Set in a fictional British town hit by devastating flooding, a timely new ITV1/ITVX mystery thriller generated some very specific challenges for the production crew, writes David Davies.

The significant rise in rainfall and major flooding events in the UK is both a story that has been in progress for decades, and one that has also seemingly become much more impactful in relatively recent times. Even a cursory glance at the data leaves one in no doubt about the severity of the problem: according to Met Office data, the UK is more than 7% wetter when comparing the periods 1961-1990 and 1991-2020, whilst the Environment Agency states that over 5.2 million homes and properties in England are at risk from flooding and coastal erosion – although only a third of people living in flood-prone areas actually think their properties are at risk.

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After The Flood

With the situation only set to worsen as climate change intensifies, the sudden arrival of flood waters has proven to be resonant subject matter for recent film and TV dramas. In cinemas, The End We Start From featured Jodie Comer as a woman battling for survival and caring for her newborn baby in a submerged London, whilst After the Flood – a recent ITV1 and ITVX drama – was set in a fictional Yorkshire town and starred Sophie Rundle as PC Jo Marshall, who investigates the death of a man found in an underground car park lift following devastating floods.

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Written by Mick Ford and produced by Quay Street Productions, the drama was filmed at locations in Derbyshire, Stockport and Greater Manchester, where some of the most dramatic flooding scenes were captured by installing a vast lake-like set on disused ground near the Trafford Centre.

To discuss preparations for the technically demanding shoot, the editing process, and reflections on the end result, IBC 365 spoke with After the Flood director Azhur Saleem and production designer Steven Grainger.

‘Something that looked real’

With water always adding “a level of unpredictability”, removing as much uncertainty from the equation as possible – not least through rigorous storyboarding – was fundamental from day one. The opening flood sequence was one of the first set pieces to be discussed in prep, for instance, and one that was reviewed many times before shooting began.

Azhur Saleem (pictured right) - PLEASE CREDIT PHOTOGRAPHER Vishal Sharma

Behind the Scenes: Azhur Saleem (right)

Source: Vishal Sharma

“I treated the storyboard process like writing, where we kept reboarding and reboarding, always honing the storytelling to be as succinct as possible,” says Saleem. “I was always balancing the needs of the story with the technical requirements and trying to work out how many shots we could achieve in one day. We all have an idea of how many shots, on average, you might achieve in a day based on the complexity of the scene you’re shooting. But with this scene there were so many unknowns; we had no idea how the actors would be in the water or how quickly we could move our kit around between setups. So we had to plan with a lot of variabilities and contingencies in place.”

Underpinning the entire approach, however, was the desire to capture flooding that felt genuinely immersive to the characters affected by it. “I knew I wanted to create something that looked real,” confirms Saleem. “We’ve all seen footage of flooded towns, but I wanted to give the experience of being caught up in the middle of it. That meant real water and having our actors in the water with the camera so we can see their faces amidst the surging torrent.”

The huge personal cost to the town’s citizens during the onslaught of water and its aftermath are effectively conveyed by the production, which drew on extensive research of real-life communities hit by flooding. “You see that in how our main characters are faced with the worried and scared residents of [fictional town] Waterside,” notes Saleem. “I wanted to reflect that in the costumes the residents were wearing; some in joggers or pyjamas and wrapped up in blankets. That last-minute, haphazard quality helps to demonstrate the speed at which flooding can affect entire neighbourhoods. We also wanted to fill our flooded street with small personal items that give this shocking, incongruous feeling: seeing a sofa cushion floating in the water, or a child’s toy bobbing along.”

Safety and settings

Ultimately, it was decided that the critical opening sequence be shot across several locations. Everything above the water line was captured at the location in Greater Manchester, whilst everything in the water was filmed at the Tees Barrage, a man-made course on the River Tees between Stockton and Middlesbrough that is used for a wide variety of water sports. This was ideal as the entire run there was solid concrete, meaning there was nothing underfoot to trip up actors, camera operators or safety teams.

Steven Grainger

Steven Grainger, production designer

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For the Manchester set, says Grainger, the decision to build the set in a tank “allowed us to have full control and all the facilities required [to be] close to the set to help the shoot crew stay safe. Our main concern was that our set was sat in a large tank of water open to the elements and therefore its stability was a concern. We had to bring in a scaffold engineer to help work out a rig that would support the weight of the flattage. This weight would also potentially increase as the timber soaked up the water and as the flats were covered in brick plaster, which also soaked up water.” Sealing both the plaster and timber helped alleviate this issue.

To help marry up the Manchester set with the Tees Barrage location – where the team had to construct a set over the fast-moving water – Grainger constructed a facade at the latter and dressed the sides with foliage and vegetation. “We’d go through the storyboards and mark which shot was the real street location and what would be shot at the barrage,” says Saleem. “That also meant that I knew exactly where each shot would begin and end. Having a clear idea of how the scene would edit helps immensely in planning something like this.”

A model of the barrage made by the art department enabled the planning of every single angle and camera placement. A trio of cameras was used for the three-day shoot at this location, with a colour-coded system employed to mark up the cameras on the plan. “This allowed us to attack each day with a totally clear plan of where each set-up would be, and which camera team it would be. Because of the sheer physicality of being in the water, this wasn’t going to be a scene where we’d play out the entirety of the action repeatedly; we just filmed it with several cameras and made it all in the edit.”

Filming for the fictional town of Waterside took place in the High Peaks town of Glossop, selected by Saleem, Grainger and DOP Phil Wood because of its ‘picturesque beauty’. Meanwhile, Saleem reveals that the Manchester site which hosted some of the key flooding scenes is now set to be transformed – ironically enough – into an indoor water theme park.

Editing action scenes

Throughout the shoot, lead editor Cat Gregory assembled the material until second editor Will Blunden joined the production near the beginning of the fine-cut stage. Editing was based out of Storm Post in Covent Garden, London, with Saleem switching between both edit rooms as he progressed sequentially through the episodes.

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After The Flood

“The opening was, of course, quite a big task and we spent a considerable amount of time balancing the pace of the action with the geography of the sequence as a whole – and making sure the audience knew where all the players were at any given moment whilst keeping a sense of shock and suspense,” says Saleem, adding of his overall approach to editing such sequences: “I always find the best way to deal with action scenes is to give it space whilst you edit on other material and keep returning to it with a fresh pair of eyes.”

Despite the production’s inherent challenges, it’s evident that the team relished the experience. As Grainger enthuses: “After the Flood was one of the most enjoyable productions I have worked on, not only for the challenges it threw up but also for how collaborative the project was. When working in such testing circumstances as rain and flooded streets it takes all departments to work together to achieve the desired result, and we planned every detail of the filming down to the finest detail.”

Saleem adds: “This has definitely been one of the best shoots I’ve been involved in. It was the most complex logistically and the ambition of the scripts was very high, especially on the budget that we had. Every job has a sense of ‘How are we going to do that?’ but the flood sequences, rain, number of cast and locations meant this was a particularly challenging shoot. But there was such a sense of achievement we all felt at the end that made this a uniquely enjoyable experience.”

And with the series concluding with several unresolved threads, could there be a follow-up? “It does end with such fascinating questions for our characters. Jo has a lot on the line herself and we’re wondering how the next steps will play out for them as a new family. I would love to see where the story goes, but we will have to wait and see if the opportunity arises to explore that.”

All six episodes of After the Flood can be streamed via ITVX.

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