FIRE in the Night is a documentary about the Piper Alpha disaster, in 1988, which saw 167 men die, following an explosion on the Piper Alpha oil production platform in the North Sea.
Including interviews with some of the 61 survivors, the documentary was, the other day, named winner of the Audience Award – reinstated this year following a two-year gap – at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.
It is based on a book by the same name by Stephen McGinty – columnist and senior writer on The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday – who is an associate producer on the programme.
Fire in the Night is being broadcast this evening on BBC Two (network) at 2100.
Here, multi award-winning director, Anthony Wonke, answers the questions…
Who commissioned the series?
It was made commissioned by the BBC from STV productions, specifically by Ewan Angus, TV commissioning editor, BBC Scotland, and Charlotte Moore, then the BBC commissioning editor for documentaries, now Controller of BBC One.
Explain the thinking behind the production’s ‘look and feel’
When looking back on much of the coverage of the Piper Alpha disaster over the last few years, it became clear to us that much of the focus had concentrated on the mechanical causes of the explosions, the ensuing investigation and then the changes that took place in the off-shore oil industry.
It was as though the actual event itself had been eclipsed by process and investigation while the real stories of the men who were caught up in the disaster were lost.
With this in mind, we were determined to use the emotional testimony of the survivors and rescuers to tell the story of what happened during those two hours on Piper Alpha.
This film wasn’t going to investigate the cause of the explosion or look for blame, this was about how a group of men, who were just doing a job, found themselves in the heart of the worst off-shore oil disaster the world has ever seen.
We also managed to source some astonishing archive that revealed the immense nature of the rig itself and the day-to-day lives of the guys who worked upon it, which sets the scene and amplifies the horror and tragedy of what would unfold.
Who are the key personnel? How were they recruited?
I had previously worked with the brilliant film editor, Steve Ellis, on Crack House USA so it was great to work with him again on this film. The director of photography was Mike Eley whose credits include Touching the Void, Marley and Parade’s End. The composer was Andrew Phillips and the line producer was Isobel Oram.
What kit and software?
We shot on ARRI Alexa cameras with Ultra Prime lenses. The dub took place with re-recording mixer, Ben Baird, at Aquarium Studios and the grading was done at Narduzzo’s in Pinewood.
What have been the main production challenges?
One of the toughest parts of the project were producing the dramatic reconstructions where we had to deal with both fire and water. Fortunately, we filmed a lot of the ‘fire sequences’ at the Fire Service College in Moreton-in-Marsh in Gloucestershire, which is a huge fire training college where they can replicate huge, gas-fuelled infernos. The water sequences were filmed at the Underwater Studio in Basildon.
What did you most learn and enjoy from the experience?
From a technical point of view, the drama reconstructions were an interesting experience. Although I’d made drama before, I hadn’t worked with fire, smoke, water and actors – all together. There are the obvious hazards and key to making the scenes work were time, planning and patience. When dealing with those elements all together, you can’t do things too quickly and you really have to have people who know what they’re doing around you.
We also cut the film in a remote farm house in the Scottish countryside. Away from it all and breaking with the usual conventions of cutting in a big facility house, this isolation made for a better and more concentrated edit experience.
Most of all, though, what I really gained from the experience, and deeply admired, was the calmness, dignity and great resolve shown by the men in the film – who treat everyday in life as a kind of blessing.