Image: Shooting Lodge Productions

The Warwick Professor behind a new First World War television pilot

This Sunday, Warwick Arts Centre will be premiering a television pilot called The Bagley Boys which has been co-written and produced by Warwick’s Dr Mike Tildesley. I sat down with him to ask about this intriguing project and we discussed the production process, the importance of remembering the First World War and the links which this project has to Warwick University.

Hi Mike, thanks for agreeing to talk to us! Do you want to start by telling us about The Bagley Boys?

The Bagley Boys follows a group of men from a fictitious village called Bagley-on-the-Wold in Warwickshire at the outbreak of the First World War who join one of Lord Kitchener’s Pals Battalions. It’s based around these ten men and their families. They naively join up, and – as a lot of men did at the time – they think they’re going to have a jolly good time. Then they’ll get to the front line and realise it’s not quite what they thought it was going to be. We filmed the pilot from 2016 through to 2017, and the episode deals with the boys when they’re recruited all the way up to them arriving in France.

So, will the rest of the series be set between France and Bagley-on-the-Wold?

Yes, it really focuses on both sides. One of the boys in the very first scene receives an injury, which you don’t discover in the pilot episode itself, but he then returns home and part of it is about him rehabilitating into society. That’s something that is not covered very much actually – soldiers returning with life-changing wounds. So, some of it is on the front line and some of it is about the changes in the village when all the men have left, where the women are having to work the land and really keep things together in the village.

Where did you get the inspiration for the project?

I have a First World War theatre company, so we’ve been doing plays for a number of years. Back in 2014, we did a play called Christmas in the Trenches that was focussed around the 1914 Christmas Truce. This was really the genesis for The Bagley Boys as we then expanded on it. So, the main character in Christmas in the Trenches is actually the character played by me in The Bagley Boys, but he’s one of many.

So, will the Christmas Truce feature at some point in the series?

The Christmas Truce itself will not because in the pilot episode they get recruited around September 1914, but there’s a whole lot of training, so actually they don’t – as a lot of the Pals Battalions didn’t – arrive in France until well into 1915.

We focussed around the real Birmingham-Warwickshire Pals Battalions

But it’s due to culminate in the Battle of the Somme, because a lot of the Pals Battalions in the First World War didn’t really see a lot of action until the Somme. And then, in the Somme, a lot of them went over the top, and this caused whole villages to get wiped out.

How did you approach the balance between telling a fictional story and a true one?

The stories themselves bring aspects of real-life stories, but there are no real characters in it. It’s a very dangerous thing to do, to focus things around real people, especially because it’s not that far away in history yet. So, what we did is we focussed around the real Birmingham-Warwickshire Pals Battalions, but the people themselves are fictitious.

Why did you think that TV was the best medium to tell your story?

This has always been the difficulty, because if we’d made it as a feature film it actually would have been significantly easier to do because then we’d be selling a finished product! The problem was that the story is so complex, that actually we felt it’s not something we can tell in an hour and a half film. It’s all about the development of the characters and, this isn’t really a spoiler, but unsurprisingly not all of them make it to the end. It’s very much about how they deal with that. So, the first episode is really quite light-hearted in many ways, but then we get to the second episode when there is the first casualty and, all of a sudden, things change. And we felt we needed time to really develop that, so developing it into a six-part series really made sense.

Why do you think this is an important and relevant story to tell now?

I felt that, in the centenary years, which of course we’ve just finished, there hasn’t really been a great deal out in terms of drama. There have been a couple of series’ focussed around casualty clearing stations, around nurses, but there’s not really been anything focussed around soldiers on the front line, so I very much thought there was a big gap in the market.

And obviously it’s a big area of interest of mine. I’ve been out to the battlefields around Ypres and you go to the cemeteries where you’ve got ten thousand graves and it’s really humbling.

What connections does the production have to Warwick University?

Selina Toor (left), Warwick graduate in Theatre and Performance Studies, stars in the pilot as May Booth; Image: Shooting Lodge Productions

So, I’m one of the co-writers and I’m an Associate Professor. One of the other main Bagley Boys was a post-hoc called Dave Woodward who was in the Physics department at the time. We also had an undergraduate called Selina Toor who has graduated in Theatre Studies as one of our principle actors in the show. And then we had three other Warwick students who assisted us in the casualty clearing station scene: we had one who’s a nurse and we had two others who were rather battered patients. And they all came and gave their time for free and helped us out with the production.

What were the some of the difficulties you’ve had with the project?

Probably the biggest challenges came with the practical side of it because it’s been essentially self-funded. The challenge is that you’re trying to get actors and crew on board purely based on the quality of the script, with a promise that it might lead to something. And we were really lucky with this. For instance, we filmed at Stoneleigh Abbey and for just a small donation they allowed us to use it for a day. We filmed at Gloucester and Warwickshire railway, at one of the stations there, and they opened their doors and were quite happy to have us. We were really, really fortunate in that people just gave their time, because otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to make it.

We started slowly ticking scenes off and before we knew it we’d actually managed to film the whole thing!

How did you go about finding the production company, Shooting Lodge?

The production company was actually one set up by an old friend of mine who I acted with on the amateur stage many years ago and then he turned professional. So, my wife and I presented them with the script and essentially asked them what they thought. Originally, we first filmed the trailer back in February 2016 and we were going to use that to pitch for commissioning. But we spoke to Ben Manning, one of the directors of Shooting Lodge, and he said: ‘ok, well let’s start filming a few scenes’. So, we filmed a scene in a pub that we found and we filmed a scene at the train station. But, then, we started slowly ticking them off and before we knew it we’d actually managed to film the whole thing. I never thought we’d get to the end! I always thought we’d get to a certain stage and we’d use that for pitching, but because they were so generous with their time it enabled us to finish the project.

I suppose you got to a point where you were so close that you thought you might as well finish it!

Well, the hardest one was filming all the scenes in uniform, because hiring fifteen/sixteen World War One uniforms is not cheap. The only way we could do this was to film all of these over the same weekend. So, we had an extremely cold weekend in February 2017 in a field near Nuneaton which we converted into No Man’s Land and basically filmed all our scenes in that weekend. But we’d got to the stage where everything else was done, so we really had to be finished at that point.

What was it like seeing your ideas coming to life during the production of the pilot episode?

There were many times when I couldn’t believe it. I’ve written a few play scripts but, writing a TV script, there were times when you actually had to stop and pinch yourself and say, particularly with professional actors who we were working with, people are here because of the quality of the script that we’ve written. And then you feel that you want to try to pay that back to all these people that invested time.

How have you managed to balance this project with your role as a university tutor?

That’s been a difficulty, because I was very clear that I didn’t want this to affect my job here, so this is why the filming days were all done essentially in my spare time. A lot of them were done in the August-September break before term started, and then with the rest of them most were done at weekends. It was tough, but at the end of the day I’ve still got a job to do here: I’ve got students to supervise, I’ve got research to get done and that can’t stop. I think that, had it not been this project about the First World War that I’m very passionate about, I wouldn’t have been doing it at all.

The project seems very far removed from Mathematical Sciences, your subject. Are there any parallels between them or are the two things totally mutually exclusive to you?

Well, my research area is infectious diseases, so I’m employed through the Maths department and the School of Life Sciences. What I have to do in my work here is a lot of interaction with policy. I write disease models and we use that to predict how diseases would spread and how we might control them. So, an awful lot of my job is actually communicating science to non-experts and doing it in such a way that you can make them understand, but also that you can explain the limitations of what you’re doing. And I think, in a sense, the producing of The Bagley Boys is quite similar to that – you’re dealing with people from a variety of backgrounds, you’re having to do  an awful lot of organisation and negotiation with people who have very different objectives. I always say that within epidemiology, which is what we do, a lot of us have turned into politicians. And I think certainly I can see that there are parallels in filming. Particularly as a producer, where you’re having to do a lot of dealing with people and situations, smoothing other difficulties and that sort of thing.

What are you hopes and plans for the near future of The Bagley Boys? Ideally, where do you see the project going next?

What we’re doing at the moment is trying to secure the support of a literary agent or a production company. So, all we can do – and we’ve been doing this in the last few weeks really – is send out the script and the pilot just to get interest. It’s a huge challenge, because there are so many features pitched to these agents all the time. The vast majority get nowhere. And I would love it to get to the next step in the process but I’m also realistic about it.

Don’t be defeated by the idea that there’s a lot out there and you won’t be able to break in

The problem with The Bagley Boys is that we’ve done the pilot on a relatively low budget. With the pilot episode we could get away with that, because there is not very much action at the front. But what you’re dealing with in later episodes is battles scenes and scenes at the casualty clearing station which you can’t get away with on a low budget. We really need support on it, so it does need that kind of financial backing to go onto the next stage.

What advice would you give to any Warwick students who would like to get involved with television production, whether acting, writing, producing etc.?

Obviously, you need to get a break, but you’ve also got to be bold enough to put yourself out there. So, contact people and ask the questions. When I started out this process I thought, well, I’ve only ever really done theatre shows; I have a script, but I have no track record, so people won’t want to look. And then, actually, all you need to do is get one or two people on side who are interested and then people will follow. And this is what we found. Certainly, don’t be defeated by the idea that there’s a lot out there and you won’t be able to break in. At the end of the day, if the concept is good it’s good, and you shouldn’t be scared of the fact that you don’t have a track record in it.

And one final word: what would you like to say to people, particularly Warwick staff and students, about why they should come to the Arts Centre this Sunday to watch The Bagley Boys?

I think the first thing I would say is these are not real people, but these are real stories. These kinds of things happened to real people like us a hundred years ago. And I think it’s an important message that we should never forget. It’s our little way of keeping the memory alive of this extraordinary generation of individuals who had no idea what they were fighting for and they went anyway. And, I don’t know about you, but I can’t envisage what it would’ve been like to have been in the trenches with the artillery going overhead, thoroughly hungry and scared, not knowing whether I was going to go home. I think we’re extremely lucky to live in a generation where we don’t have to do that and I think it’s also important that we remember.

You can read our review of The Bagley Boys here.

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