Hear from the trainees about their experience of the online training and trip to Birmingham

Hear from the trainees about their experience of the online training and trip to Birmingham
2022 Grierson DocLab trainees in online training, with lead trainer, Carol Nahra and Grierson team members.

Our 13 2022 Grierson DocLab core trainees embarked on intensive online training and in-person sessions in Birmingham throughout May. Read on to find out how they got on...


Lauren Dawkins

It’s the fourth day, and one by one we pop up on screen, prepared with yesterday’s homework. Having viewed four films (Being Bonkers, Talk to Me, Stories We Tell and 4 Weeks to Find a Girlfriend) we dove into a group discussion on distinctive personal styles — from a hidden camera in a shirt collar to a mental health memory relived in hyperreality!’

In admiring each approach, I began to wonder… how do stories based on real life, withhold all the twists and turns of a drama? And who better to answer this question than Spencer Kelly and Dee Kahlon from The Garden!

The Garden is one of the UK’s leading production companies, well-known for their revolutionary fixed-rig programmes. Spencer Kelly, Head of Factual, described the elements of fixed-rig filming in fascinating detail, and much like an episode of 24 Hours in A&E, I was completely immersed. Dee Kahlon, Talent Executive, walked us through each role within their production, and highlighted the transferrable skills that are utilised right from the get-go. We also learnt more about their support for entry-level talent and their opportunities for career progression, it’s no surprise that The Garden is one of the greatest incubators of talent!

Leading nicely onto our final speaker of the morning, the creative and captivating Tom McDonald. Tom is part of The Garden Alumni, and the incoming Executive Vice President of Unscripted Programming, Global for National Geographic. He spoke to us with such energy and enthusiasm, and in turn encouraged us to use our voices to ignite positive change. Having worked across such a wide range of genres, it was a fantastic opportunity to ask about the key themes that connect well-told stories, such as high stakes and engaging narrative questions. Not only were we able to learn more about his work, but also how he has developed an admirable attitude. He also discussed how to network with less nerves and emphasised the life-changing power of an email!

Erin Sharrocks

After a morning absolutely bursting with new and enlightening information, we moved on to yet another jampacked afternoon.

I waffled down a homemade vegan kebab and supped a quick cup of tea for my lunch, re-joining the training around 2:15pm after a couple rounds of Spanish and Hungarian on Duolingo and a short walk to the post office. We launched straight into a chat with Production Executive Rosa Moratiel and Head of Popular Factual Maia Liddell from the wonderful RDF, the production company responsible for hits such as Channel 4’s The Secret Life of 4 and 5 Year Olds, ITV’S Dickinson’s Real Deal and BBC’s Eat Well For Less. The focus of the talk was mainly The Secret Life, and as an ex-teaching assistant with a myriad of experience dealing with children’s impulsive and excitable nature, I couldn’t wait to hear what working with such young contributors was like.

This talk was particularly interesting as we got to hear from both sides of the production process: editorial and production management. It immediately became clear that one job could not be done without the other, and that the roles often intertwined. Rosa revealed that The Secret Life started with an “idea, a development, a speck of interest,” before growing into the brilliant show it is today. Its inspiration came from the Stanford Marshmallow Test, a psychological study which observed how different children dealt with delaying gratification when faced with the possibility of eating a marshmallow or waiting and being given a second. This highlighted how many popular television formats start as little more than a bright idea, with someone recognising a part of life that is missing from our televisions – something that I found incredibly reassuring as I already do this all the time as a journalist.

Of course, we couldn’t get through the talk without discussing the extra ethical considerations that must be made when working with young contributors, but I was happy to find out that the children’s wellbeing was of paramount importance all through filming and beyond. Perhaps one of the most interesting moments, for me, was when Maia answered my question about how to deal with the children’s unpredictability by saying that most of the time you just sit back and watch what happens, because that’s what the show is all about. It was a nice reminder that in filming factual telly, you can’t always plan every detail of how the story is going to go – and that’s what makes it so exciting.

By the time we said goodbye to Rosa and Maia, we were already nearing the end of the day.  After a short break in which I grabbed another cuppa and lay down on my sofa, we joined together in small groups to talk about our pitches. I was placed in a breakout room with Deshawn and Ruby. It was lovely to hear other members of the team talk so passionately about their interests and what they were planning to pitch the following week at Birmingham, and I loved getting more input on my own idea.

As the day drew to a close, the group came back together to reflect on the week; none of us could believe it was almost over! Yen tasked us with grabbing an item to exemplify how we were feeling. After thirty seconds of failed attempts at unscrewing my lightbulb, I was forced to speedily scribble one in my notebook. I explained that it represented all the bright new ideas and thoughts that I’d had over the week, along with how happy I was now feeling about my future in the industry. With that, we said goodbye and I immediately went to tell my flatmate all about my day!



Assiah Hamed

The final day of the Grierson DocLab training has already come, I told myself as I logged into the Zoom meeting for one last time. I was, and still am, in utter shock at how fast the days had gone by. While I’m proud of the progress we made as a collective, the 7 days went by so fast. It was bittersweet, and I truly don’t know where the time has gone.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration when I say Friday was jam packed with talks and much more. We had a full-on session speaking to BBC Studios’ Nicky and Beena discussing their roles and what they seek in a potential candidate which I found pretty informative.

Also jumping from that talk to an intense two-hour session on freelancing by David Thomas made me so worried I was binge eating on ice creams in between note taking. Not joking – I nervously munched a Magnum (or five, possibly) while David spoke about savings, taxes, and pensions as a freelancer. While it’s nerve-wracking to dwell on sensitive topics like money, it’s those discussions that twist your head to realise the realities that go into freelancing as a newcomer in the industry. For that, I’m truly grateful. 

Our last talk with Mubi’s Daniel Green was also an interesting insight into the great work Mubi has done to showcase the finest of cinema and documentaries. 

Then we rounded off the day just speaking amongst the team and cohorts, which helped us all reflect on what the online training had meant to everyone. 

While I may have already forgotten the three exact words that summed up my week perfectly (as asked by the Grierson team) all I say that my time has just been outstanding. Thank you so much.


Arnold Thornton-Rice

It’s Friday 13th, so I’m wary of omens

  and today starts off with Zoom crashing…

I look at my peers: a screen-full of frozens!

  (but through their stuck smiles, still dashing)


After a quick router-smack, I’m back with the pack

  Where Carol, our trainer, lends heed:

“Watch these doc picks, straight off’a Netflix,

  including the works of Dan Reed.”


I give a ‘deep nod’, because I’m on mute,

  to show that my taste is refined and astute

And though Carol’s a Don, we have to move on,

  ‘cause the day’s first speakers are ready to shoot.  


Here’s Beena & Nicky, Doc Talent Execs.,

  Witty and wise and at ease,

Yen says they’re from the Beeb (big flex),

  And – eek – they’ve read our CVs…


“Keep this! Cut that!

‘Go for a chat’!

Don’t dare ever sell yourself short!


The meandering path,

The jobs rarely sought,

Will lead you to places and skills never thought!”


They leave us with hope: we’re cream of the crop

  with all sorts of talents to thrive,

(though I’m not sure a penchant for poetry’s top;

  oh well – at least I can drive)


Now for a break: a modest 15

  To sip, snack or stretch

  Away from the screen

I’m ever so glad – been holding so bad –

  I’m ‘post-watershed’

  If you know what I mean…


But so far so good: no hexes or curses

  Perhaps this date isn’t so doomed!

Then I spy we’ve a session on managing our purses

  And wonder ‘have I spoken too soon?’


Dave Thomas appears: crisp shirt and quite tall

  a small TARDIS behind him for flavour

Thirteen freelancers fretting financial freefall?

  Here’s the dough-pro Doctor to save ya!


Now you’d think talk of tax would elicit ‘boo-hiss’

  But soon enough we’re afloat on budgeting bliss

Infinite help-sheets, jargon dismissed

  All hail the second coming of Martin Lewis!


After lunch we regroup and share some fave clips,

  from immoral institutions to underground trips

While Hasan schools the gang on drag-royalty

  and Jyoti revolts on punk-patriarchy.


Then we meet Dan, a MUBI-based man

  to tell us about all his MUBI-based plans

It’s MUBI o’clock! MUBI for days!

  Grooving in MUBI’s own movie-streamed ways!

And MUBI has docs: a massive amount!

  (Though I’m yet to hear back ‘bout a promised discount…)


So thus, to our pitches we neatly retreat,

  the earnest May sun slowly waning.

A series? A format? A short or a feat?

  [insert montage, a la Rocky in training]


And a chance to reflect, before we depart:

  ‘Has the online week worked as it should?’

The deepest of nods; spammed emoji-heart

  and each person rewording ‘v good’


But just as we go, Grierson’s ghost starts to show,

  fulfilling the day’s superstition!

(and he’s figured out Zoom, somehow, from his tomb:

   not bad for a drab apparition)


“Despite how it looks, I’m here not for spooks

  but to praise all this youthful ambition!

So go forth in the factual! Make art of the actual!

  And complete my good Trust’s sacred mission!”


“Cheers, Mr G”, we reply, chorally,

  as the ‘End Meeting’ sound duly sings.


I’m excited, inspired (and a tiny bit tired)

  – now onto what next Doclab brings…




Hasan Zakria


Today was the moment we were all preparing for – a chance to pitch our ideas to industry figures. In addition to Carol Nahra and Jane Callaghan, we were joined by Tom McTaggart from BBC Three! It was incredibly exciting, because even though these pitches were just for fun and a practice run, it felt like with the addition of Tom, I was genuinely pitching to the BBC!

It was incredible to watch everyone’s pitches and the diversity of ideas was a standout. We had documentaries on everything, from PCOS, Masculinity, and Mental Health to Policing, Fascism, and War. And each of us received valuable feedback from the judges, which was both positive and constructive. I don’t think anyone left that room not feeling confident in their idea. 

I was the last to pitch, and honestly as nerve-wracking as it was watching 12 people go before you (who were all amazing), once I got on stage I just came into my element. Carol described my pitch as a piece of spoken word, which was a massive compliment. 

My topic was quite raw because it was essentially about me and my journey. And as I watched others pitch, I was questioning whether I should have done something so intimate and tied to me. But the response I received from my fellow Doclabbers reiterated that I made the right choice. They were all so supportive, and shared words of admiration for having the confidence to put myself centre stage and be vulnerable. And one fellow Doclabber said “Can this just be on TV already?! I want to watch it now!” Which was the ultimate compliment.  

For any future Doclabbers reading this, who are about to pitch, just remember to believe in yourself, and your idea. And as Jane said to me, “Don’t stress, it’s just a bit of fun!” 

(Also, if you're reading this blog a few years from the publication date, and my idea ended up on screen then AAAAAAAAAAAH!! This proves you just need to follow your dreams and not give up!)

Deshawn Hillman

Today is Monday, May 23rd, 2022, and I've just awoken after a hard day of travelling and meeting new people. We had the pleasure of dining in a nice restaurant the other day, and we took advantage of the opportunity to learn more about the people around us, including the lovely staff. Still, today was the most dreaded day of the week since we had to sell our ideas to the entire group, including the Content Editor of BBC Three. What a great method to ratchet up my nerves! I sat down to eat my Cheerios with the fellas about 7:30 a.m., which is unusual for me because I typically sprint around my house yelling "I'M LATE FOR WORK!" but today I took my time and sat down. We had a quick catch-up on yesterday and our plans for today, and then we had to rush to get ready for the day. The hike was short, the weather was unusually pleasant, and the day was enjoyable.

We were the first ones to arrive, with around 15 minutes to spare, so the first 10 minutes felt empty. I could almost hear the sound of loneliness playing in the background, but it wasn't long until everyone else showed up, a little too thrilled for the horror that was about to emerge.

We started with rounds to distract us from the pitches, and they were a lot of fun. The questions were fired at us, and we went around in a circle, telling amusing anecdotes, which kept the enthusiasm up, and me explaining how I acquired my name was a good "add-on" for the day. (Just to clarify, my name was spelled incorrectly. I don't want to go into detail about my evident trauma, but it is the tale of my life.) We were divided into four groups and given the oddest, yet most innovative, tasks. First, we were given a random object (we had a basket) and had to come up with several ways to use it. Of course, being creative persons *wink*, our team came up with the most, totalling 25 distinct ways to utilise the basket, which I won't name because I forgot every single one of them. To continue, we had to construct the highest tower out of paper, clips, and notepads, and guess who won again... my squad! My squad probably had an advantage because I was the tallest of the cohort, but I'll leave that up to you to determine. I had no idea the first hour would be that intense and entertaining, and I thoroughly loved it. I wasn't terrified of pitches at that moment until I heard "spend some time now working on your pitch." My mood shifted slightly because of that sentence – a sudden desire to flee and never return, but that's not a big deal.

We took a pause to prepare for our presentations. I was fortunate to have such a wonderful cohort that sat and listened to everyone's pitches and provided constructive criticism. I rehearsed my pitch for the second time, and the feedback I received this time was considerably more encouraging. People recognised the adjustments and improvements I made since, not only did I progress through time, but my ideas weren’t scattered and uncoordinated. I felt a surge of confidence at that point, and my nerves began to fade; I was ready to address the audience.



Ruby Hubbard

On Tuesday the 24th of May 2022 we had our last day of in person training in Birmingham. By this point we had already completed our intensive online training and were relaxed and enjoying each other’s creative ideas and ambitions.

Today’s session reminded me of a documentary I watched on how to stay awake, both were really eye opening. Our first speaker of the day was Cal Bateman, a Grierson DocLab Alumni. His top tip was to ‘BE A SPONGE!’ His advice was to absorb everything from a wide range of sources – from social media trends, TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube to news articles and reports, as you’ll never know where you’ll find a story.

Holly Lubran, a Grierson DocLab Alumni from 2015, did a talk on neurodiversity because she has ADHD. This talk really stood out to me because I have dyslexia and it’s inspiring to see representation of a similar disability to mine flourishing in the industry. It filled me with hope for the future.

I came away from this training knowing that I am not going through these early career steps alone. I have made strong bonds with the other participants forming a close network of contacts that along with support from the Grierson DocLab team will last my professional life. I couldn’t be more thankful.

Next steps are to attend Sheffield DocFest in June – I can’t wait!


Becky Cudmore

After a hearty lunch of samosa focaccia sandwiches and a quick walk around the block, we headed back for our final segment of the Birmingham trip. 

Our afternoon commenced with a presentation by Yen, discussing setting goals and achieving them. It helped us see how we can make realistic targets that we can accomplish smartly and efficiently. 

We then virtually welcomed our final speaker and Grierson alumni Holly Lubran. Her talk was so informative about the industry and gave a raw insight on how she shaped her career alongside her neurodiversity. Hearing the negatives alongside the positives was refreshing and eye opening into how people’s perceptions on neurodiversity has changed from the start of her career in 2015 to now in 2022.

Yen bounced back up onto the stage with a second presentation on CVs and Cover Letters. We went back to basics for structure and discussed ways to incorporate visual finesse without going over the top. It was a great session!

And just like that, we were done! What an amazing and informative couple of days in Birmingham. It was fantastic to meet the whole DocLab group finally in person and to have so many speakers in just a few days was incredible. We ended our day on reflections of the trip and what knowledge we had absorbed, truly becoming industry sponges.

Next Stop Sheffield Doc Fest!


Read part 1 for the first part of the online training week

Published: 8 June 2022

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