Secretarial: I Work For...: `The trust between us has grown'

julia harper is pa to sue birtwistle, producer of BBC tv's `wives and daughters' and `pride and prejudice'
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The Independent Culture
Some months ago I began working for the BBC doing secretarial work for the Drama department. The BBC is a huge organisation and I found the creative buzz both exciting and a bit scary. I had only been here for a short period when I saw a pa'ing post advertised on a production that looked perfect for me. I believe Sue hired me because a colleague had given me a good reference. I think there was some magic in the air at the time for such positions are notoriously hard to get.

I had always assumed one needed to be hard to work in such a competitive environment so I was encouraged by the fact that Sue was maternal. It wasn't until my interview that I realised that she had produced Pride and Prejudice, which I had absolutely loved when I first saw it in Adelaide, my home town.

No other period piece had had such an impact on Australians as Pride and Prejudice - a lot of people spent the week just living for the next episode. But I would had never dreamt that I would be working for its producer on her next big series.

Joining Wives and Daughters at post production stage meant having to hit the ground running and adapting quickly. Luckily temping had taught me to be on the ball. There were names, script, departments and jargon to be learned fast. Time management becomes vital when you are working to a detailed post-production schedule and the pace is so overwhelming that there is no room to feel intimidated. So much care is put into these productions - imagine tying flowers on to trees to simulate summer. Everything is looked at under a microscope in order to get across to the viewer the fact that people lived very differently during Elizabeth Gaskell's time.

Sue has a remarkable eye for detail as well as the ability to think about many things simultaneously, an ability I have had to learn myself. As the go-between for Sue I am constantly on the phone liaising with the different departments involved in the production. I like her to know exactly what I am doing and I think the trust between us has snowballed over the months I've been here.

I work a lot on my own but my days change a lot according to what stage we are at with the editing. The nature of the shooting schedule has meant that one jumps from episode to episode, cutting and dubbing accordingly. Sue has included me in the process, taking me to see what the film needs to go through, including editing, post-synching and music recordings, in order that I might understand what's involved. Most producers wouldn't be as involved as she is. For example, she wants to be absolutely sure that the trailers to Wives and Daughters were just right before sending them out - give too much away and you spoil the plot, say too little and you fail to whet the audience's appetite. She's driven by a good story and the fact that she can visualise characters and then portray them as the audience would like to see them.

I've had a small amount of contact with the cast, mainly arranging things like transport and screening details over the telephone. Having been an actor herself Sue has taught me how to work with them. You have to be sensitive and to remember their needs.

When I went to the Gala screening of Wives and Daughters it felt just like a first night. There was such excitement and laughter among the cast and the crew. It was even more fabulous to see the first episode broadcast last Sunday and to read the interviews with the cast members - it was as if all the gaps were finally filled in for me.

This project has taken Sue two years to put together, that's a long time to work without a break. Most people assume that our work is over, but we are still cutting an international version. I feel maternal towards her now, always asking if she's eating and drinking enough. It's sad to think of the production coming to an end because we've been working together as a family. I can understand why people are so passionate about working in television.

Beginning at the post-production stage is rather back to front, but at least I now know where a production is heading. Sue's said she'd like me to work on her next project, which would allow me to experience all the early stages of a production, including casting, scripting and location hunting. In the long-term I would like to produce myself, for working with Sue has given me such a great example. No amount of studying would have given me this much experience.