John Asbridge spent seven, epic months bringing the world of the Cazalet family to life. "There were so many rooms sometimes we would exhaust the rental companies' supplies of props," says the designer who had to fill 130 sets in all, from small rooms to restaurants. "I lost count of the number of bedrooms we had to dress. Finding different dressing tables for every one of them was almost impossible." His search for the defining look of the production began with Elizabeth Jane Howard herself. "Her books are highly descriptive and that was a help. I also went to lunch with her to talk about her memories of that time," explains the designer, best known for Jonathan Creek.
Asbridge's greatest challenge was to convey the differing moods of the times and places covered in Howard's sweeping story: "It is a piece about contrasts, between peacetime and wartime, London and the country, adults and children." He is too young to remember the war, but spent long days pouring over books, magazines and archive film footage from the time. He also became a fixture at the Imperial War Museum. The key came when he visited the house chosen for Home Place, in Chobham, Surrey. "I didn't want to end up with a Jane Austen pretty farmhouse. And this was not the sort of house that has been often used in period BBC dramas. The house was much altered around 1900 with a great amount of Lutyens influence around it," he says. "The interior gave us the key of introducing lots of wood. That seemed to fit so well with a family whose lives were built on a timber business. Once we had that we were away."
One of the most demanding areas was the huge, rambling garden of the Cazalet home. Once their Home Place had been chosen, Asbridge and his team had to clear the existing overgrowth and lay entire new lawns and gardens. They even had to lay out a lawn tennis court. "With period netting and chalk lines drawn by a machine from the time," he says with pride. A groundskeeping team had to allow director Krishnamma to film four seasons in one day. "We had days where we would pull up the daffodils, put in the delphiniums, then pull them out and sprinkle the place with autumn leaves."
Asbridge's role also extended to providing the minute details that helped the actors understand their parts. "Catherine Russell, who plays Rachel, asked whether I could find some particular things for her bedroom," he recalls. "She was thrilled when I found an authentic first aid kit that she needed for one particular scene." His primary aim, however, was to provide director Krishnamma with a set that allowed him to create a drama. "I couldn't become a slave to the books or authenticity. We were not making the 1940s house, with all due respect anyone could do that. It is a cracking good, sexy story and it could almost be in any period. We did not want to be over reverent to the period. I think the film we have ended up with is very gutsy and very bold." Nevertheless, the ultimate compliment came when Elizabeth Jane Howard visited the set at Twickenham Studios. "She told Verity Lambert that she thought one of the wallpapers was an actual paper from her youth. It was one that featured wild, exotic peacocks in the so-called Indian Room," he says. "It was lovely that she felt we had got that close."
Verity Lambert readily confesses that the production was one of the most testing even in her long and illustrious career. "The first six weeks were absolute hell. We had the most awful weather. We had to keep rescheduling. The location for Home Place -- the Cazalet family home -- was next to a small airfield. Naturally, when we'd scouted it, it was absolutely silent. But once we began shooting, a single engine plane came over every three minutes," she explains. "Then to put a tin hat on it, the petrol crisis began."
Production was concentrated in two other main locations, Luton Hoo, the stately home off the M1 in Bedfordshire, and Twickenham Studios in London. Asbridge meticulously recreated the look of 1930s English life. At the same time, costume designer Frances Tempest created scores of period outfits, ranging from cocktail dresses and ballgowns to naval uniforms. For first-time producer Joanna Lumley, the sheer scale of the enterprise was overwhelming. "Acting is a doddle, a holiday compared to producing. I've never known so many things to have to be carried around in the head. And Verity having to get up at 5 am and putting in a 14-hour day every day, without the satisfaction of having acted in the middle of it. I couldn't believe how hard she works." The complications caused by the bad weather early on left Lumley's head spinning. "The actors had other engagements. We had 65 actors. It was this phenomenal, 3-D game of chess," she says. The duo's sense of humor helped them survive the rainier days. "It is so tough when you are shooting film. At Luton Hoo, we were running around like maniacs. We had something like 32 sets in that house," recalls Lambert. "The weather was foul, it was freezing, we were behind schedule. You wouldn't survive for a minute if you didn't have a sense of humor."
With the first chapters in the story now ready for a wider audience, each of the team has their own hopes for the story. For Elizabeth Jane Howard who created the world of the Cazalets in the first place, the hope is that a new generation will understand a little of the world in which she grew up. "It was a much more innocent world. I was 16 when it started. In some ways girls of 16 and 17 knew more and knew less at the same time. On the one hand they didn't know anything about sex. But at the same time they were better educated, they read more, there was no television and the radio was for news," she says. Naturally she also hopes the series brings her books to an even wider audience. Director Suri Krishnamma sees it as a hymn to family. "All of us have some sense of family, what I hope the audience gets from this is the importance of family, the idea that no matter how complicated the world you can live happily in it, within a family."
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