In a powerful and honest documentary, Strictly Come Dancing professional dancer, Amy Dowden, shares her experience of living with Crohn’s Disease. Producer Director Laura Martin-Robinson spoke to Broadcast about making the documentary and the challenges of filming during a pandemic.

To read the full Broadcast article, click here: https://www.broadcastnow.co.uk/factual/strictly-amy-a-private-battle-with-crohns-during-lockdown/5153885.article

Every documentary I’ve ever made has thrown a curveball at some point.  Wildflame Productions’ Strictly Amy: Crohn’s and Me was no exception.  My contributor was rushed to hospital on day two of filming …and then a global pandemic struck.

I was following Amy Dowden, Strictly Come Dancing professional over a busy year. She was performing in a solo show, taking her dance school to the world-famous Blackpool competition and then – the icing on the cake – marrying her dance partner Ben.

Through this we’d see how Amy lives with Crohn’s  – a chronic illness she’s had since 11. Despite debilitating pain and hundreds of hospital admissions Amy has risen to the top of her dancing career.

When I was asked to make this film for BBC Wales, I knew nothing about Crohn’s. Around 500,000 people in the UK have Crohn’s or Colitis (a similar disorder). Causes are thought to be genetic and environmental but no one really knows why people get it. It causes severe inflammation to the intestines and if it goes untreated you’re at risk of complications like sepsis and bowel cancer. Pretty grim and pretty scary.

So when I met Amy I was blown away by her stoicism. I’d seen her on Strictly and couldn’t get my head around how someone who has all this happening inside her could also be doing high kicks, the splits and tango-ing all day.

On day two of filming Amy’s agent called to say she’d been rushed to hospital. Amy manages her illness through medicine and diet and, although she has the occasional flare-up (which she’d agreed to let me film), I wasn’t prepared for one so soon. I drove to her local hospital and camped out for two days. I was allowed in to film and Amy was coming to. It was a dramatic opening to a film that would only become more so.

Two weeks later Covid-19 struck. We were at Amy’s wedding venue. As Amy was sampling the taster menu, her fiancée Ben was reading out news alerts that the country was going into lockdown. It was beyond surreal and I had no idea what it would mean for the film – or for the world. An emergency meeting was organised with the Wildflame team who sprung into action and organised for a high-end but easy-to-use camera to be biked to Amy’s house so she could film herself.

From March to June, Amy had three more hospital admissions. Ben and Amy filmed as much as possible and these ended up being the most powerful moments. When Amy was well enough, we Zoomed and caught up.  In between ‘homeschooling’ my 2-, 4- and 9-year-old, I’d review her footage and figure out next steps.

By July we were back up and running. Amy was going back on Strictly and we needed to finish filming. Over lockdown I’d found a raft of new stories to follow – of people with Crohn’s doing amazing work to spread awareness, doctors creating vaccines and even another Strictly star, judge Shirley Ballas who’s niece has Crohn’s. We’d need to film everything outdoors or in well-ventilated spaces, 2m apart, in masks and with plenty of sanitiser. It was a cautious all-systems-go.

Even with a rammed schedule I knew I wouldn’t be able to film enough scenes in the time we had and I was worried about how un-visual it would be with all the restrictions. So drawing inspiration from Chris Packham: Aspergers and Me and The Curry House Kid I decided to film some choreographed dance sequences with 3 young ballroom dancers. These scenes would provide visuals for Amy’s childhood memories. I’d never done anything like this before – so it was a whole new world.

After weeks of changing dates and plans due to everything being so uncertain  – finally the shoot was sorted – we had 4 locations, a truck full of props, crew, accommodation, child licenses. Working with the young dancers was brilliant and with DOP Patrick Smith at the helm I was in safe hands.

BBC Wales were supportive in how reactive we needed to be and the Wildflame team were brilliant in facilitating my ever-changing requests.  The final film wasn’t what was commissioned but ended up being a love letter to ballroom dancing, a powerful account of this terrible illness and a record of one of the strangest and most unsettling times we as a nation have ever experienced.

Strictly Amy: Crohn’s and Me is available to view on BBC iPlayer.

Abbie Bolitho

With a background in current affairs and factual programmes, Abbie has been able to apply her research and organisational skills to a wide variety of projects in both English and Welsh. These include S4C's Nyrsys, Dim Byd i Wisgo and more recently Beasts - a series on the 'top 10' animals for children which is being sold internationally.

Cai Glover

Since joining Wildflame in the development team, Cai's worked on several productions using his skills as an editor, self-shooter and researcher including S4C's digital series Bwrw 'Mlan, BBC Bitesize History KS2, S4C's Dim i'w Wisgo and most recently as a shooting assistant producer on the second series of S4C's Nyrsys.

Catrin Jones-Shawe

Catrin’s career began in children’s television where she produced content for both S4C and CBBC.

Catrin has a passion for health-based documentaries and in 2019 won a BAFTA Cymru Award for best factual series for Velindre: Hospital of Hope (ITV Wales). Her most recent series, Nyrsys (S4C) is an observational documentary format highlighting the incredible work performed by nurses across Wales.

Celyn Williams

With a passion for history, Celyn has spent her time collecting and telling stories of extraordinary individuals from across Wales.

Her previous work includes a number of high-profile history productions including Time Team, and The Aberfan Wives Club (ITV).

For S4C, Celyn worked on the double Welsh BAFTA winning Adam Price a Streic y Glowyr and more recently, a living history series The 1900 Island (BBC).

Connie Fisher

Connie moved into the world of television after a career as a West End leading lady playing Maria Von Trapp in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Sound of Music.

With a passion for TV and entertainment, Connie leads the development of formats & features projects for Wildflame and works closely with broadcasters creating projects for both high-profile and emerging talent across the full range of factual programming.

Esme Horne

The last 10 years of Esme’s career has been dedicated to understanding the production process and supporting a creative vision from development to transmission. Since joining Wildflame in 2017, Esme has worked across the Wildflame slate: reinforcing the production management team and helping to assure all projects are run smoothly and efficiently.

Gareth Fisher

Gareth has extensive knowledge of the business of production across all genres. He has an outstanding track-record in controlling large production teams and multi-million-pound projects. Gareth has worked with all of the main UK Broadcasters as well as forging strong relationships with International Broadcasters and Co - Production partners.

Leona Cowley

Leona has been with Wildflame since its inception and has a wealth of experience in a senior production management role working on regional and high-profile documentaries being filmed in various exotic and remote locations across the globe. Her extensive experience spans some 25 years working across most programme genres.

Llinos Griffin-Williams

Bafta Cymru Winning Executive Producer, Llinos is Executive Producer, Factual and International Co-productions at Wildflame Productions. She leads on international content development, production and delivery of Factual Programming to Domestic and International Broadcasters and is part of the Wildflame Senior Management Board. Llinos is Vice Chair of RTS Cymru Wales and a member of Welsh Indies Council TAC. 

Manon Alice-Thomas

After graduating with a BA (Hons) from York St. John’s University Business School, Manon gained her first professional experience working in events management. She then completed an internship with Kate Borde at Cardiff based talent agency KBPM, and has recently undertaken a contract as Junior Assistant at the ‘InterTalent Group’, London, supporting the Chairman and Founder, Prof. Jonathan Shalit, OBE.  As a Television Production Coordinator for Wildflame, Manon supports the team across the slate of UK and international productions

Mike Davies

Mike has accrued over a dozen years of experience in company and programme finance.  His expertise encompasses day-to-day financial transactions, managing company-wide spending against fiscal targets, preparation of monthly management accounts and forecasting. He is also responsible for day to day scheduling and running of Wildflame’s editing facilities.

Paul Islwyn Thomas

Paul is founder and CEO of Wildflame Productions and is responsible for the creative and business management of the company. With over 35 years’ experience in the industry, Paul has built an enviable reputation as one of the leading factual Executive Producers and TV Executives working in Wales. Throughout a distinguished career Paul has delivered hundreds of hours of programming for both UK and international broadcasters. He is currently Chair of the highly acclaimed ‘It’s My Shout’ Training Scheme which offers exciting pathways into the industry for all championing diversity and social inclusion.

Tabitha Clarke

Tabitha has recently graduated from Bath Spa University with a First Class degree in Film, Television and Digital Production. During her internship at Wildflame, Tabitha is excited to learn more about budgeting and scheduling as well as all the workings within a thriving production company.

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