Behind the scenes of Saving Lives at Sea

The BBC’s four-part series Saving Lives at Sea reached an audience of 32 MILLION and brought the RNLI unprecedented levels of awareness, donations, and volunteering enquiries.

But such successful television doesn’t just appear from nowhere. In the case of Saving Lives of Sea, it involved hard work from people in almost every department of the RNLI and took nearly two years. 

Take it from the top

In the spring of 2014, TV production company Blast! Films approached the RNLI with the idea of making a programme about our lifeboat service and we agreed.

To source good pilot footage and organise contract negotiations they liaised with stations and crew as well as multiple departments at the RNLI. Eleanor Driscoll from the RNLI’s Film and Image team led the way, with contract negotiations involving members of the following teams: News and Issues, RNLI Legal Counsel and Campaigns PR.

Using pilot footage they shot during August 2014, Blast pitched the idea to the BBC in February 2015 and the series was officially commissioned in March 2015 after more contract negotiations. Then it was action stations!

Scene one, take one – action!

The lifeboat stations that featured in the programme were selected to create a mix of different types of station, types of lifeboat, the frequency and types of shouts received and how easy it would be to install cameras with minimum disruption for the crews.

The following stations were chosen: Blackpool, Brighton, Tower, Newquay, Eastbourne, Torbay and Oban. Footage from the station’s own lifeboat cameras was used and some interviews were done with members of the Flood Rescue Team.

This way for hair, make-up and survival training!

To prepare the chosen stations, members of the Engineering and Asset Management team made sure that the new cameras fitted onto our boats and all crew equipment was operationally safe. Comprehensive pre-filming briefings were given to all the RNLI volunteer crews involved, these were led by Kelly Allen (Community Lifesaving) and their local PR Managers.

Meanwhile, members of the Blast film crew all underwent sea survival training and had station specific briefings from Coxswains and Lifeboat Operations Managers. Issued with pagers, the film crew were ready for action and occasionally stayed on station at Tower RNLI during the night shifts.

The editing suite

Filming at stations took place between August 2015 and January 2016 and Blast also followed up with rescuees to get their side of the story by contacting the Coastguard, ambulance service or the lifeboat stations. Follow-up interviews with crew were carried out at these additional stations: New Quay, The Mumbles, Abersoch, Moelfre and Islay.

From the footage, Blast put together four episodes which were then aired from 13 July 2016 on consecutive Wednesday nights at 9pm.

Promotional posts and material

To make the most of this incredible opportunity to raise awareness about the charity, Luke Blissett from the Campaigns PR team worked alongside the BBC press office and the RNLI’s PR teams to secure significant media coverage promoting the series, using photographer Nigel Millard’s portraits of crew who featured in the show.

This resulted in 100 items of regional and 79 items of UK national media coverage which included interviews with crew and rescuees. Lifeboat crew also appeared on the BBC’s One Show and 20 crew members were organised to make up the live studio audience. This provided a fantastic opportunity to shine the spotlight on the work of the RNLI and our volunteer crews in front of a huge audience.

Lucy Putt and Helen Walker in the RNLI’s Marketing team planned a campaign to extend awareness of the series through social media and an outdoor poster advertising campaign featuring several of the crew in the series.

The Internal Communications team ensured all our staff and volunteers were aware of the programme and tuned in. Working outside their remit, they partnered with the RNLI College in Poole to put promotional leaflets in the College guest rooms and provided communications for our Corporate Partners to use.

Bringing social alive

Jodie Dalmeda and Chloé Burden from the Campaigns PR team engaged 33 celebrity ambassadors to support the show, resulting in 73 tweets about the TV series – including tweets from Bear Grylls, Zoë Ball, Piers Morgan and Rick Stein.

The RNLI Social Media team worked around the clock to engage people on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram before, during and after each episode. Facebook Live Q&A sessions went down a storm, and the very first session with two Welsh members of crew had 21,000 views, 750 comments and a reach of 200,000 in under an hour!

As a result of the series an extra 35,000 people liked our Facebook page and during the first episode there were a recorded 25,000 page views of the RNLI website before the number of visitors caused it to crash! To solve this problem, Rob Edwards in IT created a holding page so that the website could take 10,000+ users at a time and allowed the RNLI to take thousands in online donations during the shows.

Feedback from the audience

Mairéad Dwane and Rachel Hanford produced a lot of material for the RNLI Magazine microsite around Saving Lives at Sea to inform website visitors about the series and the crew involved. Feedback during the episodes meant that Laura Rainbow had to quickly put together a piece for the microsite about how to get involved and volunteer with the RNLI – it received more than 13,000 visits!

A letter to The Sun newspaper read: “I’ve been in tears one minute and overwhelmed the next. If it has opened people’s eyes to the dangers of the seas then the show has done its job. The volunteers are heroes.”

The high viewing figures, the enormously positive feedback and the quality of the rescue footage obtained from stations have all brought about early discussions about the possibility of a second series of Saving Lives at Sea. But none of this would have been possible without the hard work, enthusiasm and willingness to help from countless RNLI staff and volunteers.

And cut!