Upstairs Downstairs

Q&A: Production Designer Eve Stewart

Eve Stewart studied painting at London's Royal College of Art and came to film and television production design after starting her career in opera set design. Since then, she has worked on many feature films with directors such as Mike Leigh and Tom Hooper, and been nominated for two Academy Awards, for Topsy-Turvy (1999) and The King's Speech (2010).

In the 2011 series Upstairs Downstairs, set in 1936, a beloved address gets a new set of residents and an opulent renovation. For production designer Eve Stewart, this meant getting all the meticulous details right and infusing them with life. Stewart, nominated for an Academy Award for her design work on The King's Speech, spoke to Masterpiece's Barrett Brountas in February, 2011.

Click on the images below to view larger versions of Stewart's sketches from Upstairs Downstairs.

Enlarge Sketch 1Enlarge Sketch 2

Select a topic from the list below to see Stewart's thoughts, or choose Show All to see the entire interview.

Reprising Upstairs Downstairs

Starting the design process

Your process began with a dollhouse-style mock-up of the house.

Absolutely, yes. Having worked in theater for years before I started doing film and television, I do work in models a lot, not least because it shows directors and cameramen exactly what you're after. It also gives the feeling of the thing rather than just being a line drawing on a piece of paper.

And it was quite amazing because, of course, the house was so iconic in the original series, and I wanted to make sure that we got that right, but also got the architecture right as well. When I made the model based on the original series, if you worked it out, it appeared that their kitchen — the basement kitchen where all the servants were — was actually in the next-door house! So it was really worth making the model.

Re-imagining elements of the original series

How did you approach the project, in terms of recreating elements from the original versus re-imagining them?

I watched [the original series] as a kid with my grandma, which was amazing, I remembered a lot, but thought I'd better check so I went back through all the old programs and kept freeze-framing and making sure I got the banisters right, the layout right. We just worked it out slowly by investigating the original series.

But also, having done architecture at college, I have a great understanding of the way Georgian buildings are laid out, and that you have to know the certain heights of ornaments and architraves and all those little details.

Designing 165 Eaton Place

The flow and connection of the rooms

Many of the people involved in the production marveled at the flow of the rooms and how they're connected.

I thought it was such an important transition between servants and masters [quarters] that you just needed to see that flow. And we actually built the hall and the rooms upstairs for real. It helped the actors, as well, to feel that they were in a proper living, breathing house. And I think the house became a character in itself.

Finding authentic set pieces from the 1930s

The production is adorned with so many great pieces from the 1930s. How did you find them, and were they hard to locate?

Well, we're really lucky in this country that there's still quite a lot of it about. And I'm kind of a constant weasel of getting to different places — I go around markets and fairs and auctions. With my decorator, we managed to purchase all the stuff. We hired a few bits, like the tiger's head, but a lot of things were purchased.

The perils of having a monkey on the set

With all that great stuff around, were you at all nervous with having a monkey on the set?

Oh, the damn monkey! I had to go to interview the things. It was really weird because they get a selection of monkeys that all look the same, but do different things. So there's one jumping-on-the-head monkey and one sitting-eating-grapes monkey. [Laughs]

Lady Agnes and the house renovation

Does the sumptuous decor of Lady Agnes's renovation reflect her efforts to overcome the financial hardship of her youth?

Yes, I think so, especially her bedroom. She's just really gone for it, with her silky sheets, padding and cushions. We tried to show that she constantly wants to keep warm, so we've got curtains and cushions and portrait radiator covers, which were big in those houses, just to show that she comes from a drafty old castle in Wales.

Making the morning room so "Maud"

The morning room is so very "Maud." How did you do that?

That was fun because I have a love of those old ladies that came back from the Raj, and how they're kind of trapped between two times. I wanted to really investigate [the way in which] she had gone out to India and completely missed the First World War and the austerity and hardship, and then... just floated back in with all her, kind of, richness and gold.

[Eileen Atkins] is so formidable on the set, as well. She was the only person that the monkey would be good for. He was biting everyone else. [Laughs] She talked to it like it was a person, though.

Period details requiring close attention

Were there any period details that you paid particular attention to?

I was very keen to get the servant bells and calling mechanisms right, and that was quite hard to do. And we put in real plumbing, because I thought the servants should be able to turn the tap on. And, I became a real kind of anal, annoying person about making sure that they were doing things properly in terms of cleaning silver with paste and knowing all the techniques that they should have employed at that stage. So, we were very lucky; we found some original housekeeping journals from the '20s. They love going around banging on about everyone learning! [Laughs]

Insights into particular house elements

Can you share insights or anecdotes about the following items?

The staircase
The big one was absolutely from the first series, apart from its scale and length that had to be increased. But absolutely, I paid homage to the original series. If you talk to anyone who knows the series from years ago, they all remember the staircase and the potted palm tree, so we were fairly keen to make sure that we got that right.

The floor pattern
I think people had a feeling that the floor pattern was black and white but, again, I checked in some old magazines...like interior magazines of the time, and it showed this amazing floor in one of the houses in Portland Place,* so I copied it. We cut each tile ourselves. Oh, no, we didn't just paint it. They were cut and then laid!

*Editor's Note: Portland Place is a central London Street known for its array of terraced, or linked, Georgian houses.

The Christmas tree
That was courtesy of a forest in Wales, and we sent out some prop men in big snow boots and got that down. With permission, I hasten to add. [Laughs]

The wreath
The wreath was from the original [series], but it was flat in the original, it was just a kind of painting. We adapted from the original flat one, but looked also to Victorian mausoleums and tombs and tried to kind of give it that kind of feel as well.

The bathtub
That was really lucky, because all the paneling and sinks and taps and everything I managed to find from salvage yards around Wales. So we drove around, and then there was the ultimate rusty old bath sitting there. We purchased that. But then, of course, we had to copy it in fiberglass in case, when we dropped it, it killed anyone. [Laughs]

The bird motif throughout the house
Yes, it's called "The Fledgling," after the title of the first [episode]. It had that little bird. But I felt that all the young people were like little birds trapped in this gilded cage, whether they're the posh birds at the top or the common little sparrows, they're all kind of fluttering around and making nests for themselves.

Upstairs Downstairs

Making the new house unmistakably Upstairs Downstairs

What are some of the details of the new 165 Eaton Place that make it unmistakably Upstairs Downstairs?

It's unmistakably Upstairs Downstairs due to that hall. I think everyone remembers the hallway. And the big, old chandelier. We had to put extra arms on it. I just thought it wasn't big enough for Agnes. We needed a really big one. [Laughs] We found the central section, and then we added the extensions.

A favorite scene

Do you have a favorite scene from the new Upstairs Downstairs?

I love it when the monkey's on the table at breakfast. I love that. And I also love the naughtiness in the chauffeur's garage. In his cheeky lair. [Laughs] And his naughty calendar. Very risqué.

What's ahead for season two

What do you anticipate might be different in the look and tone of the house or the location in season two of Upstairs Downstairs?

I think Agnes probably gets even more bling. [Laughs] She's not going to rein it in anymore!

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