The following interview appeared as an extract in BAFTA's official 2023 Awards brochure, which is now available on Issuu.
BAFTA/Rachell SmithPortrait: BAFTA/Rachell Smith
As head of production at Kudos, Alison Barnett has been an unseen creative force behind some of the UK’s best television.
Kudos’ website points out that its head of production, Alison Barnett, has worked on more than 400 hours of television. “Hours? Try years – 40 years!” she merrily asserts.
And what an incredibly impressive four decades they have been; her incredible dedication to the industry and talent for her craft is recognised at the BAFTA Television Craft Awards 2023 with one of its highest honours, the Special Award.
Since taking the traditional late-70s route from theatre stage management to studio floor assistant at the BBC, she climbed the ranks of location scouting, assistant directing, line producing and production management to reach the top of the UK television industry, becoming one of the first heads of production in the country in 2005. She was also one of the first women to hold such a role and, along the way, has been a vital part of more than 80 BAFTA-nominated shows and 14 winning productions. Yet, she’s never won a BAFTA herself – until now.
I’m so thrilled that BAFTA has recognised the production office and the people who work in it.
“I was on holiday when I got the letter and thought it was a joke,” she laughs. “I was very surprised, both for myself, having worked in the industry for such a long time, but also because the production office team never get recognised.”
This award doesn’t just honour Alison Barnett’s own pioneering career, it also champions an area of television and film that’s often left in the shadows. “We’re out of sight, out of mind,” she says, “but without us everything would fall apart. I’m so thrilled that BAFTA has recognised the production office, and the people who work in it. It will help enormously because it’s difficult to recruit young people in production and keep hold of them. The production office can be miles away from set, working independently and long hours... To work in the production office, you really have to love TV. Luckily, we do.”
Her own passion for the artform emerged through an enviable roster of shows: Doctor Who (1979), Blake’s Seven (1980), Grange Hill (1980-1981), All Creatures Great and Small (1983, incidentally where she met her husband), Lipstick on Your Collar (1993), The Lakes (1999), Spooks (2003-2011), Bleak House (2005), Life on Mars (2006-2007) and Hustle (2005-2011), to name a few. More recent Kudos hits have included Utopia (2013-2014), Grantchester (2014-2017), Broadchurch (2013-2017), SAS: Rogue Heroes (2022), The Rig (2023) and more.
She’s remained passionate about the business because of a fundamental source of regular joy. “A script landing on your desk is so exciting,” she explains. “You go, ‘How are we going to make it?’ I still get a great kick out of that. With SAS, it was, ‘Right, where are we going to shoot the desert? Morocco?’ Then Covid struck. We got special permission from the King to charter a plane to Morocco when the country was in lockdown.”
She continues: “In 2021-2022, at Kudos, we were making SAS; Then You Run in Germany; Grantchester; and Code 404; and The Sixth Commandment and The Rig for Wild Mercury. It’s only afterwards that you think, ‘How the hell did we pull that off?’ You have to have a brilliant production office crew to back you up.”
She notes that budgets remain tight, so a good team of people, who can think outside the box to problem solve, are not just important but a necessity. “At the beginning of Spooks, we had a decent budget, but the ambition was huge. We often had to say, ‘We can’t afford to do this, so let’s all sit down and brainstorm how we can achieve these fabulous scripts.’ We try to do that on all of our shows. I’m all for getting everybody in a room – writer, producer, director, heads of department – and coming up with an answer, which we always do. I still find that exciting.”
Her enthusiasm may have remained constant, but the nature of the industry and the work itself has changed dramatically across her career. “The day-to-day paperwork itself is huge now,” she states. “Apart from the daily call sheet, there are crew contracts, location contracts, health and safety, risk assessments, policies covering such aspects as mental health and wellbeing. The list goes on, all administered by the production office.”
It was all very different at the start of her career, she notes. Working on Edge of Darkness in 1984, with director Martin Campbell (of GoldenEye and Casino Royale fame), “we had no facility vehicles, no mobile phones. Everything was shot on location,” she explains. “I went on the road with bags of 10p coins with directions to the nearest phone box on the call sheet. We filmed for two weeks down a coal mine in Wales, it was madness. In those days you never thought of building sets. When I first started writing budgets, producers would say, ‘We can’t afford to make the show,’ so I would cut my own salary. I had to get an agent just so I didn’t undercut myself.”
It isn’t a 9-to-5 job, which is why you have to have a laugh. What we create is magic. Enjoy it!
She adds that working at Kudos these past 19 years still keeps her and her team on their toes, with the sheer variety of programmes offering new experiences and new learnings. “You take all the knowledge gained from one show on to the next,” she notes. “Over the years, I have seen people who started in junior positions in the production office move up the career ladder to further their professional lives. It’s a great stepping stone... You have to wake up in the morning and think, ‘I’m going to work hard but I’m going to enjoy it.’ That’s my life, it’s my makeup and I hope I instil that in others.”
She is quick to point out that while many aspects have become more intense, this has been balanced out by improvements in equality. “In 1998, when I had my first child, there was no real maternity care and you were still frowned on if you had to disappear to pick them up from nursery. It was hard,” she says. “I think there’s better awareness now of work-life balance, but there is still a lot of work to be done. It isn’t a 9-to-5 job, which is why you have to have a laugh. I try to visit the set as much as possible to talk to and meet the crew. What we create is magic. It’s wonderful. Enjoy it!”
So, can the industry and the avid television-hungry public look forward to another decade of magic from her? Given her infectious, almost evangelical enthusiasm for the business she so clearly adores, her reply is maybe surprising.
“I’m so lucky to have had a wonderful career, and half of it at Kudos. However, I’m looking forward to my retirement in the future,” she laughs. “I have a granddaughter and I think about my poor husband, who I hardly ever see.”
Fortunately, before that landmark event happens, there’s still many more hours of television in the pipeline to add to that groundbreaking 400 statistic on the Kudos website. And all from the back office that is, thanks to Alison Barnett, getting its moment in the spotlight at these Awards.
Words: Rich Matthews