the positive attitudes of the teams both in front of and behind the camera never wavered, and the final product as it aired on TV in the days after Christmas seemed effortless. Having now seen both the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of the Christmas Lectures, our video will try to show how it all fell into place, and that with enthusiasm, determination and commitment to the science, almost anything is possible – including bringing a live cow into a lecture theatre in the middle of London.