An ingenious TV company has made broadcasting history by becoming the first in the UK to complete a comedy drama series during the Covid-19 lockdown – by creating a bubble for the cast and crew in a closed down pub.
Production of the new sitcom, Rybish (Rubbish), set in a recycling centre, was brought to a halt in March by the coronavirus crisis but undeterred Caernarfon-based Cwmni Da came up with a plan to carrying on filming.
Members of the crew self-isolated for a fortnight before resuming and they were tested regularly throughout the shoot.
When they were not working, they were holed up in an empty pub, The Beuno, in Clynnog Fawr on the north coast of the Llŷn Peninsula.
The company built their own recycling centre on an old landfill site at Carmel, near Caernarfon.
They used fixed cameras which were remotely controlled to film the remaining episodes in the six-part series which will be screened on S4C in the coming months.
Director Sion Aaron said: “We’d filmed three episodes of Rybish before the health crisis.
“As we were filming the very first take of the fourth episode, we had a call from the office to tell us to drop tools due to the increasing risk of the spread of the coronavirus.
“When lockdown started to ease we were able to form a bubble, the cast of six, the writer and producer and myself, so we could live together after taking over the Beuno which closed years ago, and work together to film the remaining three episodes.
“Before the health crisis we had already decided to film the series in a unique way which meant the camera operators and sound recordists could work remotely anyway.
“We created a new role as we had, what we Christened our Covid Cop, on set at all times to ensure compliance with Covid-19 regulations.”
According to Sion, the sitcom revolved around daily life at a remote recycling centre in Gwynedd and follows the six members of staff as they go about the daily grind of their working lives and what they get up to.
He added: “ It’s brilliantly written and although the comedy is subtle it’s very funny.
“We built our own recycling centre after hiring skips from Gwynedd County Council who gave us fantastic support.
“Most of the action takes place in the workers’ cabin, the type of hut you see at every recycling centre.
“We wanted to film it in a similar style to Big Brother or 24 Hours in A&E, that type of fly-on-the-wall approach that would enhance the character-driven script. “We did that before lockdown so the final three episodes look exactly the same in style as the first three.
“It meant we could resume filming after lockdown, as maintaining a cast bubble to work separately to the crew wasn’t too difficult.
“The Beuno has been closed for years and last orders was called a long time ago but the fact that we stayed there meant we could work together and we really did get to know each other too which was a big bonus.
“I know some soap operas are also back filming but they are using camera techniques that make it look like the actors are far closer than they are. We didn’t want that.
“As most of the action in Rybish takes place in a workers’ cabin that just wouldn’t have worked. There wouldn’t be enough space, and it would’ve been harder for the cast to relax into their characters.
“We believe ours is the first scripted comedy series in the UK to be completed in this way, during the Coronavirus pandemic.”
Producer and BAFTA Cymru award winning writer Barry Jones who penned Rybish was delighted to get the filming wrapped.
He said: “The fact we built our own set in such a remote setting meant were isolated and didn’t have members of the public stopping by.
“It also helped that we did the filming in a unique way. We had the cameras in a fixed rig mostly above the actors. I wanted it in that style as if the viewer is getting a sneaky look at what is going on.
“We wanted Rybish to be character-based with the comedy coming because we get under the skin of the characters, so finding the right actors was very important, and a process that took a long time, but we’re a hundred percent certain that we got the best cast possible in the end.
“It was a joy to see characters, that had been words on paper for so long, come alive in such a rounded way. We want the audience to associate with the characters so they can hopefully see elements of people the recognise in them, and we believe the cast took that to another level with their performances throughout the series.
“With regards to storylines, we wanted to keep them as realistic as possible. It would have been easy to write an over-the-top sitcom with crazy plots like workers at a recycling site finding a suitcase stuffed full of cash in a skip, but that isn’t what we wanted.
“I’m not sure a comedy drama has been filmed in quite this way before. It’s very Welsh and I don’t just mean in linguistic terms. The comedy and situations have very Welsh connotations.”
He added: “It took me a long time to write and I spent days sat in huts at council recycling centres just listening to staff and observing what goes on and what they talk about. It gave me a real insight and lots of ideas.
It was an exciting time for Caernarfon actress Betsan Ceiriog, 22, who plays a character called Bobbi in Rybish, as it’s her debut TV role.
Betsan, who graduated from St David’s University Cardiff with a performing arts degree in July 2018, said: “ I was thrilled to land the role. I had an audition and sent in a recording of myself. I already knew a couple of the Cwmni Da team so that helped.
“My character Bobbi is a university student who has graduated and is working at the recycling centre for the summer to get some money so she can travel.
“It was a fantastic learning experience especially as we were allowed to put in a bit of ad-libbing some and the plan now is to land more acting and TV parts and or musical theatre roles.”
Cwmni Da general manager David Parry Evans was christened the Covid Cop on set after taking on the role of ensuring coronavirus regulations were strictly complied with.
He said: “It was my job to ensure we had sufficient supplies of hand sanitizer and that everything was wiped kept clean and sanitised. If a camera operator needed to go into the cabin on set then I’d ensure it was deep cleaned afterwards.
“I had my two metre rod to ensure everyone moving around the set was two metres apart and wearing a face mask. I was obviously quite good at the job hence the Covid Cop nickname I was given!”.