Tracey Larcombe is a TV Drama, short film and comedy writer and director who comes from a strong background in programme production for Sky and the BBC.
With a track record for directing intelligent, eye-catching projects in a variety of genres, Tracey is a natural storyteller who enjoys communicating with an audience in an engaging, entertaining and cinematic way. Tracey has directed various TV drama series including Casualty for BBC1 and Hollyoaks for Lime Pictures/Channel 4, as well as over 30 episodes of BBC series Doctors. Most recently broadcast programmes include RTS Award-winning drama series Moving On for LA Productions/BBC1, BAFTA award-winning CBBC show The Dumping Ground and Holby City for BBC1. Forthcoming work includes Series 23 of Silent Witness for BBC1.
In collaboration with other writers, Tracey has a slate of her own projects in development including: Season To Taste, based on Natalie Young’s best selling book ‘Season to Taste – Or How to Eat Your Husband’. Feature screenplay Mother In The Cupboard co-written with David Baddiel, and a limited TV series adaptation of David Baddiel’s best selling novel Time For Bed.
Tracey’s 2nd Unit directing work includes the six-part series Good Omens for Amazon and BBC Studios, directed by Douglas Mackinnon, and the BBC series The Living and the Dead directed by Alice Troughton.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
I had always loved TV, film and musicals from a really young age. Probably the turning point was going to see Annie with my school in the West End. I was about 10, and once I’d got over the initial fear of falling over the balcony, rolling down the ridiculously steep steps and landing on top of the orchestra, I sat back and watched in awe at how these unbelievably talented people of all ages had the guts to go on stage and perform. I took drama as an option at school and performed in as many school plays I could. At 16 I auditioned for a place on a drama and theatre studies diploma course at Southend Technical College – the only place at the time who did anything remotely of that nature, where I could still live at home and travel in each day. It was a joyous place, being around so many like-minded people, I think we all thought we were in FAME being really irritating and singing in the corridors at any opportunity. I also found out after a few weeks at the college that they ran a film and TV studies course, so I added that to my curriculum. It was there I discovered the magic of Hitchcock films, Westerns and many more, learnt about genre and the power of film. How a film can stay with you and influence how you feel, what you think and, to a certain extent, what you do, long after you have watched them.
I think one turning point for me in terms of knowing acting might not be my future was in our college final year production of Chicago. My fairly liberal nan and parents were in the audience and I was standing in a basque and French knickers singing ‘All That Jazz’, when I suddenly felt very self-conscious. To the point where I completely forgot the word/dance moves and, as my nan merrily reminded me later, I said “SHIT” quite obviously, and couldn’t wait to get off stage. This coupled with a pathological fear of learning lines meant that despite getting my drama diploma with distinction, and going on to audition for various drama schools, I knew deep down that front of camera wasn’t for me. I had nightmares (which I often still do the night before the first day of a shoot!) that I had to go on stage and had only just been given the script or was locked out of the theatre as the curtain went up.
Luckily, the course I was on was very diverse, and one of our final year projects was to devise and direct a Theatre In Education play, which we took around schools in the area. It was then I realised that behind the scenes was where I should be, it just wasn’t clear at the time where or doing what. That, unfortunately or fortunately, took many years longer to discover. But I knew that media and creative arts was where I wanted to be, film/TV or otherwise, and I was lucky that my parents were really supportive – though my mum has since admitted that back then they hoped I would lose interest once I realised how hard acting was as a career.
For that very reason I have such huge respect for actors, and always strive to be an actors’ director. The actors are always my first priority and I try to understand their craft and process more and more with each job I do.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue a career as a director, what were your first steps in achieving this goal?
Having come out of college and failed at various auditions for drama schools, I applied for a job as a TV production assistant for the Essex Police Force. Initially I had no idea what this would involve but I did think it sounded exciting. I spent the next two years learning SO much. Not just on the TV production side which included news gathering, presenting, script writing and editing, but also about the police force itself and how it works. And, perhaps more importantly, about people. I worked with various different levels of officer – from Cadet to Chief Constable, from various departments, and came away with a real understanding of police mentality and procedure, which has helped immensely in so much of the directing work I do now. I feel that was a really important step, though certainly not an obvious one, to achieving my eventual goal. I then travelled a VERY winding and rather long road to get to the next stage.
After the police job, I spent two years in the US as an au pair, during which I worked a little for Channel 7 as a runner, which was great fun and gave me an insight into the US networks behind the scenes. On my return I had no idea how to get into TV or Film so ended up, out of necessity, taking a job in advertising. I think there are two points to take from these experiences.
One is that there will be times, most of the time for most of us, that when you just have to earn a living you just have to get a job, any job. So sometimes you just have to take what is in front of you. Even if it seems to take you off of the path you feel you should be on, to where you eventually want to be. That’s just how it often is in the real world. But in doing this and by putting your best efforts into that job, those people, you will ALWAYS get something out of it; it will be what you make it. I ended up working for six years in advertising and yes, I always think I would now be a younger more experienced director at this point if I’d come to it sooner. But the experience in diplomacy and the creative process between different parties has proved invaluable to me now. For example: Think, ITV exec – versus independent writers – versus director – versus producer. Everyone has to agree on a cast, and you as a director want to get what you want, the same as everyone else. But not everyone will agree with each other’s choices most of the time. And that whole process was played out time and time again in the advertising agency, so put me in great stead to navigate my way through the process as a director, and still, with a few compromises, get what I want.
The second point is that if someone offers to help you with some work experience somewhere you are interested in working, or in something you think may be useful, TAKE IT. Even if it’s unpaid, and sometimes may even end up costing you money, TAKE IT. With the right approach and enthusiasm you will a) make contacts; b) get experience; and c) you may even get a job at the end of it. This is how I made my first move into TV production for the BBC. I took voluntary redundancy from my managerial job in advertising and, aged 28, through a contact in a media firm who knew someone in sport, went to do work experience in BBC Sport. I played rugby at the time (I know, right?!), and someone once told me, if you are in unchartered territory, go with what you know. And I knew about rugby. Very little about other sports, but I bluffed my way through those. After the two weeks of work experience I was offered a three-month contract, then another six months, which was then extended into a two-year contract. I LOVED working for the BBC, despite the politics and the, at times, rather bizarre working practices (so many people I know at the BBC can’t watch W1A because of how scarily accurate it is!), but I was proud to work there. After two years I was approached by Sky Sports to produce and co-present their weekly rugby programme and moved across to the dark side.
I spent three very happy and fun years there but, having realised that rugby was great to play and watch, but when you worked in it, not only were you never at home, but for ever after any game of rugby for pleasure felt too much like work. I NEVER feel that way about film and TV. So, I emailed the head of entertainment at the time, Sophie Turner-Laing, explaining that, having worked in sport for three years there, I would love to make the switch to movies. The head of movies, after all, came from Soccer AM. Assuming she would a) ignore the email or b) get one of her minions to reply directing me to the Sky job website, to my surprise she emailed me straight back and we had a chat. After a day of shadowing one of the producers there, I was put on a fairly low daily rate to come in on average a day or so a week, log tapes and basically do the donkey work. But I didn’t care, it was where I wanted to be. As I’d had experience of editing way back in the Police TV unit, and then at Sky Sports, the machines didn’t intimidate me too much and I soon found myself being offered a staff job as a producer. I was ever closer to where I wanted to be, though there was still a little way to go yet. Again, two things to point out here that may seem obvious but even if you think something is a crazy long shot, i.e. emailing the head of the 2nd biggest department at Sky asking for a job from a completely different department. And getting that job. Secondly, the phrase ‘do something that scares you every day’, is a popular phrase for a very good reason. I had NO clue really about interviewing movie stars, only that I’d had plenty of experience chatting about films and interviewing sports stars, how different could it be? Then putting together programmes for Sky Movies, being in charge of a channel, making a movie show for that channel all fitted into place and became second nature, having seemed so terrifying at first. The other thing I learnt from interviewing producers, as well as being one was, along with the knowledge that I NEVER WANTED TO DO THAT JOB AGAIN, I had an invaluable understanding of what they did and just how tricky their job was. So, much like actors, I have nothing but respect for the good ones. As with everything, there are great producers and there are terrible producers… the skill is hoping you can spot the difference before you get stuck working with the latter.
After a couple of years doing film junkets, meeting some fantastic actors and directors and watching as many films as I could get my hands on, I left Sky and spent a year in LA. Again through a producer I met randomly on set, stayed in touch with, and when they said, “Why don’t you come to LA?” they, unlike so many times when you hear that phrase over here, really meant it. So I booked a flight, left my flat and friends in London and set off for LA. There I made some more excellent contacts and got some more amazing experience in and around the industry. For me, it took away the mystique of the place and, in many ways, the intimidation for when I work there in the future. I went there not really wanting anything from it and came back having gained so much. People say many things about LA; it’s vacuous and cut-throat, glamorous and exciting. Yes, it can be all of those things, but it is largely about choosing how you spend your time, and most of all who you spend it with. I came back full of confidence and enthusiasm and decided the only way to make some money to make my own short films and stay in the business I knew I wanted to have a career in, was to set up my own production company. Initially making EPKs (electronic press kits for films) and behind the scenes features, with a view to bigger projects and my own features. The one thing about working with so many EPK’s at Sky was that I knew which ones were really well made and therefore, the ones we would use to promote films, and the ones we wouldn’t, that helped immensely when pitching for jobs.
Two of the best things that came out of this venture was a) money – I could earn a living working in the industry I loved and felt I belonged; b) working on so many film and TV sets again meant I getting to meet and interact with some fabulous actors/directors and producers. But mostly I got to watch and learn from some amazingly talented directors. Many of whom I still see and am lucky enough to have been mentored by and worked with, which I will be forever grateful to them for; and c) I learnt how to shoot and edit my own material, thus saving me money and giving me another skill which is uber useful as a director. Besides the huge bonus of being able to edit my own showreel, but also, having experience of cutting material together, learning about sound and grading, really helped me to understand and appreciate the process of the editors I work with now. It also means when you read a script and shoot scenes, knowing exactly how much material you need and editing it mentally while you’re shooting, so you tend to over shoot much less.
Within a few months of being back from LA, I landed my first proper paid directing job. One of my fellow producers at Sky, who had left to join UKTV, called me up and asked if I could direct a 5-part online series called FC Dave. Saying yes, despite being terrified I couldn’t actually do it, was one of the best decisions of my life, and a huge turning point. My friend had given me the best opportunity ever, and I couldn’t let him down. I will also be forever in his debt. Directing on set was not only the first time I genuinely felt like I had come home, but it was the most fun I’d EVER had; that was it. I may have to do more EPKs and BTS features, but directing was where I NEEDED to be.
Soon after that, I was asked through one of the guys we had cast in the mockumentary to direct a short film. As the script was initially, there was a small cameo role for the entertainer Lionel Blair. So, I got the phone number for his agent, and he listened to my proposition, asking if Lionel would be prepared to do a small cameo in a short film. That same afternoon my phone rang. It was Lionel Blair. On my phone. Now, don’t get me wrong, only people of a certain age will get this now, but he was a LEGEND in entertainment when I was growing up, so this was big.
Again, I can’t say enough, and still do to casting directors who are reluctant to go out on a limb and ask the question, don’t EVER be afraid to go after someone, whether it be cast or crew, even if you think they’ll never do your job in a million years. You JUST NEVER KNOW!
Lionel Blair not only said he would be happy to be in the film, he was buzzing about it. I felt this was an opportunity not to be missed. But, we had to make his part bigger, and that meant challenging the writer to a bit of a re-write.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t keen to do this, and after many iterations and the usual to’ing and fro’ing of scripts and, eventually, the writer, I ended up writing my own script, based around Lionel Blair. It was called Being Lionel, a bitter-sweet tale of jealously, revenge and regret. The process was challenging and fun and again, I leant on the contacts I’d made doing EPKs and begged borrowed and stole time, equipment and people – and it was another brilliant experience. The post-production side was more of a challenge but after more persuasion and a few disappointments and favours the finished film was screened with cast, crew and friends in January 2013. A mere 15 years after my first job at BBC Sport, and 23 years after my first TV job for the Police Force. I don’t regret a single year, but I relish and appreciate every single day I am a director now because of how long it took me to get here. And when I say ‘here’, it’s all relative, there’s a little way still to go before I direct that Bond film.
What obstacles or setbacks did you face in becoming a director?
The main obstacle I personally found was that I would meet people and ask for their advice, talk about my own projects (this would largely be agents and a few producers) and they would say how much they’d loved meeting me and my ideas were really exciting, inspiring, etc., then still wouldn’t take me on/give me a chance. But I would say never take that personally (even though I did at the time!), often it’s about timing. One of the things I learned a long time ago was, if you REALLY want to do this job (and quite often people think they do until they realise actually for most people how hard it is to get there) work hard enough, put yourself out there and you WILL get there, however strange and unusual the route may be. Everyone has their time.
As many women (directors or otherwise) in any industry will no doubt attest, sexist/chauvinistic behaviour still exists – it was rife in sport when I worked in it, and unfortunately also occurred in TV drama. And when it happens it can be quite shocking. Luckily for me it was only VERY occasionally and to varying degrees of seriousness. Hopefully this, along with prejudice of any kind is actively being stamped out, and the situation in TV broadcast and production companies monitored very carefully.
As I mention below regarding agents, once you have one you can’t relax and think ‘YESSS, I’ve made it’. I directed Casualty, got a swanky new agent and thought I could sit back and watch the work flood in. I was wrong. I stopped being pro-active and then totally hit a wall and didn’t work for five months! You can never relax or take anything for granted as there will always be a more hungry, pro-active director who is happy to take your next job.
I am very lucky to say I have been inspired and helped along the way by so many people, directors and otherwise, who have answered my emails and requests and given their invaluable advice, allowed me on their sets and watched and advised me on various short films and show reels. If someone is generous and gracious enough to help you, make sure you pass on the favour to others who need a little boost, some encouragement or contacts. It is an incredibly competitive industry and there will be times you feel others are moving faster or getting better jobs than you, jobs you feel you should have landed. But try not to be bitter or negative. Most industry people hate other industry people complaining, I certainly do. And it really doesn’t help, everyone goes through periods of not working. The best way is to keep moving, keep making ripples, network, stay active. Work for free if you have to. Come up with your own projects and work on those. Hang out with like-minded people.
How did you develop your voice and hone your craft?
Having studied film, albeit at college rather than film school, I learned how to watch a film, which was vital. And once I‘d discovered directing was what I absolutely wanted to do I watched as many as I possibly could, and honed in on which ones made me the most inspired, happy, excited, enthralled, emotionally engaged. I realised I loved symmetry in film making, emotional use of the camera and how important realism, truth and honesty were. Not to be afraid of big open spaces and show characters in big epic landscapes, as well as seeing close up the subtlest flicker or pin hole of light in an eye. I focused on the work of all the directors I loved, and took samples of their styles and merged them together with all the looks l loved and films that most spoke to me. I think my way of storytelling, style and voice developed from there, but it is also very much dependent on the project; the language of a piece must be true to the original intent of the material and story, and can’t jar in any way or it won’t be believable.
I mentioned before about striving to be an actor’s director and although the skill of managing that relationship on set can only really be honed on the job, it also should start way before that if possible. The work you do with the actors before a job is vital. To me it is about understanding and immersing myself into the scripts, stories and characters to the point where, aside from the writer, I know these scripts, stories and characters inside and out, better than anyone. What they are thinking and why, what they are doing and why. I like to be available for the actors in the lead up to a shoot, make sure we chat and meet up if possible to talk about their characters and how we both see or might approach particular scenes. This is of course about my utter respect for the actor and their craft, but also about avoiding any surprises on the shoot, when, in many cases, however big or small the show or budget is, you just won’t have time for by then. Also, to a certain extent it’s just too late and can throw people off, particularly if it’s a script problem so could be unfair to the other actors, so I like to build a rapport with the cast before the shoot and get these things ironed out before you get to set. It also can set the actor’s mind at ease, and, as I realised from interviewing so many of them at movie junkets and doing EPKs, from George Clooney to Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett to Cameron Diaz, they are ALL, almost without exception deeply insecure and need reassurance – from anyone really, but ideally from their director. Never assume they are all super confident and don’t need attention (unless they absolutely make that clear!), they do, and that’s a huge part of the job, and a part I love.
I learned a lot from producing/directing EPKs as I mentioned earlier, watching and listening to directors and the conversations and relationships they had with various HoDs. It was through this I realised my most important bond would be with a DoP. Of course you learn as you go along that all the HoDs and departments are obviously vital and we are all cogs in a wheel, but it was the visual relationship and that connection I felt, for me, would be the most powerful and vital to get my vision across. It was a bit of a shock to me when I first worked on Doctors for example. I literally met the DoP on the first day of the shoot, and hit the ground sprinting – and with 20 scenes to shoot in a day, sprinting is really all you can do! But now on the other jobs I do I can either choose my own DoP or chat to a few of the choices the producer may have lined up first, and hopefully get the best match for me, and them. If you can find a like-minded DoP you can work with, get on with, who can read your mind, have a laugh and spend not far off 20 hours a day with, hold on to them!
How did you get your first break?
I would say one of the biggest battles is getting someone to take a chance on you and give you that first job. Even though I had directing credits for various behind the scenes documentaries, the online mockumentary series and a How to StreetDance 3D DVD (don’t ask!), I had no actual broadcast TV credits. And to be honest, unless you are Gareth Edwards (director of Monsters – if you haven’t seen WATCH IT, NOW!) who went straight from making a short film to a feature, a first broadcast credit is vital. This is where making a short film helps, it certainly helped me, and gave me more confidence. But there are definitely certain decisions to make when you make a short film in terms of what you want to get out of it, WHY you are making it. If it’s a story you simply MUST tell and get out into the world, that comes from the heart, but isn’t necessarily a topical subject matter or cool genre at the time, you have to be prepared to fight to get it shown at festivals and events. And often because of others that are more current or hit the zeitgeist at the time, you might struggle. But providing your film has a strong narrative arc, a well written script and shows the best of your own personal creative style, you can’t go wrong. Then all you have to do is send it to as many people as you can. Have a screening or send it out via Vimeo and then use the contacts you’ve made through work experience or networking or whatever and ask them if they have time to meet up for a coffee and give you some feedback/advice. This was the best step for me, and I hammered my contacts list from when I worked at the BBC, took a chance and emailed various people, and some of them emailed me back, many didn’t but the one thing I did learn from that was that people love being asked for advice. I met up with the brilliant Hilary Salmon at the BBC and she very kindly watched my film and advised me to send it to the exec producer at Doctors. I got in touch, mentioned Hilary’s name, and asked if I could go up and meet for a coffee (and more advice) and he agreed.
Before I made the trip to Birmingham, I binged watched as many episodes of the show and learned as much about it as would fit into my (very nervous) brain. I also spoke to other directors I’d met along the way who had worked on the show (who was almost everyone) and got their advice. Once in the door I asked the executive as many questions as possible and if I could possibly come and shadow one of their directors for a few days. The timing must have been good because he agreed and introduced me to one of their regular directors who was extremely generous and kind and agreed to let me shadow him for a few days the next week. I literally dropped everything, booked into a hotel for the three nights and booked my train. It was a fabulous experience and I listened and learned solidly for the whole three days, to the point that my brain was bursting by the time I got home. And then I began stalking. I emailed/called the poor executive producer every week until he finally relented about six months later, and gave me a block at really short notice when one of their directors had dropped out. I would literally and absolutely honestly have done the job for nothing, I was that thrilled. Terrified, of course, but stupidly excited.
I would say the reason this worked out the way it did, and I know I was also very lucky, was definitely down to staying in touch with people I’d met along the way, and checking in every so often with them over the years. I’d met Hilary Salmon when I was working at the BBC, and also when I did an EPK on one of their shows many years later, but I kept her email and just took a chance and got in touch. As I say, many people didn’t come back to me, but even if just one does, that can make all the difference. So I guess in a way, that was my upper hand, but it is an upper hand only you can create, and that’s why making and nurturing your contacts is SO important.
I had tried to get an agent after I’d got the job on Doctors, and spent a long time emailing people and calling for meetings. Again, I used my contacts… a wonderful and really generous director called Alice Troughton let me shadow her on a series she was working on – and even let me direct a small scene! – and she gave me a few contacts of agents she knew. Again, I was very lucky and through my short film, the mockumentary and my Doctors episodes, I got an agent, which again I was VERY excited about. I have since moved on a few times and now have the right agent for me, but it does take time and, like many relationships, the kissing of a few proverbial frogs to get the right one.
A little note on agents…
The one thing I would say about agents is that even if you are lucky enough to get representation, don’t expect to suddenly be directing non-stop. New directors are a tough sell, which is why unless you have an award-winning short film – and even then often agents are reluctant to take you on. This is why you have to keep pushing for jobs yourself, at every opportunity you can. Find a show you would love to direct and get in touch with the producer, find out if you can go and shadow the director. If your agent knows you are being pro-active, it makes them realise you don’t expect them to do all the work, because generally, they won’t. Usually because they don’t have time, or they have other clients who are making them money to look after. It sounds cynical but ask any director and they will tell you the same, however successful they are. The wonderful director Douglas Mackinnon who I met doing the EPK for the first series of Line of Duty, got a directing job on Dr Who by hounding the producer for years, even though he had quite a big agent at the time… just saying.
Some final thoughts…
- ïOne of the big things I would say you MUST DO is NETWORK. Make contacts and keep them, even if you think you are bothering them, don’t worry about it, they’ll soon let you know.
- ïGo and shadow a director you admire, if you are subtle about it and are discreet on set, no one will mind at all.
- ïDo work experience on a film or TV show
- ïGo to as many Q&A’s as you can. BAFTA hold them all the time, get on the mailing list.
- ïFind like-minded people you want to work with. That is one of the biggest challenges I have found. I didn’t go to film school so didn’t have a network of people I already knew I liked and got on with, but that is vital.
- ïWatch and listen to pod casts or master classes. There is an online site called ‘Master Class’ where you can subscribe and hear words of wisdom from writers, producers, actors and directors which is brilliant (my partner brought it for me for Christmas!).
- ïJoin online social network groups, and as I was saying above stay active. IMDB Pro is a great tool for finding out what shows are in production and pre-prod so if you want to do some work experience or shadow or be a runner, find out who the production company is and get in touch.
- ïCollect people along the way. If you meet someone on a job or while you’re shadowing, get their details and keep in touch. When I was doing the behind the scenes for a film, I met the actor Tom Cullen. We swapped details and I’ve just emailed him about a job on my next project eight years after I first met him, and he was delighted to get the message, when I assumed he’d NEVER even remember me.
- ïWhen you have to find work just to stay afloat, don’t stress about it too much, it happens. Just make the best of it and be positive. Most experiences in life are useful in directing, you just never know when.
- ïAssumption is the mother of all FUCK UPS. This is a great one to remember and can be applied to any situation, good or bad.
- ïBe nice to everyone you come across, even if they aren’t nice to you. Be a diplomat, the industry is VERY small, there’s no room for arrogance and ego. Martin Scorcese is one of my favourite directors and is meant to be one of nicest people in the business. I rest my case.
TV Credits: Doctors (2015-2016), Hollyoaks (2017), Casualty (2016-2018), Holby City (2016-2018), Moving On (2019), The Dumping Ground (2019), Silent Witness (2020).
Film Credits: Being Lionel (2013), Inappropriate Behaviour (2017), Best Friends (2017).