Cheddar Man: Alumna helps tell the story of the first Brit

Friday, 16 February, 2018 - 14:45
Fitzwilliam College alumna Philippa Goff

This week we caught up with alumna Philippa Goff (NatSci Zoology 2011) to chat about her behind-the-scenes research work for Channel 4’s upcoming documentary ‘First Brit: Secrets of the 10,000-Year-Old Man’.

Last week the Natural History Museum (NHM) and UCL unveiled the face of ‘Cheddar Man’, a human male fossil skeleton unearthed in 1903 in Gough’s Cave at Cheddar Gorge, Somerset. For over 100 years, scientists have tried to reveal Cheddar Man’s story, posing theories as to what he looked like, where he came from and what he can tell us about our earliest ancestors.

A Channel 4 documentary, First Brit: Secrets of the 10,000 Year Old Man, produced by Plimsoll Productions, where Philippa works, airing this Sunday (18 February, 8pm), has followed the pioneering research carried out by a team of NHM Human Evolution and DNA specialists, University College London scientists and the world’s foremost prehistoric model makers, to reveal - with unprecedented accuracy - the striking and surprising face of ‘Cheddar Man’, Britain’s oldest nearly complete skeleton.

What sort of research did you do as part of this project?

Much of my work heavily revolved around liaising with the scientists, including biologists, archaeologists, evolutionary geneticists, and the Kennis brothers, who created the facial reconstruction of Cheddar Man. Only then could we understand the complete science behind the process of DNA sequencing, before translating this into something film-able and then the finished product that you will see on television.

Another large part of my work was assisting on shoots, especially at the Natural History Museum. I also recruited members of the public on the busy streets of London for camera sequences showing the faces of Britain today, and advertised a DNA testing event in Cheddar to film residents here having their DNA tested to compare to that of Cheddar Man’s.

After the filming was finished, it was full swing in post-production, and I transcribed interviews with the scientists, sourced archive, and fact-checked the commentary, before the version was ready to be recorded by a famous actor, whose voice you may recognise in the programme; I was lucky enough to sit in on this.

How did you end up working for a TV production company?

I moved to Bristol to pursue a career in documentary production just over a year ago, aware of the high concentration of television production companies in the city. I was quick to start networking, sending my CV out to all the companies and meeting producers and production managers.

At the time I was job hunting, Plimsoll Productions had just had their wildlife documentary series ‘Lion Country’ go out on ITV, and I was particularly looking for opportunities in wildlife documentary production at the time. I got in touch with the head of wildlife production, who I met shortly after, and while there was nothing available at the time, a few weeks later, I got a call from a producer about a junior researcher vacancy on a wildlife series. I started the next day, on what I thought was an initial three-week contract, and have been working at Plimsoll ever since!

Plimsoll Productions is one of the largest and fastest growing UK Indies – it recently secured 5th place in The Sunday Times Virgin Fast Track 100 league table of Britain’s fastest growing private companies. They produce a wide range of television genres, from natural history and specialist factual, to daytime and factual entertainment. After my stint on the wildlife series, I was fortunate enough to move onto The First Brit, for which my science background was extremely helpful!

What's the best thing about your job? 

I love the diversity that working on a single project brings – one day you could be talking to academic researchers over the phone, the next you could be filming members of the public on the busy streets of London! And knowing that your work will be shared with a huge audience is really satisfying.

The First Brit: Secrets of the 10,000-Year-Old Man airs on Sunday 18 February 2018 at 8pm on Channel 4.

Photo credit: © Channel 4/Plimsoll Productions

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