A Greek Odyssey with Bettany Hughes, C5

Series director Anna Thomson reveals the Herculean taks of exploring Ancient and modern Greece amid a pandemic.

It was a very fast turnaround commission. We had to take to the seas before the weather turned and winter set in. 

Even though there were talented writers working on the scripts, as series director, coming immediately from another project, prep time was very tight.

But I took heart from having worked with DOP Tim Knight previously and knew there was no-one better than Bettany Hughes at making the ancient world come alive.

And as our hero, Odysseus, would agree the beauty of having a strong team who can think on their feet is that you can be agile in the face of the inevitable challenges and embrace the unexpected along the way.

Our first challenge was storytelling. There were several strands to weave into the series; Odysseus, Greek mythology and ancient Greek history, alongside more recent history and the magic of life on the islands. It was a balancing act that entailed developing different styles for each narrative element.

For the myths we used a gimbal, invoking the present tense for immediacy and crash-cut to dreamlike, abstract sequences relevant to the tales we were telling.

Modern Greece was captured on the fly, as our real journey was panning out, through spontaneous conversations with islanders, sniffing out local stories and filming them on the spot. The search effectively became part of our story as we skipped from one island to the next.

And we found that by capturing modern Greece, Ancient Greece came to life.

On each island, locals welcomed us with gifts, delicacies and potent alcoholic spirits – which, at 9.30am in the morning, we often had to turn down! It all harks back to the ancient Greek tradition of Xenia, where strangers are welcomed and made to feel important. In a world in which Zeus could stop by anytime disguised as a swan or shower of gold, it was considered prudent too.

Herculean effort

We retraced Odysseus’ route from Troy to Ithaca. It was a complicated voyage: 1,700 miles, exploring 22 historical sites across 13 different islands and peninsulas, aboard 27 vessels, from fishing boats to luxury yachts.

With more than 30 boxes of gear, just getting on and off each boat was a Herculean task. But these physical challenges helped us understand what it would have been like in the Age of Heroes, on little wooden boats, at the mercy of the elements and each day racing to reach land before night set in.

Our most frightening episode was the crossing from Ikaria to Mykonos. We started off in calm seas and daylight but before long it was dark and the sea had swollen, whipped up by the Meltemi wind.

We hung on, as our vessel was pitched at 45 degrees and six-metre-high waves washed up onto the deck. One-by-one, we all threw up as the waves drenched us in a swill of saltwater but still managed to capture some footage on our iPhones.

The ordeal lasted seven hours, eventually washing us up on the billionaires’ playground of Mykonos at midnight. Nothing had been set up for the following day, but we wove our terrifying journey into the story as Odysseus also faced punishing storms and ended up in a similar spot in dire need of some creature comforts.

Likewise, on Ithaca, a wake-up call that measured 5.0 on the Richter scale became an opportunity to explore the prevalence of earthquakes in Greece and how in ancient times, natural disasters were believed to be caused by the wrath of the Gods.

My tricks of the trade

  • Discover someone’s passion and capture it on camera.
  • Look after crew welfare. A happy crew is a productive crew.
  • Push visual boundaries.
  • Be curious, tenacious and humble – curious for stories, tenacious to get them and sweep the floor if it needs sweeping

But then there was the pandemic. A Greek word meaning “of all the people” it felt like ‘cancelled’. Suddenly, the Naxos carnival we were filming was one of many events called off. Thanks to local friends we found alternative small private parties we could film; sometimes when a scene falls through you come up with a better alternative.

And we were lucky. Ninety-five percent of our series was in the can. Now, it was simply a matter of devising ways of remote working to get all the programmes edited and delivered to Channel 5. Within days, edit producers and editors were provided with the rushes on drives and mobile edit suites necessary to work from their own homes. We worked off shared scripts on Google docs, each a kaleidoscope of colour-coded changes and revisions.

I supervised grades and sound dubs remotely and via a sanitized microphone, Bettany recorded commentary in a virtual home audio studio.

Despite all the challenges, and the last few months of living life on Zoom, perhaps it was because we had bonded so tightly that the films came together so well.

Long Lost Family Special: The Unknown Soldiers, ITV, review: An emotional act of remembrance giving WWI soldiers their identities back

Davina McCall and Nicky Campbell presented a one off special highlighting the important work of the Ministry of Defence’s War Detectives

Nicky Campbell and Davina McCall reunite families with their long lost relatives who died in World War One (Photo: ITV)

Long Lost Family Special: The Unknown Soldiers, ITV, 9pm ★★★★

This is the second time presenters Davina McCall and Nicky Campbell have fronted a special version of their family- reunion-meets-genealogy show Long Lost Family, but this was the first time it felt distinctive from the normal series.

Rather than tracking down families of the living, this episode aimed to track down the relatives of soldiers who had died in the First World War without passing on their deserved legacy of bravery – like a reverse Who Do You Think You Are, without the celebrities. Like every show in this series, reunions prompted tears but they didn’t feel forced or trite.

The War Detectives Tracey Bowers, Nicola Nash, Jeanette Page, Deborah Morgan and Rosie Barron work at identifying the bodies of soldiers who died in the First World War (Photo: ITV)

The unsung stars of The Unknown Soldiers were the so-called War Detectives, the all-female team at the Ministry Of Defence tasked with matching remains of soldiers with relatives all over the world, from the US to Preston. Perhaps their process was a little sanitised for TV – I imagine the researchers spend a lot more time sitting at their desks than they do gallivanting around France with Davina McCall – but that meant there was more time to be spent with the unsuspecting relatives of the young boys who were killed in the war.

What came through was just how normal – and young – the fighters were. One of the boys thought to have been found was John, a 19-year-old who worked in a Fulham biscuit factory and who signed up because his older brothers had encouraged him to do his bit. His story was so touching that when his great niece Sandra found out the remains didn’t belong to John after all, her dedication to honouring him and attending the burial of his comrades anyway was one of the more powerful moments.

This special of Long Lost Family worked because it didn’t feel invasive or purposefully tear-jerking. Thankfully, the MOD are undertaking this work anyway – it was simply a privilege that these brilliant women allowed ITV’s cameras to follow their efforts in affording these fallen soldiers a named grave, a family and most importantly, a story.

Long Lost Family viewers in tears as WW1 soldiers are finally laid to rest

An emotional special

The latest episode of ITV documentary series Long Lost Family had viewers bawling their eyes out as the relatives of soldiers killed in World War One got to attend their funerals.

In a special edition of the programme, aired last night (21.10.19), presenters Davina McCall and Nicky Campbell followed a specialist team at the Ministry of Defence as they sought out the families of unknown soldiers who gave their lives in the First World War.

Davina and Nicky (Credit: ITV)

Davina explained at the conclusion of one of the cases, at the end of the programme: "More than one hundred years ago, two Lancashire Fusiliers arrived on these shores to fight.

"Just weeks later they were dead. And now the War Detectives have succeeded in naming one of them, Private Frederick Foskett."

A priest said at the ceremony: "We have come together to give thanks for the live of Private Frederick Foskett, killed in action on the 18th of October, 1914."

I bawled my eyes out when they fired the guns at the funeral.

Davina continued: "He was lost for more than one hundred years but today, 27-year-old Frederick from East Finchley can finally be remembered."

Those in attendance then visited the field, not far from the new grave, where Frederick's remains had been found.

His relative was in tears, as he watched poppies placed in the soil, and said: "Now I know more of my history, I've got a family I can be proud of."

Viewers were left crying their eyes out as they watched the emotional burial scenes that featured throughout the episode.

One said on Twitter: "Heartbreaking to watch,especially unknown soldiers being buried #LongLostFamily."

Another said: "#Longlostfamily I bawled my eyes out when they fired the guns at the funeral. Never cried so much at a TV programme. Would like to see more!"

A third tweeted: "Absolutely bawling at the discovery and burial of unidentified/unknown soldiers on #LongLostFamily You just can't even imagine it."

In another part of the programme, three separate families came together for a burial - including relatives of a fallen soldier who were found living in California.

Paul found out about his great uncle Frank (Credit: ITV)

Paul Mead, whose great uncle Private Frank Mead was identified through the programme, said: "With three kids of my own... from the time your children are born, you dream about what they might accomplish and do in life.

Frank Mead was among the unknown soldiers identified (Credit: ITV)

Read more: Long Lost Family star passes away the night before his episode is aired

"And I'm sure this loss and the regret would have overwhelmed his parents. Knowing that they would never see that."