Off Their Rockers: Hidden camera secrets

A little old lady hobbles over to a young person and asks them to help her jump off London Bridge, because swimming in the Thames is “something she’s always wanted to do”. Hold on, have we switched channel to Extreme Sports? No, this is ITV’s hidden camera sketch show Off Their Rockers, and all is not as it seems.

The pensioners are teaching us a lesson on how to live life and we’d better start paying attention.

Produced by CPL Productions, the show, which is set to return in 2014 after a successful first run, features senior citizens pranking unsuspecting members of the public.

During filming on seires one, some members of the public accused the production team of OAP abuse, but they were basing this simply on the few seconds of footage they witnessed. Had they stayed to watch the entire scene they would have recognised that these oldies actually had the upper hand and it was the UK’s youngsters who were being set up.

So who was behind this hit prime-time TV show, which regularly pulled in over 5m viewers?

Here to explain why it proved such a hit is the show’s series director Thomas Stark Holland, who tells us about directing hidden camera and reveals the secret of how to get that killer reaction shot…

off their rockers

Courtesy of ITV

Where did all this love of hidden camera begin?

I’ve covertly filmed hundreds, possibly thousands of people throughout my career. It all began with a Channel 4 programme called Make My Day; a game show in which the contestant becomes the star of their very own TV show. I was then given my first directing job on a Guy Ritchie-inspired show called Swag; a hidden camera comedy show based on the premise of setting up criminals for fun and yes, it was as dodgy as it sounds!

In the show we caught hundreds of people using some very crooked pranks and set the world to rights by showing that crime doesn’t pay - but might have a comedic payoff.

What makes hidden camera gags funny?

Hidden camera comedy relies on getting a rise out of a ‘mark’ (an industry term for a member of the public being filmed covertly) and in the days of Jeremy Beadle, it was all about recording the increasing frustration to a wind-up scenario. On Swag it was a look of utter stupidity or the growing sense of fear of being caught, but we wanted a different reaction when shooting Off Their Rockers.

All the sketches were written with a much subtler style of comedy, where the OAP’s exhibited youthful behavior; and all our scripts ended with a telling line, leaving the mark bemused. However, recording bemusement is much harder than anger or shock, especially with covert cameras, so we devised a technique that allowed close-up and unobscured photography.

But surely it’s difficult to get close enough to capture those reactions without the mark noticing?

Yes, it’s tricky but I invented a few key props to help us capture those moments. The main filming method was having professional TV cameras fitted into prams. Prams are omnipresent on the high street, and are really mobile so you can position yourself close to people without noticing - and most people don’t look inside especially if you appear to be changing a nappy!

The camera crew was so incognito that often the only giveaway sign for something odd occurring was me standing in the middle of the street speaking to the actors using a radio link, chuckling to myself while looking into a monitor concealed in a duffle bag.

off their rockers

Courtesy of Simon Elsbury

What are the specific difficulties of hidden camera?

It takes forever to shoot a hidden camera sketch. We had over 80 days of shooting for 6 x 30 episodes and were filming well into winter. The worst moment is when you know you have shot the perfect scene – when a gag has worked really well – and then you can’t persuade the mark to sign the consent forms.

It was a lot easier for Off Their Rockers because the show never created victims from the pranks and most people saw the funny side of what we were doing. But it’s amazing how many people we recorded were either somewhere they weren’t supposed to be, skiving off work, or with someone they didn’t want to be seen with.

Our team of assistant producers and researchers were incredibly persuasive in getting the release forms signed, but if you don’t get that signature you can't use the footage and have to start all over again.

How did you achieve such high quality images?

We’re a technologically led industry and I’m a camera geek, so it’s important that I always use the best kit. 2012 was all about the Canon C300, but many people told me this was the wrong camera to use and that long lenses and minicams were the only option, however I wanted to make the show look different.

For me, minicams have their place in undercover docs, but personally I don’t like the CCTV style for comedy as it distracts from telling the gag, especially if you’re doing subtle stuff about the relationship between young and old people.

I also think that, as nowadays people have minicams on their phones, why would an audience need me to direct when they can shoot their own pranks? Also, shooting with 35mm lenses allowed us to focus the audience’s attention on the key players in the scene and create an aesthetic quality glossy enough for a mainstream ITV audience who are used to watching shows like The Only Way Is Essex or The X Factor.

A lot of the humour in Off Their Rockers was based on very simple, everyday coincidences. How did you make it funny?

In the show we subverted normal situations but only very slightly, for example, we had a great gag about a lady who carried her husband’s dead ashes with her. Sounds morbid, right? But we put her in comical, very simple, everyday life situations, like in a pub or fishmongers.

People are so focused on supporting a lady still mourning her husband they don’t realise that she is playing a joke on them. It is the extreme of emotions that makes it funny.

Often they don’t know whether to laugh or look sad, but then the sheer force of laughter comes through. Those are the gold dust moments that show the real humanity of everyday people.

What did you like most about working on Off Their Rockers?

My favourite part was seeing people enjoying themselves interacting with our cast. For example, watching people jump out of their skin then nearly wet themselves laughing was great fun when we were shooting the nun on a mobility scooter sketches.

It’s such a buzz to be part of moments like these, but all the credit really goes to the team who make it look so effortless, from the art department to the camera crew and the producers who put it all together - it’s a real team effort.

Of course, the real stars are the cast, who are all over seventy years old. If you think about it, would your granny or grandpa be prepared to do these types of stunts over and over again? They really are troopers and I have the utmost respect for them.

Courtesy of James Silsbury

How did the show differ from other shows you have worked on?

The format for Off Their Rockers originally comes from a Belgian show called Benidorm Bastards and when I first saw it I realised that this is one of the funniest ways of incorporating an underrepresented age group in mainstream TV.

Having worked with all sorts of people on many TV shows, I’ve often wondered why people in their senior years don’t feature that heavily on our screens.

The great thing about Off Their Rockers is that all ages get to appear on the show, yet the power rests with the ‘wrinkly underdogs’ and that’s why we love it; it’s actually very British comedy - even though we nabbed it from Europe.

Why was it such a hit?

Nobody really knows what makes a hit comedy but I do think ITV should take credit for letting us (CPL Productions) get on with making the show how we wanted to make it.

In TV there are always a lot of very experienced people who oversee what and how a show is made and their steerage is critical. But equally, having confidence in us as programme makers made a big difference to how this was made and it really helped the cast and crew believe in the production, and the end results prove what happens when a team of creative people work together.

We were also helped by brilliant ITV scheduling which meant that instead of being forced to fight for attention on Saturday night prime time we lucked out on a Sunday evening slot.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to make a hidden camera show?

It’s a genre full of frustration, but not unlike fly-fishing, if you persist you might just land yourself a whopper. In other words, be prepared to fail, fail, and fail again but then, just as it’s about to rain and everyone is wanting to go home, look out for that one last chance to harvest some TV gold.

Why do you think hidden camera shows have become popular again?

Ten years ago, Trigger Happy TV gave hidden camera a cool edge; it’s the ultimate people-watching genre, but like a lot of shows, the format gets tired and needs to be reinvented. Also, factual TV filled that gap and we got used to surveillance type storytelling in a Big Brother style.

Now there’s a revival in hidden camera shows because we want more fantasy and less reality and again technology is helping us to deliver this.

At the moment I’m working on a new ITV hidden camera pilot filmed on Sony’s 4K RAW format. The potential benefits are astounding, but I won’t boast about it just yet since the proof is always in the commission.

Tom is a funny-boned TV director and producer with experience at the helm of many entertainment and factual programmes. For further details about his work, you can visit his Knowledge profile by clicking this link.



Are you planning on making a hidden camera show? Here are Thomas’ top 5 tips:

1. Build up your patience skills. Practice by marlin fishing or looking for needles in haystacks.

2. Dress to suit your location: there’s no point wearing Jimmy Choo’s in Sutton high street, you’ll be spotted as a media type a mile off.

3. Don’t think just because you’ve got covert-comms that you’re a special agent in an FBI bust, you’ll just attract gangs of kids chanting “it’s the Feds!”

4. Have an endless supply of consent form-signing phrases. If in doubt, use humour and blame the director, e.g. “if I don’t get this signed my director will literally have kittens”

5. A good diet is essential, and remember, you may fancy a curry but be mindful that you might spend the next day locked behind the tinted glass of a people-carrier with several crew members and very little fresh air.


Have you filmed any hidden camera footage before? Would you like to share any tips or tricks? Let us know via our Facebook page.