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Getting into Telly: An Interview with Helen Veale

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A lot of students end up choosing their careers whilst studying at university. Whether it comes through their degree, their extracurricular society involvement or being snapped up at a careers fair, the majority of people find their niche and set their hearts on pursuing it.

For Helen Veale, Creative Director at Outline Productions, that niche was the media, and soon after graduating from her BA in History, she found herself as a researcher in factual programming. “It felt like a good transition from what I’d been doing with my degree into work”, Helen says. “There are a lot of similarities between a History degree and researching. Under time pressure you have to gather a lot of information, find the best sources on it and present it all in a simple story that makes sense”.

From researching, Helen spent some years in journalism-led factual programming before deciding to create her own company, Outline Productions. “We’re an independent production company and we make factual entertainment programmes for the likes of BBC 2 and Channel 4. We don’t make serious documentaries but we do make programmes that are factual, with a format to them that make them more of a treat to watch – they shouldn’t feel like homework!”

A recent example of Outline’s work is “Fat Family Tree”, a Channel 4 documentary that helped resolve a family’s lifelong weight problems with cutting-edge genetic research. That theme of helping people is a frequent one in Outline’s output. “At Outline we like to produce something that people can learn from but really enjoy at the same time. In a lot of our shows we’re helping people, like in our parenting programmes. We start with desperate parents and by the end of it the kids are good and everybody is happy. Being part of something like that, you’re not only proud of producing a TV show but actually making a difference to people. I think that’s one of the things I enjoy most.”

Despite the rewarding nature of the work, every job has its downsides. “In telly we work really long hours,” Helen explains. “We don’t get paid like bankers and celebrities either. The vast majority of people in television work really hard… it isn’t a quick path to getting rich but it is something we enjoy. When people come to me and say they want to work in television I say assess your priorities; if you’re really interested in being a big earner, then maybe it’s not for you, because day to day you need to draw your satisfaction from the work. If you’re thinking ‘I just need to get to the end of the day because I’m only in it for the pay packet’, it’s not going to work.”

Television is notoriously competitive as an industry, with the majority of people getting a job after being a runner or doing copious amounts of work experience during their degree. Work experience, however, can cause problems. “We’ve had schemes where people come into shadow, but you can’t use people as slave labour – I’m dead against that. So we provide opportunities for people who are in the middle of their degree to come and do some limited work experience – but we really don’t want to exploit people.”

Despite this necessary limit, Helen is heavily involved with helping young people into the industry, recently taking part in the BAFTA TV Forum: Generation Next event in London. There, she chaired a panel of researchers, and she speaks highly of events encouraging young people into the television industry. “I would’ve been so incredibly grateful to have events like this because I genuinely didn’t know anything – I was a total outsider, with no idea of who to talk to, how to present myself, what sort of CV to send, all of the things that can make the difference when you’re trying to make that first impression to get through the door. In general, I think the more people in the industry that make themselves available to people who want to get into the industry, the better. I think it’s good to get out and meet people and give them a business card and say that they can get in touch.”

As the interview draws to a close, I can’t help but go for the obvious finish and ask for her single golden tip for a student wanting to break into the television industry. Her answer is surprisingly simple. “Watch television. You need to know what kind of programme you’d like to work on – watch TV, it’s how you’ll find out. Which companies do you admire, what would you like to be part of... What’s the difference between a show that works and engages the audience, and a show that misses the mark a bit – watch TV, it’s how you’ll find out. It’s the absolute number one thing to do to get involved. And most importantly, it’s fun. Watch TV!”

Thankfully, that seems like advice we can all get on board with.

Helen spoke to Jonathan as part of BAFTA's Generation Next TV Forum. Visit the BAFTA Guru website here for extracts from the workshop events.




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