Helen Thomas

Country: United Kingdom
Sector: Movies, TV and Music
Job title: Senior Executive Producer
Subject of study: Physics with Medical Physics
Year of graduation: 1982
Type/Level of study: Undergraduate

Current Employer/Organisation Name

BBC Studios

What have you been doing since leaving Exeter, and what are you doing now?

I joined the BBC as an Audio Assistant after leaving University and worked as a sound engineer in television, film and radio – in studios and on location. It was such varied work: from boom op on dramas such as Casualty to fitting radio mics on TV shows from Sunday night favourites such as Antiques Roadshow to Musicals. I worked as a Spot Effects Op for documentary films – creating footsteps alongside a myriad of other sound effects on cue. I assisted with the sound recording of music programmes on Radio 2 and 3 and current affairs, drama and poetry programmes on Radio 4. However after a few years of working on the technical side of broadcasting I found I missed Science and decided to change the direction of my career and move into Production. I started as a trainee Assistant Producer in the Science Unit, working on live TV programmes such as Tomorrow’s World. I then moved into making long-form documentary and science films as a Producer and Director. After working as a Series Producer (making series of programmes, rather than individual films) I became an Executive Producer in 2010. Since then I have been responsible for a wide range of science programming for the BBC and International Broadcasters from live series such as “Stargazing Live with Brian Cox and Dara O’Briain” to hard-hitting, journalistically rigorous films such as BAFTA nominated “Extinction: The Facts” with Sir David Attenborough; “Greta Thunberg: A Year To Change The World” and “Coronavirus: A Horizon Special”. I have made expedition series such as “Journey to Fire Mountain” with Kate Humble and competition series such as BBC2’s “Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes” headed by Astronaut Chris Hadfield. My credits also include emotionally charged medical documentaries such as “Your Life in Their Hands” and “Countdown to Life” At the moment I’m making a programme that hasn’t yet been announced so I’m afraid I can’t mention what it’s about or who it’s being presented by – but it involves shooting in a Virtual Studio set up which has been really exciting as it’s the first time it’s been attempted in this way for a documentary.

Why did you choose this career? And what do you enjoy most about your work?

I’ve always loved music – which is what drew me to the role of a sound engineer. After a few years, however, I began to miss Science and decided that I wanted to combine Broadcasting with Science – and that’s when I became an Assistant Producer in the Science Unit. I feel incredibly lucky to have such a stimulating career. I am relentlessly curious about the world and how it works and my job allows me to explore topics as wide ranging as space travel, medicine and climate change. I enjoy helping to tell people’s stories as well as having the opportunity to meet and work with incredibly interesting, diverse programme contributors. I work with fantastic, creative teams and make series which I really hope inform and entertain audiences. No two days are the same and the problems I have to solve are endlessly varied. My work is a wonderful creative outlet as I can develop ideas, write scripts, work with on-screen talent and head complex productions on locations and in the studio. I can’t single out one particular aspect as it is this variety which makes it so rewarding.

What did you enjoy most about your programme and what was the biggest highlight?

I loved the practicals and I was lucky enough to have a fantastic tutor, Dr Bill Vennart, who was a real inspiration during my 3 years at Exeter.

What did you enjoy most about studying here?

The location is fantastic. The facilities were great. The course was stimulating. I mixed with interesting people, made some terrific friends and had the opportunity to “grow up gently”.

Why did you choose to study at Exeter?

Exeter was one of only two Universities in the country at that time which offered Physics with Medical Physics. I was impressed by the facilities and the friendliness of everyone I met on a Pre-University Physics Course.

What skills and experiences have been most useful for your career?

Studying Physics was extremely useful for both Sound Engineering and Science Journalism. The course helped me turn my curiosity into an ability to research thoroughly and it enabled me to hone my analytical skills. I studied alongside people who challenged my views and opinions which was invaluable. I learned how to assimilate new information quickly, how to work as part of a team and how to present written and spoken arguments – which has been useful ever since. I believe gaining a Physics degree enabled me to pursue my career in broadcasting.

What advice would you give to a current student who wishes to pursue your career?

If you are studying for a Science degree consider one of the MSc courses available in the UK in Science Communication. In my experience they are a very good stepping stone towards a career in Science Broadcast Journalism. Follow the Science news stories, discuss with friends, form opinions – but also watch films and television and analyse what works well and what doesn’t – and why. Try to gain experience whilst you are studying by joining a relevant society such as a film, TV or radio society. Consider which stories you think are important and you really want to tell – perhaps you can make a short film – perhaps shot on your mobile phone to demonstrate your interest.

What are your plans for the future?

I so enjoy making science-based television programmes that I plan to continue doing that. In a world that has become prey to so much disinformation, I believe there has never been a more important time for us make programmes that are factually accurate, accessible and stimulating.


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