THE Cancer Hospital goes behind the scenes at the Beatson Cancer Centre in Glasgow.
The series follows patients going through cancer treatment, and highlights the innovations in treatment that are being developed, in part through the Beatson’s involvement in clinical trials.
The three-part documentary has been made for BBC Scotland by Firecrest Films. The Firecrest executive producer is Iain Scollay.
It starts airing on Wednesday, April 25, at 2100, on BBC One Scotland, with the second and third programmes broadcast at the same time on May 2 and 9.
Here, series producer, Andrew Abbott, answers the questions…
Who commissioned the series?
It was commissioned by Ewan Angus at BBC Scotland. Ewan was interested in how cancer care has evolved over the past ten-to-20 years. As the Beatson is a large and world-class cancer centre, offering some of the best and most advanced treatment available anywhere, it offered the perfect window on what is one of the most dynamic fields in medicine – and one of the most in-demand.
Explain the thinking behind the production’s ‘look and feel’.
Our starting point was always the patients. We wanted the series to allow the audience to see cancer care and the Beatson itself from the point of view of people being treated there. We wanted to keep the action as much as possible in the hospital, and to capture a sense of it as an institution – the atmosphere, the caring environment and the cutting-edge technology.
We also knew we wanted the programmes to feel observed, and to have strong narrative progression. So we built in enough filming time – four months – to allow us to capture at least some changes in patients’ treatment and situation.
We also decided to build in a layer of direct-to-camera interviews from the medical staff to provide context for the stories and to explain some of the more complicated aspects of treatment in a very direct way. For oncologists, explaining treatment plans to patients is a vital part of their job. Most of them are very good at boiling the science down into a few sentences that any patient can grasp. We wanted to incorporate this into the films.
The Beatson is a very big cancer centre – said to be the second-biggest in the UK. So figuring out its structure, schedules, and – in a way – its culture, was a big challenge. We also had to convince senior doctors and nurses to allow us to film their consultations – which could be extremely sensitive. So we put a lot of time and effort into speaking to them before we started filming. That paid real dividends in the sense that, in the end, we had tremendous co-operation from everyone.
Ultimately, our goal was to demystify cancer treatment by spending time with patients who are experiencing it and simply showing it as it really is. I hope we managed to achieve that.
Who are the key personnel? How were they recruited?
Anne-Claire Pilley secured the initial access. Once in production, the key team on the ground was just four – series producer Andrew Abbott and PD Lou Lockwood shot the series, Michelle Owen was AP and Stewart Houston was researcher. This team was brought together really by exec, Iain Scollay – and Lou and Stewart have a long-standing working relationship.
The films were cut at Firecrest by three terrific editors – Cassie Durham, Jude Suggett and Audrey McColligan.
Emma Curtis ran the PM side of things and the series was finished and graded at Blazing Griffin by Colin Brown.
What kit and software?
We filmed with a mix of C300 Mk2 and Sony FS7. It was cut on Avid and graded on a Nucoda-based system. Audio mixing was done at Savalas in Glasgow.
What were the main production challenges?
Making the series was physically relatively straightforward – as most of it was shot in one place (the Beatson). However, understanding cancer and cancer treatment from a standing start was a huge challenge. It’s complex and it’s multifaceted – under headline terms like radiotherapy and chemotherapy, there’s a huge amount of variation. So getting to grips with the medical side of the series and then finding ways to capture it that accurately reflected what can be a complicated treatment journey was hard.
We also had to convince the medical staff that we could be trusted to accurately reflect their work – and also to take our duty of care to patients who may be in very difficult situations seriously. As with any access piece where there are sensitivities involved, the key was proactive, open and honest communication.
We found that many patients were keen to tell their stories – and, in fact, casting was relatively straightforward in terms of numbers. We aimed to find people who were at different stages of treatment, or were undergoing different kinds of treatment, so that we could hopefully create a comprehensive picture of modern cancer-care.
What did you most learn and enjoy from the experience?
Seeing the incredible dedication of the doctors, and the enormous resources poured into cancer treatment and research, was humbling. This terrible disease is being tackled by some of the brightest and most caring people in our society. And they are making a difference.
I learned a lot about cancer, and I hope I learned a bit about what it’s like to be diagnosed with it, to be treated for it – and even to face dying from it.
Thanks to the courageous patients who agreed to be filmed going through some of the worst moments in their lives – and also some of the most hopeful and positive – I think we all learned a bit more about the strength of the human spirit, and the will we have to help each other through.