From a small shed in a quiet suburban garden are three telephone lines that remain constantly connected to some of Britain, Europe and America’s top producers and production managers. Diary services have been an integral part of the production process for the past forty years and approaching its thirtieth birthday, Linkline remains one of the oldest and most highly regarded.
A quintessential family business
“Whilst so much has changed in the thirty years we’ve been in business, the key function of the diary service remains unchanged. Our sole purpose is to ensure that when busy freelancers are out on shoots, there is always someone on the end of the phone or increasingly an email to speak to producers and production managers to ensure freelancers don’t lose a moments work. It’s always been a need to know now world but it’s becoming increasingly pressurised and sadly there is so much choice when it comes to picking quality camera and sound crews. If production managers don’t get an instantaneous answer, they inevitably move along to someone else on their list. Or another crewing facility so speed and efficiency has always been critical in a diary services success,” explains Nick Hunter (pictured), managing director of Linkline.
Linkline is the quintessential family business. It was co-founded by Hunter’s late father in law Gerry, a former freelance film editor who understood the proclivities of inhabiting a freelance world. “He was an amazing character,” admits Nick. “He was an outspoken, larger than life character and part of the success of Linkline was his empathy. He’d lived in the freelance world and had cut his teeth on Ealing films in the fifties so had strong opinions about training, production and safeguarding freelancers’ roles and rates. I think the ethic and fibre of our company still reflects that. But the key thing that we strive to take forward from Gerry is empathy. He would always have time to have lengthy conversations with people when they were anxious at quieter times of the year but was equally emphatic that individuals had the courage to turn work away and prioritise personal commitments within a frenetic freelance world. We are very much a people-centred business and we understand only too well the trials and tribulations freelancers face. Isolation, insecurities, triumphs and joys.”
Hunter took over twenty three years ago and works alongside Sufia Ahmed, who has been with the company for fifteen years. Having worked for Linkline twenty five years ago as a teenager, Hunter’s wife Liza returned from production to the business two years ago and has taken increasing responsibility for promotion and marketing.
Says Nick: “We have an extremely close relationship with major broadcasters, the BBC and indies who can source expert crew all day, everyday, increasingly at the last minute. Our closest partnerships are with facility houses who know they can rely on us when they are juggling their own in-house crews. Essentially we are at the end of a phone line 24/7. We work with The Cruet Company, Hotcam, Electra and Off Trax, Procam, S+O, Promotion, Definitive, Awfully Nice, on an hourly basis. We have 120 crew on our books. We specialise solely in directors of photography, camera operators, camera assistants and sound so we can really keep our level of expertise.”
Charting the changes
He believes that using a small, family business like Linkline as a lens to chart the changes that have occurred in UK production is enormously insightful. “The way in which we work has been radically transformed and improved by technology. The smartphone means we can reach our crews globally and instantly. It’s hard to imagine that when Linkline started in 1985 the majority of freelancers didn���t have mobile phones. We’d have to track people down on location to try and get hold of them whether they were filming in shops or hospitals! Call sheets were twenty pages long and I remember having to pour over faxes to extract key information to pass on to our freelancers. Jobs would be pencilled then confirmed much further in advance so there would be, in a sense, greater security for freelancers knowing how their year was looking earlier. That’s changed. We react at Linkline to far more last minute crewing decisions and that’s true even on major network factual programmes. We deal increasingly with production companies owned by major corporations but it’s been fantastic to see a greater resurgence of small production companies returning to be such a key force within broadcast and corporate production.”
Hunter also believes that development in camera technology has transformed the way Linkline works. “There’s more blurring of boundaries and whilst the directors of photography we look after will always be in demand, there’s less apprenticeship than there used to be. Camera assistants would stay assisting for years. Today, the way in which cameras have evolved has resulted in assistants being ready to operate earlier and earlier, with one-person bands and other people who occupy other hats in production needing to take on sound or camera roles to stay within budget happening more than it ever did. That said, the majority of our clients still want the creative, peerless expertise of the craftspeople which is hugely reassuring.”
However, in spite of the industry’s seismic technological and production changes, the key to Linkline’s success during the last thirty years is people. “A huge proportion of our crew have been with us for years, many of them decades. Same with our clients. Talking to people every day for twenty odd years has allowed us to really share the triumphs and unhappily the tragedies of the crews on our books. It’s clichéd but it’s all about people. One of our cameramen recently told me that I’d been telling him what to do and where to go for more than half of his life which is a bit scary! Last September was an amazing time for us as a cohort of camera crew who have been with us for over twenty years sent their kids to university - we still have their baby pictures on our walls!”