After time off with her baby son, actor Charlotte Riley was delighted to get back to work in 2016 to play Kate Middleton in the BBC’s King Charles III. “I could only do it,” she says, “if I brought my child along. It was great, he was there on set with me.” Paying for a nanny to accompany her on set, she rationalised, was a way to keep her “foot in the door”.
While working on that set, she realised how lucky she was. It was clear how colleagues struggled to balance family life. “Big burly cameramen,” she says, “getting all misty eyed about the idea of being able to bring their children to work.”
Many younger women in the profession do not see how they would ever combine their jobs with motherhood, Riley says: “If you take a break you lose your connections. If you’re not prepared to do the job for this amount of hours for this amount of money, jog on — because somebody will.”
So the Peaky Blinders star did something about it. Last November, the doors opened at The WonderWorks, a nursery Riley set up with her business partner, Mark Radcliffe, whose wife also works in the industry. Warner Bros Studios provided space at Leavesden — where the Harry Potter series was filmed — and many of the toys and furniture are donations from Warner Bros films. (There is already an on-site childcare facility at its Hollywood studio).
Tomorrow, Riley and Radcliffe will launch a social media campaign, Keeping Families in Film, backed by an open letter that calls on studios and production companies to factor in childcare for television and film workers in order to prevent parents from leaving the industry. The ambition is for every production to include childcare in its budget by 2024.
The pair are also launching a mobile nursery on a double-decker bus to be hired by film companies for remote shoots. This will travel to its first film set in May.
The nursery asks productions filming at the studios to buy places at the nursery upfront, underwriting the costs, and parents then pay them back. There is also a holiday club for school-age children.
Women were already under-represented in senior film jobs before the pandemic. A report found women accounted for 31 per cent of those working in key behind-the-scenes positions, unchanged from the year before.
Natasha Moore, head of campaigns at Directors UK — which finds that UK films are six times more likely to be directed by a man — says many “women, like other under-represented directors, face a multitude of challenges in sustaining a viable career in the film industry — including unpredictable hours, caring responsibilities and inequality of pay.”
Hope Dickson Leach, an Edinburgh-based film director and co-founder of Raising Films, which advocates for parents and carers in the UK film and TV industry, says such work patterns mean “it doesn’t fit very well with childcare. Childcare is set up for nine-to-five [workers]”. The industry’s image is at odds with the reality for the majority of those working in it. “The people doing very well are visible and make a lot of money,” she says. But “most don’t have stable careers — a lot of people are in precarious employment. Covid has made it increasingly clear how precarious our industry is.”
There are also issues with hiring practices, she says: women are asked if they are pregnant, and how they will care for their children. “It happens all the time, no one feels they can talk about it as they are freelance.”
In setting up a nursery, Riley encountered a lot of pushback from film executives. “We were knocking on doors for two years, and hearing people say, ‘why would anybody pay for something that they’ve [not] had to pay for [in] 100 years?’”
Meeting Emily Stillman, senior vice-president of operations at Warner Bros, changed their luck. “She was like, ‘we need this, we want this, how can I help this grow?’” says Riley. The encounter came, says Stillman, at a time when her company was looking at ways to improve workforce diversity. “I know the challenges of working while looking after young children, especially in an industry with unconventional working hours and last-minute changes.”
Riley, who has two children with her husband, fellow actor Tom Hardy, says: “When you become a parent, it’s the most discombobulating experience ever. It’s like, Who am I? How do I function now? And how do I do this? If you don’t support people in the hardest times of their life, we’re never going to have stories written by women, lit by women, directed by women, told by women.”
Since the nursery’s official opening in November, Riley says that productions have offered parents help with childcare at the recruitment stage. Nursery places are flexible, including an offer of emergency childcare back-up or just for short periods while parents take up freelance gigs. According to a survey by Raising Films, 68 per cent of respondents find costs and access to flexible childcare difficult.
June O’Sullivan is chief executive of the London Early Years Foundation, which runs 39 nurseries, including one at the House of Commons (it opens until 10.30pm two days a week to cater for late sitting sessions). When it comes to setting up workplace nurseries, she says, organisers need the backing of managers. “In the most part, the decisions made about developing nurseries are made by men. There was a lot of objection to [the House of Commons one].”
It is a difficult issue, she says, because “women are anxious about raising it, small companies can’t afford it. Childcare isn’t something to be tucked aside, we should be looking after them. It’s not just about enabling women to work but because we value children.”
Riley hopes her initiative will be the start of a bigger conversation in the film and television industry. “So people feel that they can go to their producer and say, ‘Are you offering childcare? Are you offering flexible working hours, are you offering job sharing?’ I want this to be the first stepping stone to making the industry more family-friendly. Because real life is messy and chaotic.”