A week in the life of DocLab

Each year Grierson DocLab kicks off activity with an intensive training week held in Birmingham, covering all things documentary and factual. Here the trainees reflect on lessons learned on each of the 6 days back in May...

DocLab 2019 participants at Birmingham residential

DocLab Birmingham 2019 participants


Emily starts the week

On Monday we were given our first opportunity to harness our excitement and willingness to work and put it into action. Introductions were made between us trainees and our wonderful and wise leader for the week: Carol Nahra. Suitably hydrated with tea and coffee, we were set straight to work.

In the morning session we started with an ‘introduction to documentary’ which covered genre, stylistic decisions and overall ignited further excitement and an eagerness to begin our first steps into the industry.

Throughout the day, we looked at several short clips which demonstrated multiple genres and sub-genres in documentary. This activity showed us that there is a wide range of narrative structure in film-making and helped us to identify what works successfully. There were many great discussions shared around the table as everyone offered their unique perspectives and comments. As a group we reflected on the musings of pioneers in documentary, such as Lord Reith and John Grierson.

Alex Continues

Everyone showcased a clip of a personal favourite doc and there were a variety of different genres, formats, and styles. It was brilliant to get some great recommendations, while seeing what my fellow trainees were passionate about. It was also very useful to get clarification on a good deal of the terminology used in the industry, and the time spent discussing music, interviews, editing, and archive footage was a lot of fun, and everyone contributed.


Tuesday, Azeem recalls

The second day of DocLab was packed with content. We began the day continuing where we left off on Monday - watching clips of documentaries that my fellow trainees had suggested. I really enjoyed being exposed to different types of documentaries and seeing the types of documentaries that different people chose was an insight into their tastes and interests.

Then we teamed up and looked through the TedX website, using the content on there to think of documentary pitches. This was a tricky task as we had to find something that interested us, whilst considering the network, time slot and format in our pitches. Something we found out later on was that this task was quite similar to the role of a researcher at a production company….

Dhelia continues

DocLab alumna Holly Lubran ran a session in the afternoon that was insightful because it provided a practical example of the progressions routes available through the industry. Holly was able to break down the challenges and opportunities in a really honest and relatable way, coming from a similar place as our cohort. She presented clips of TV programmes that she had contributed to, giving us an inside perspective on the programmes. She also guided us through the day to day of her work in development. We then worked on our own development exercise, using research and news clippings as the basis for developing our own stories and ideas. Then we worked on pitching. It was a really good way of breaking the tension of presenting to one another and finding our own authentic presentation styles. Overall the day was an intensive in how to turn ideas into workable programmes for television and also how to effectively present our ideas to one another.



BBC Birmingham’s Ed Barlow was one of our guest speakers today. Ed was approachable, warm and funny. What Ed’s talk brought home was the fact a production’s creative viability is created by many cooks in the kitchen. Any programme on a major broadcaster is brought to life by work involving dozens, if not hundreds of people. Everything is considered, weighed and measured. Where will the program fit in the schedule? What audience is the team aiming for? Who is going to edit the production, shepherd it from the initial kernel of an idea to a finished product ready for transmission? Factual programming or fictional programming is intensely collaborative. New perspectives and unexpected discoveries emerge, and I gather that no day is similar in factual programming. Each day is a new adventure, a new Rubik’s cube to flex your brain with.


We were then joined by Gemma Kemp (Production Manager) and Philippa Duke (Assistant Producer) from North One Television. They spoke to us about how they worked their way up to the positions they currently hold. They also spoke to us about what it takes to plan and produce an episode of Travel Man.

Our instructor, Carol Nahra then tasked each of us with presenting a pitch for an existing factual programme selected by her. This time pressured, somewhat improvised exercise was perfect preparation for our pitches the following day as it allowed us to apply what we had learned about pitching to existing programmes whilst also helping to calm our nerves as we had to deliver the pitches in front of the group.



The most anticipated day of the DocLab residential was definitely Thursday – pitch day! We all spent the first part of the morning concentrating on perfecting our pitches and trying our best to get them down to exactly 3 minutes. All of the tips, tasks and practice from the days building up had certainly helped us in developing our ideas and confidence in how to pitch them to an audience. It was wonderful to see the diversity of ideas and styles from everyone in the group. Everyone did really well with their pitching – a proud moment for all involved! In looking forward to pitching at Sheffield Doc/Fest, the pitch feedback was also an incredibly valuable part of the day – in knowing where to improve on, in idea and delivery.


On Thursday afternoon, we welcomed Nasfim Haque to DocLab. Nasfim is the Commissioning Editor for BBC3 and her role is to commission new short form programmes covering a wide range of ideas and issues. Nasfim was a truly informative speaker with so many interesting ideas and concepts to share. She was also receptive to questions and the entire DocLab group was very glad to benefit from her experience and learn more about her role.

In the evening, we visited the Midlands Arts Centre cinema to see Irene’s Ghost, a new feature documentary directed by Iain Cunningham. The film investigated Cunningham’s mother, the titular Irene, who had died when Cunningham was a child. His objective was to better understand his mother and her life. She was never talked about when he was growing up and Cunningham didn’t see a photograph of his mother until he was 18. The film shows him talking to other family members and people who knew his mother. This is a deeply personal and moving film lightened by Cunningham’s use of animation. An interesting and unusual documentary.



When I first glanced at the schedule for Day 5, I was surprised by how different it seemed to the other days of the week. It had the grand title of Beyond Terrestrial Television, a title which - to a very sleepy brain - conjured images of aliens and spacecraft. It was only after a cuppa and a pastry that it sunk in that we would be meeting three incredibly talented filmmakers who work in entirely different worlds to television programming.

First up was Iain Cunningham, the director of the poignant and moving Irene’s Ghost. Having seen the film the night before, we were bursting with questions. He spoke about what it was like to make such an intimate documentary, how important it was to find the universality in his personal experience, and how difficult it was to unlearn some of his habits from television production.

Later in the day, Vicki Lesley spoke cheerfully about her passion project, a feature film called The Atom: A Love Affair over 13 years in the making. She took us through every stage of development and production, the changes and the mis-steps, the funding nightmares and the personal triumphs. Hearing about The Atom ’s journey was both terrifying (so much work! so much worry!) and inspiring. It was amazing to hear from a dedicated, ambitious, (and admittedly stubborn) woman about her experience, and how it is always possible to succeed so long as you persevere.


We also had a presentation by Francesca Boyce on producing branded content for companies and how the brand industry is opting for more of a documentary-like style to sell their products. We took a look at a few examples and found that even if an advert has a realist style, it can be highly constructed by the production team. Francesca spoke a great deal about the relationship between the production company and the client and how it can vary greatly in terms of creative direction; some clients may present a vague brief whereas others may already have a vision in place. I found it very insightful to learn about this business relationship, as I had not given much thought to the crossover between branded and television before.

And finally, on Saturday...


After an intense and full week we had the opportunity to meet and talk with former DocLab trainees and hear how they were doing after participating in the scheme. It was really insightful seeing how there were many different avenues available through the scheme. It was most interesting to hear about the trainees a year on and to see where they were in the industry. Their advice was really helpful and inspired me to take full advantage of Sheffield Doc/Fest. Networking was a key point they all stressed and they reinforced the idea that making a good impression and talking to people is a great way to take your first steps in the industry. We also had a talk about CVs and covering letters and how presentation is very important. I had not been taught much about CVs and so to be given solid and useful advice was very beneficial to me and I hope to apply such advice to my own CV.


The week ended on an inspiring note with alumni who talked us through their careers from Grierson DocLab to the present day. The presentations were raw, honest and insightful. We watched a hilarious clip of Just the Tattoo of Us and a film made by an alumna in her local town. The stories from last year’s alumni were particularly interesting because they had achieved so much in the space of one year and they seemed very relatable.

They stayed to have lunch with us and we all sat around a big table talking to each other. We were allowed to ask them about anything we liked and they were very open. Post lunch, Hannah from DocLab talked us through the countdown to Sheffield Doc/Fest and the Grierson Awards!

Published: 21 July 2019

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