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‘No pension, no career, no future’: Grim reality behind the scenes of British TV and film industry

In terms of glamour and escapism, it doesn’t get much bigger than the Baftas and, while this weekend, the great and the good from British cinema will be getting ready to party, further down the food chain for those working behind the scenes there’s little cause to celebrate.

New research conducted exclusively for Sky News by the broadcasting union BECTU paints a bleak picture of what life is really like for ordinary workers within the British TV and film industry.

Thousands got in touch to report a dire shortage of paid work, with many saying they’re stressed, some even suicidal, taking on mounting debts to keep afloat financially.

“I feel abandoned,” one respondent wrote. “I’ve dedicated my life to this career and overnight everything I’ve worked towards has fallen apart.”

Another explained: “The whole experience is making me realise the sheer fragility of the industry and the money we earn simply isn’t enough.”

“I have never known a more dire situation… there is zero work around,” wrote another.

While, certainly in film, there had been the assumption that after SAG-AFTRA strikes ended last autumn work would slowly start to resume at the start of this year, for many that simply hasn’t been the case.

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FILE PHOTO: SAG-AFTRA actors and Writers Guild of America (WGA) writers walk the picket line during their ongoing strike outside Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California, U.S., August 22, 2023. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni/File Photo
Image: SAG-AFTRA members on strike in the US in August – the walkout lasted 118 days. Pic: Reuters

Last September – before the industrial action was over – 74% of BECTU union members said they were out of work.

Now, of the 4,160 people who responded to the Sky News/BECTU poll, it would seem little has changed with 68% writing to say that’s still the case.

Those who are booking jobs wrote back to say their roles are changing, with many saying they’re now being overworked and asked to do more for less.

‘I had a breakdown on my last job’

We were told: “Positions… that are advertised seem to roll up about three or four jobs into one role – and the pay is linked to the most junior role.”

Another wrote to say: “Unauthorised overtime… is now the norm. I had a breakdown on my last job… the job before that, it was a common occurrence to see crew crying in the middle of the workshop.”

Thirty per cent reported having had no work at all in the past three months, while 34% have had less than a month’s worth of work since the US industrial action reached a settlement.

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Hollywood writers’ deal explained

Drill down into those figures for the past three months and freelancers who are black or Asian are less likely to have worked than their white colleagues (29% of white respondents had not worked at all, compared to 38% of respondents who are Asian and 32% of black respondents).

‘I’m at my wit’s end’

The precarious nature of working in UK production, for some, has become untenable.

This is summed up by one woman who said: “As an ethnic minority working mum… it’s all for nothing.

“I feel valueless and aggrieved that all those years of working crazy hours and lack of security is for nothing.”

Another wrote: “After this slowdown, there’ll be no more diversity, we’ll have gone back 20 years in terms of only the elite being able to afford to work in the industry.

“I’m at my wit’s end. I feel as though I may have to sell my house. My marriage is under strain as I can’t financially contribute.”

Of those surveyed, 86% reported finding things either extremely difficult (42%) or more difficult than normal (44%).

Financially, and understandably, it is affecting people’s mental health, with more than a quarter saying they were really struggling – some of whom responded to say they’d had breakdowns, or even become suicidal as a result.

There’s also an increase in people taking on loans or unsecured debt to cover their bills (23% up from 15% in September).

Charlotte Sewell, an assistant costume designer working on the Mission Impossible franchise, told Sky News that while she knew it was unlikely the industry would immediately bounce back after the US strikes ended last year, her worst fears have been realised.

Charlotte Sewell - Asst costume designer
Image: Charlotte Sewell’s worst fears have been realised

“I think we all thought that what was shooting would come up quickly but new stuff, we were concerned… and unfortunately, it’s come true.”

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Industry slowdown across the board

The US strikes seemingly masked a much wider industry slowdown which is now being experienced across the board in both film and TV with television commissioning seeming to tail off as the industry experiences its worst advertising downturn in 15 years.

Until recently, unscripted projects, as they’re known, were a reliable all-year-round source of employment, but now 65% of people who once worked in reality TV are out of work.

For over two decades James Taylor has worked as a series producer on some of the biggest reality shows on TV, including the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing and ITV’s Saturday Night Takeaway.

He told Sky News: “It’s easy to see that the strikes in America are having a direct issue in the UK, whereas something that’s less quantifiable is the commissioning slowdown here in the UK.

“You can’t really put your finger on it because the broadcasters aren’t releasing stats on that and saying we are commissioning fewer programmes.

James Taylor - Series producer - for Spencer lead
Image: ‘It’s easy to see that the strikes in America are having a direct issue in the UK’, says James

“The economics within the industry are changing and all freelancers want to know is some information… if we know that there are going to be fewer programmes made here in the UK going forward, people can look for a job elsewhere.

“[Instead] there’s been this sort of tantalising prospect that things will get back to normal in a few weeks or months so people are waiting, in the meantime struggling to pay their bills and mortgages.”

More than a quarter (26%) of those surveyed reported really struggling with their mental health as a result of the drop off of available work, with a number of respondents reporting having had breakdowns or becoming suicidal as a result.

‘No pension, no career, no future’

As the head of BECTU, Philippa Childs, explained: “It’s a perfect storm, there are tens of thousands of people who work in this industry, and they’re facing a crisis… this is, a real crisis for the industry.”

“I think we all hoped 2023 was a bit of a blip… but unfortunately that hasn’t proven to be the case… people are really getting very desperate.”

Not only does the British TV and film industry generate billions of pounds for the economy, it also employs tens of thousands of people and a dream career for many skilled workers in this country has now become a nightmare.

As one woman wrote: “We’re told it’s part of the risk of choosing this job we’re “so lucky” to have… yet what do we have to show for it? Nothing. No pension. No career. No future… It feels like redundancy without any severance package.”

Sky News Source