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Production Notes

The Queen Mum's Style | Bringing the Past to Life



Bringing the Past to Life

Martyn JohnTrained in film and television design as well as in architecture, production designer Martyn John was a natural choice for a dramatic royal story that unfolds in sumptuous homes and castles. John has worked on a number of period films prior to this as art director, including Fall from Grace, Wilde, The Wings of the Dove, Ever After, and Jack Sheppard and Jonathan Wild, but Bertie and Elizabeth is his first project as production designer. In January of 2002 he spoke to Masterpiece Theatre Online about the difficulties of period recreation and the details that made all the difference.



How did you define the look of Bertie and Elizabeth?

The look was very much based on historical reference and a yearning to gain some sense of scale in the production. So often in productions all we see is a head-and-shoulders view of the scene. I wanted to gain a sense of space due to the subject matter: the royal family, who live in the largest homes and live the largest lives of anybody. This needed to be adequately represented. A huge amount of reference material exists on this family and this time in British history, so sifting through material was really the problem rather than finding it. Books, photographs, newspapers magazines, and archive footage were all used. Also Charlotte Watts, the set decorator, and I visited Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace, and many other royal and national places of interest. Charlotte had previously worked on Mrs. Brown, so her inside knowledge was invaluable. Scale, color, style, and appropriateness were really the four main criteria I used to determine the look of the film.


What kind of research did you do to get the details right?

My team found out what we needed to know via many cunning ways -- libraries, the Internet, past contacts. The script follows a documentary format, with specific events dramatized, which meant that each scene needed specific research. We collected visual and documentary reference to get as close to the authentic setting as possible and chose props and furniture based on such references. This was sometimes a huge constraint, as historic houses will not allow you to move many objects into or out of shot, but we got around it one way or another.



What were the challenges of filming this grand, royal story on a limited budget?

The only way we could maintain the scale of the production was to take the bulk of the filming to one location, Longleat House in Warminster. It provided us a wealth of grand palatial spaces and furniture and paintings appropriate for our period. We needed to bring in specific props, but generally the backgrounds were there. It is very much a flower-and-frock film, and Longleat lent itself admirably to that cause. I strengthened the look in specific rooms to heighten the "royal" experience, using silver, glass, flowers, and rich ornaments and memorabilia to enhance each scene. Flowers were changed for each scene with reference to the period, the time of year, and the color of the set.

We tried to put the money on the screen at all times. We spent money on vehicles for exterior filming, all of which were accurate. Also, I spent half of the set construction budget on the bombed East End street. This took a lot of money away from our other 29 days of filming, but I felt it was totally necessary to create the right effect. At the end of it, I don't feel things suffered at all, but it is very much a juggling act.


What tricks did you use to give viewers the sense of royalty's lifestyle and surroundings?

Tricks? Now that's a bit of a secret. I felt we needed to give the royals a sense of real life, so wherever possible I asked for newspapers of a specific date to be made up. Magazines of the time were produced, and anything which gave a personal touch was added to the set. For instance, Claire [Pidgeon, the graphic designer] and Charlotte did exhaustive research and produced near-perfect examples of letters and cards on Queen Mary's desk for the abdication scene.

Inventing scenarios is often necessary so that a bigger scene can be shot alongside it. The tennis court is an example of this. I created a tennis court on a hedged avenue by setting netting screens at either side and dressing chairs and umbrellas to contain the shots. This allowed us to stay at Longleat for another day and shoot the Balmoral hallway where Wallis Simpson and Elizabeth have a charged exchange.


How detailed is your design?

I need to get into every aspect of that way of life portrayed in the story. Flexibility is the main thing in designing a film, since often what was paramount can so quickly become irrelevant. We had to be as accurate as possible, down to the way the king works at his desk, the box files in which royal documents are stored, the cigarettes he used to smoke, the way the tables are set for diner, what cutlery and crockery are used, etc. It was endless.


What sort of considerations went into how you portrayed the story? Was it a familiar story to you?

My grandmother was a desperate royalist and bore an uncanny resemblance to Elizabeth, so from an early age events were always watched with eagerness in our household. Designing a film based on it was a different matter, however, and I needed to do a huge amount of background reading and research even before I was asked to attend an interview for the job. I did find it fascinating, though. It is such a different world to most, but one in which everyone is connected in one way or another.



How do the costumes and set work together to create the production's design and overall feel?

As much as possible I worked with Frances Tempest, the costume designer, on the look for the film. [Director] Giles Foster was also very interested in the look, and we discussed it at length before we started working in earnest. Once locations were chosen I told Frances the general color scheme, as a clash or contrast was so important in terms of the characterizations. Most of the time this was enough, and often some startling effects were created by our design solutions. For example, at the Henley Regatta, where I chose a pink and white marquee [tent], and Frances dressed all the cast in similar colors, it looks fabulous. This effect gives a richness to the look that enhances the film's subject matter, in my opinion.


What makes this era fun for you?

The film covers 30 years and spans a large style change in British life, with the end of the first world war marking the beginning of the film and the second world war taking up a large section of it. It is an era which a lot of people can still relate to heavily. Lots of references exist, and so do many of the actual artifacts. This makes it fascinating to discover and re-create. Often a feel or essence is all it takes, and this is where tricks can be employed, using modern-day articles in a period setting to convince people that it is all correct to detail.


Were there any unexpected, behind-the-scenes occurrences of note?

We were preparing the coronation rehearsal scene overnight at Bath Abbey, working through the night, having all done four weeks of long days, and we were all quite tired. The set was built in record time within the Abbey. I asked for the gold carpet to be brought off the lorry and laid on the rostra. I had been very specific about the color, as it related directly to television archive material. The florist was arranging huge displays, and velvet drapes were being hung all around. The scene was looking wonderful. At midnight, when the carpet was unwrapped, we discovered that the supplier had sent the wrong color -- a fluorescent yellow. I was horrified and caused the clergyman helping us to cover his ears from my use of language in the Abbey! What could I do? After a cup of tea -- we British love our tea -- I decided to proceed and to hide as much of the carpet as possible with off-cuts of burgundy and blue carpet we had saved from a previous set. Luckily, the effect was stunning, if a little inaccurate. I did, however, get a lot of ear-bashing from the director of photography, as the color cast a glow onto the stone if he allowed any light to hit it. There was nothing I could do in that situation. Sometimes things happen, and with all the best will in the world you have to accept the consequences and learn a lesson: Get things earlier, and double-check the colors.


What are you working on now?

At present, I am budgeting a couple of films, one set in Vilna during World War II, as the Germans invade, called Ghetto, and another one centered around animated creatures not unlike a Muppet adventure. I'm also styling for still-photography shoots and finishing off a short film, The Bottle.


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