Series Producer, Director, Writer
Q: Can you tell me what your job entails?
A: Making sure that the clients at PBS and Devillier Donegan got what they wanted. There are countless different ways of interpreting the story of Queen Victoria's Empire -- or any story, for that matter -- but it's not a good idea to take other people's money and try to make a series that runs counter to their own ideas of what the series is about and how it should be presented and, not least, what kind of audience it is meant to appeal to. This may seem obvious, but in a creative industry, filled with creative people, everyone has his or her own idea of how to tell a story and paint the pictures. As series producer, the most important part of the job, in my view, is to ensure that they're working together for the same end result, not against each other or total opposition to the people who are providing the money to get it made.
Unfortunately, I'm also a writer and a director, which means I have my own ideas of how to tell a story and paint the pictures so the job also entails having a split personality. In this case it wasn't so difficult because there were no major disagreements about the overall treatment of the story. I wrote the scripts -- in a number of drafts until the executive producers were happy with them -- and then worked with the rest of the production team on the best ways of visualising the different scenes (I think there were about 400 scenes in all). This involves detailed planning with the line producer (who organizes the production and allocates the budget), directors, designers, directors of photography, stunt co-ordinators, etc. We had some fairly large-scale scenes to plan -- battles, sieges, journeys into the heart of Africa -- as well as a number of more domestic scenes in the royal palaces between Victoria and her husband Prince Albert. And we had to find locations that evoked the period of Britain and its empire during the industrial revolution -- the first years of the Age of Steam. I also directed two of the films in the series myself, so I spent a fair bit of time on location, particularly in India.
Q: What sort of productions have you written and/or directed before?
A: Dramas, documentaries and a combination of the two, like this. I've tended to make more dramas that are historical, rather than contemporary. This isn't a matter of choice, more of what jobs were on offer -- but I do enjoy trying to bring history alive. Examples of previous work include "The Golden Years," a film version of a play by the American writer Arthur Miller about the clash between the Spanish conquistadors and the Aztecs of Mexico in the 16th century; "Incident in Judaea," a film adaptation of a story by the Russian writer Mikhael Bulkakov that treats the trial and crucifixion of Jesus Christ as a political incident in an imperial colony; "Fireworks," a dramatized history of democracy, and "Tales from the Tower," a dramatized history of political prisoners in the Tower of London.
Q: What was your brief for the series? How is it different from other historical documentaries you've made?
A: The brief was to tell the story of Queen Victoria's Empire, covering 63 years, in four episodes. We could include re-enactments, paintings and other illustrations from the period, and interviews with historians. There was to be no dialogue between actors but we could use voices from speeches, letters, and recorded conversations of the period.
The main way in which it differed from other historical documentaries I have made was that we adopted a style of shooting where the figures were slightly "soft" and where you never quite saw the whole face. We also made extensive use of slow motion in the action scenes. And sometimes we would use props rather than people to illustrate an event. So, for instance, in the story of Cecil Rhodes -- the English gold and diamond magnate who "ruled" much of southern Africa as his personal domain -- we had a scene where he suffered a heart attack. Instead of showing him collapsing we show the fallen chair, the desk with his writing, a cigar still burning. Sometimes this technique can be more dramatic than showing the actor "faking" a heart attack.
Q: Did any previous productions help you with "Queen Victoria's Empire?"
A: Many. Too many to list. We viewed a number of TV dramas and documentaries, and also features, covering this period and others. In a sense everything helps, if only to help avoid making the same mistakes. Two that stick in my mind for various reasons were the films "Mrs Brown" about Victoria and her relationship with her groom, John Brown, and "Gordon of Khartoum," about the charismatic British general who took on the armies of a Muslim fundamentalist in the Sudan in 1884 and died at the siege of the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. In practical terms, I was helped by previous productions I had worked on such as "Tales From the Tower," about prisoners of the Tower of London through the ages, and "Fireworks," a history of democracy over 2,500 years. Both these productions gave me experience of working with people who specialize in re-enacting historical events such as battles, revolutions and so on.
Q: Were you familiar with this period of history before taking on the job?
A: Yes. Initially from being a history graduate and subsequently from reading biographies of most of the leading Victorian figures and quite a few of lesser-known characters. I'd read a lot of Victorian novels -- Dickens is obviously invaluable for getting a feel for the period. And I'd read all the "Flashman" novels by George Macdonald Fraser, which are about a fictitious Victorian soldier who takes part -- albeit reluctantly -- in almost all the military campaigns of the period.
Q: What fascinated you most about the period?
A: I think the combination of imagination and energy that many Victorians had. Nothing was impossible for them. I don't hold with a lot of what they did but I cannot help but admire the way they did it. The Victorian Empire was mostly about India and the story of the British in India is one of the great epics of all time. British children of my generation -- brought up in the 50s and 60s -- were still raised on a diet of Indian adventures and adventurers, the stories of Rudyard Kipling in particular. In a way, this series was like living out the romance.
Q: Through working on the series have you changed your perceptions about anything or anyone from the period?
A: Yes -- Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, who I always thought of as a bit of a buffoon. Now I appreciate his intelligence and humanity. He emerges very much as the hero of the series.
Q: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters covered in the series?
A: No, but I've always had a soft spot for Gordon of Khartoum. He was quite mad, the archetypal English eccentric who had no use for money but thought nothing of conquering China, for instance, or of taking off, practically single-handedly, to fight slavery in the Sudan, one of the most desolate, forbidding regions of the world.
Q: How did you decide what to leave in and what to leave out?
A: The framework for the series was worked out in discussion with the executive producers before I started writing the scripts. The British Empire was so vast -- covering about a quarter of the world by the end of Victoria's reign -- it had to be focused on certain key characters and ideas. We left out China, for instance, because although Britain had a significant commercial interest there and fought several military campaigns, it was never officially part of Victoria's Empire. The greatest expansion during the period and the most dramatic events occurred in India and Africa -- and in Britain itself, including Ireland -- so those were the areas we tended to focus upon. We agreed to cover certain large-scale events such as the industrial revolution, the Irish famine of 1845, the European revolutions of 1848, the Crimean War, the Indian Mutiny, the adventurers of David Livingstone in Africa, the story of Gordon of Khartoum and the conquests of Cecil Rhodes, culminating in the Boer War. The most important single character, of course, was Victoria, and we included much of what might be described as her private life, including her relations with men such as her husband, Prince Albert, her two leading statesmen, Gladstone and Disraeli and, of course, John Brown.
Q: What was the biggest challenge during filming and why?
A: For me, making it look "period" without it looking like a "costume drama." In practical terms, this means making sure that men who've been in a trench for six months don't look like they've just stepped out of a military museum, farm labourers don't have razor-sharp creases in their pants, etc. Sometimes the sheer physical scale of such a production can lead you to overlook small but vital details, and you end up making something quite spectacular and very pretty but not at all real. You don't believe these are real people who took part in events that really happened. This is always the problem with filming history.
Q: And during the post-production?
A: Keeping the level of concentration up. Again, not overlooking small details, like sound effects. We were doing a lot of rewriting and re-editing all the way through post-production, and I would have liked to spend more time on the little things -- like birdsongs, say, or the sound made by 600 men in a parliamentary debate. Here again, you have the real practical difficulties of such a large production -- the problem of keeping track of everything. When we were in India, we were so struck by the distinct bird sounds in a garden that we sent the sound team there the following day, and they recorded two hours of it. I listened to some of it. It was great. It made me feel exactly as I had felt standing in that garden. But I never saw the tape again. It went missing in transit. In the end, we used Indian birdsong from a sound library in England, and for me, it wasn't as good. You have to be obsessive to make a good film, but obsessive people are often very difficult people and you can't be that difficult if you want to get everything done on schedule and on budget. I keep telling myself that! It's a balancing act. Mostly you hope to get it right. I'd have liked better birdsongs.
Q: In hindsight, what would you have done differently?
A: Got better birdsongs.
Q: What is your favorite part of the series?
A: Not the birds.
Q: If Queen Victoria was alive today and watched the series, do you think she would approve of it?
A: Almost certainly not. She was an autocrat who did not approve of her subjects knowing too much, or indeed anything at all, about what went on behind the closed doors of her several palaces and as this is exactly what this series purports to do, she would definitely not have been amused.