Written by Cariad Lloyd

Voices

Odd Job: Christine Gernon

The TV director behind some of the most successful sitcoms of the past decade talks to Cariad Lloyd about her Odd Job.

Christine GernonEver seen One Foot in the Grave or Grandma’s House? Up the Women? Gavin & Stacey? New Girl? Then you’ve seen just some of Christine Gernon’s work (but she hopes you didn’t notice it).

What did you want to be as a child?

I don’t remember wanting to be anything. I loved stationery, so I thought maybe I’ll work in an office where I can have lots of stationery. I was a curious small child; I set up my own office and I’d stamp things and pretend to run a post office.

I was quite interested in actors and watched as much TV as I was allowed, but I couldn’t ever imagine working in TV was what you did as a job; I come from a little village up north from a very non-showbiz background, so I didn’t know anyone that did this kind of thing. Probably the main thing I wanted was to be in Abba! But I knew that couldn’t really happen, so the post office seemed much more likely.

I didn’t want to direct (or even know what directing was) until I walked onto a set and thought, that’s what I want to do. And so that’s what I did. I had worked at the BBC as a clerk in radio then as a broadcast assistant, then I did what they used to call ‘attachments’ and I went over to BBC comedy for six months and I worked as a runner/production secretary on the very first series of One Foot in the Grave and it blew my mind. I realised being a director was a job and I went all out to become one. And then 10 years later I directed the last ever series. That was a very special show to me.

How would you best describe what you do?

Simply put, it would be to take a script and translate what’s on the page onto a television screen. Sometimes it starts before the script when I’ll work on ideas and stuff with writers but basically I read something and make it visual. So the whole look and feel of the show is down to me (with a lot of help from a lot of other people!).

How did this become your job?

When I joined BBC Comedy, it was back in the day when the BBC used to run directors’ courses, so there was something to aim for. I was a script supervisor (or a production assistant as it was then called) for two and a half years, then I got onto the Entertainment Directors’ course.

“Everyone calls me Chris and in my first few jobs I was Chris on the credits, but then I realised everyone expected me to be a bloke so after that for credits I reverted to Christine, so people know I’m a woman.”

It was an amazing course: over six weeks it covered all entertainment so you would shoot Top of the Pops, a magazine show, a documentary, a sitcom. They don’t run that course any more in that way – that was when there was a real career path at the BBC. And once I came off that course I was offered two jobs, one as director on The Big Break (a Jim Davidson game show) and one as the assistant director on the reboot of The Liver Birds. I took the latter and never looked back.

Has being a woman affected your work?

I don’t think so, but it’s hard to tell. When I first started directing there were a few men who thought you didn’t know what you were doing and would make comments, but that was 20 years ago and I never let it affect me because I did! Now that never happens at all; also I generally work with people who I know anyway.

It’s never felt like it’s held me back but you just don’t know – I don’t know about the jobs I didn’t get because I was a woman. I think it’s harder to get into it now but that’s just because more people want to do it.

Everyone calls me Chris and in my first few jobs I was Chris on the credits, but then I realised everyone expected me to be a bloke so after that for credits I reverted to Christine, so people know I’m a woman.

What’s the best thing about this job?

So many things; even now I can’t quite believe people let me do it. It’s like having a massive train set (if you like train sets, which I don’t, but I think you know what I mean). Every show is different and it sounds a cliché, but it is the people. You just get to meet so many brilliant people, you go to work and you have a laugh.

That’s not to say there aren’t days where I wish I worked in that post office because of the hours or the pressure, but mostly it’s fun. Also, I’m quite bossy and a bit of a control freak and in this job you get to be bossy and in control, so that’s good.

There’s nothing like it when people love what you do, when people love comedy they really love it. Sometimes it can be not so good when people hate it because obviously it’s comedy, so people aren’t shy about hating it – and about telling you. And when they tell you, they always think you’ll agree with them. I remember being out and someone asked me what I’d been doing and I said the show and they said, “Oh that was awful, wasn’t it?”

And I said, “Was it? I quite enjoyed it!” Because what can you actually say?! I worked a lot with a writer called David Renwick and he would always say that when you do comedy you automatically lose 50 per cent of the audience because they just won’t find it funny.

“I’m quite bossy and a bit of a control freak and in this job you get to be bossy and in control, so that’s good.”

Comedy is very subjective, some people got quite cross about Up the Women and at the same time others absolutely loved it. It’s the same with most shows I’ve done. It used to annoy me but now I laugh at it. I’d rather they hated or loved it than just thought it was alright.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

One bit really sticks out for me. On my very first job directing I was the assistant director on the return of The Liver Birds and every week in a multi-camera sitcom you have to block it all out and then do a camera script; it’s very rehearsed.

I used to get one scene a week to do and one night I was sitting, puzzling about how to get some shots on the actors and Angie [De Chastelai Smith], the director, said to me, “You know you can ask them to move?”

It was like a light bulb went off; I went, oh yeah! Actors had just plonked themselves in the corner and I’d been trying to figure out how to shoot them. That was a really obvious thing but it was extraordinary when you’re learning. I’m also very much of the Billy Wilder school of directing: if people say something is well directed then it’s probably not. People shouldn’t notice directing.

@ladycariad

Cariad & Paul: A Two Player Adventure takes place at the Pleasance Courtyard until 29 August.

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Written by Cariad Lloyd

Cariad is a comedian, actor, improviser and writer. Her dream is to one day pay off her student loan and to finally find the perfect concealer. @ladycariad