What Remains: Creating a set as ominous as the crime

Friday 23 August 2013, 10:29

Lisa Marie Hall Lisa Marie Hall Production Designer

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As the production designer on a suspense drama like What Remains my job is as much about keeping things hidden as it is about revealing visual clues.

When I first read the script I knew instinctively that the house itself was a pivotal character, as menacing and awkward as its inhabitants, and that I needed to design it to make sure the audience could never quite see the whole picture.

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‘When we shut the door then we’re all alone’: Watch a trail for What Remains
All the dark secrets and hidden lives are kept within the confines of its walls, converted into separate flats.

Our job was to trap you, the audience, in the house with a killer.

I knew that we could do this by having full control of the layout and architectural detail of the house and no location would allow us this freedom.

So we built everything as a set in the studio: the staircase, loft and all five flats at Ealing and Wimbledon Studios. I hope we had you fooled.

Model for the staircase: A key part of the design process to plan construction and costs Model for the staircase: A key part of the design process to plan construction and costs

The staircase was designed first as this was the main artery of the house.

It stood 40 foot tall in the studio and whilst the front door matched our real exterior house location in Greenwich, London, the layout of stairs and corridors were entirely our own invention to serve the needs of the script, director and camera.

The characters’ flats were then designed but working within the parameters of budget and schedule only one master flat was built.

The loft set built alongside the staircase set in Ealing Studios: ‘I hope we had you fooled’ The loft set built alongside the staircase set in Ealing Studios: ‘I hope we had you fooled’

This was a system of movable walls, doors and fireplaces and plug-in windows, kitchens and bathrooms.

We would then have just either 12 or 24 hours, often overnight, to transform one flat into another - changing layout, wall colours and all furnishings and props.

As challenging as this was logistically and to our sleep patterns it meant we retained the identity of the house in every character’s space.

Here’s the reality: a designer’s job is about finding the balance between the visual storytelling and the practical demands of a production - the art and the business.

Exterior of the house in Greenwich, London Exterior of the house in Greenwich, London

My biggest influence was Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby designed by the legendary Richard Sylbert who inspired me to play with architectural detail for emotional effect: up-turned, oversized Victorian mouldings all create much deeper shadows giving the house more dark places to hide.

Not often does a designer get to explore this type of set design on a contemporary TV crime drama, it is more usual to work entirely on location so this was a gift of a job for me.

Coky Giedroyc the director was fully behind my bold ideas and trusted me to experiment. We didn’t play it safe because the story demanded that we shouldn’t.

Her vision for the programme was equally daring so we worked collaboratively to keep pushing each other and yet supporting each other’s approach - the key to a good designer-director relationship.

Lisa Marie Hall is the production designer for What Remains.

What Remains begins on Sunday, 25 August at 9pm on BBC One and BBC One HD. For further programme times please see the episode guide.

More on What Remains
BBC Writersroom blog: Writing a whodunit: What Remains

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Lovely, insightful blog that's further enriched my enjoyment of this excellent drama.

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    Comment number 22.

    I am enjoying the program but the comment saying lisa saying keeping us in the dark is true as a lot of the time you can barely see what is happening as the sets are so dark. This is happening more and more. Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Many thanks for all your positive comments regarding the design of What Remains and glad it evoked memories for some of you. It think set design is about creating something unique to the script but with elements that everyone in the audience will respond to - it must above all be emotive. And no, it was not the same house exterior. We did a lot to the front of this family house in Blackheath - changing all curtains & blinds to match to our sets, 'dirtying it down' to fell more run down, replacing the front doors altogether & building a garden at the back.
    For those that didn't like What Remains, thank you for your comments but as this is a blog post about the design of the show, I'd be happy to hear any constructive feedback you might have about the sets - a designer can always do better next time! And as for the comment "but you seem to make everything using a template" from ironjarl, this is far from the truth when it comes to production design. Every job we do requires a different method of working because every script demands new things - the template would have been to work on location, paint some walls & change the furniture with hired props- but we didn't- we built a world for the story. In fact, I even altered how my art department was structured and had a props buyer for each flat rather than one for the whole production - this allowed us to go that extra mile to find & buy the right characterful things and spend more time storytelling than filling in paperwork!
    All that said, for those continuing to watch, enjoy episode 3,

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Convinced me! The creaking floorboards are authentic and creepy, the flats' decors reflect the characters...and I can't work out what their stories are going to be. I can't wait to see the next episode!

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    Comment number 25.

    Really enjoying this..the atmosphere of the house, the plot but oh dear!!!!
    NO single malt whisky let alone one of 18 years has a screw cap!
    That slip up was a bad one!

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    I am enjoying the series and think the internal sets and staircase look great - but it appears to me there aren't enough floors in the house used for in the external shots... Flat 1. Joe in the basement, Flat 2. Keiran on the Ground Floor, Flat 3. Lesbian Couple 1st floor, Flat 4. New Couple 2nd Floor - as far as I can make out this only leaves the attic and that's where her body was found... not another storey for flat 5...

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Very interesting to understand how those shows are made.
    however, that house is firmly in LEWISHAM, not Greenwich. However close those 2 are.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    It's been a long time since the BBC showed such a compelling & interesting drama.

    It's definately the best thing for years. Brilliant twisty turny plot that (like a Mike Leigh play) shifts your loyalty, empathy & in this case, suspicions at the drop of a hat.

    Great cast, great set & without wishing to sound like 'Points of View' ... well done the BBC & Tony Basgallop.

    My only criticism is the casting of Michael & Vidya ... imo they seem very different, intellectually, socially & everywhich way.

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    Comment number 29.

    The modern roof trusses in the loft looked wrong for an old house like that, unless it had been completely re-roofed. Minor point.

    Apart from the detective, the male characters in the story are a bad lot. I am gripped though, compelling stuff.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    What a fabulous set! The beeb does it again with a top drama and excellent acting, production.

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    Comment number 31.

    The interior of the house had me puzzled too, but it's a great set and I can't wait for the climax tomorrow. This is a tale Agatha Christie would have been proud of, shades of the Orient Express ?

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    Comment number 32.

    I've been hugely enjoying this drama: It's so mysterious, unpredictable (even after ep3), and a huge visual treat! As much as the solid script and the very decent acting, I love the character of the house, the use of colour, and the way it's all sort of 'modern gothic light', sinister yet believable, familiar yet slightly peculiar, without relying on conventional 'dark thriller' tropes. I'd love to hear more about the production design - as others have mentioned in previous comments I too was fooled and did wonder where this house might be and how long it would have taken to find! The preview to ep 4 suggests Len Harper might end up in deep trouble (or prison?) but I do wish there was another season of this - or at least something similar using the same team?

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    Comment number 33.

    Truly fascinating. I was merely doing a google search to find out where the compelling series was filmed. To then read this blog and discover the work that goes into the set design has astounded me. I assumed a house full of flats had simply been rented en masse for the filming..amazing..

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    What a great drama,, best in a long time,,Well done to all the crew,, I totally loved it,, Len was excellent,,, as was all the characters,,, loved it ,loved it loved it,,,,

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    Wow I loved this, hated waiting a week to see the next one! Everything about this was brilliant . The house was so creepy like it held lots if secrets already!

    One if the best shows I have seen on the BBC more please.

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    Comment number 36.

    A breath of dramatic air in an unhappy house. The scent of decaying lives waft around the foreboding building dripping with the blue of deoxygenated corpses. One of the most unsettling dramas I've seen in years. A marvellous achievement by the actors, scriptwriter, director and production crews. This is the BBC I pay my licence for.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    Just loved this series. Well done to all involved. The acting, the script and the whole feel evoked from the directing and set design. Watched the first three back to back - because I got so hopelessly drawn in - and just seeing the ending has seen me, a grown man, turning on all the lights!There was something about the set and the claustrophobia of the relationships that totally freaked me out. Beautifully done and a rarity among dramas - believable, explanatory at the end. Wow. Makes me want to change career.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    I have to say, I loved the show up until the last 20 minutes. The ending had too many loose ends. I mean, why did Joe confess? And did Elaine kill Peggy or did Peggy kill herself? Why was Elaine suddenly turned into a murderer at the end when Peggy was the actual murderer? And what about the news story? And Liz? I felt like it left me with too many unanswered questions. I was sadly disappointed. Nice set. Great build up. Confusing and unresolved ending. :-(

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.



    Joe confessed because he'd screwed his life up and presumed Elizabeth (Liz) had killed Melissa. He was probably covering for her.
    Elaine killed Peggy out of possessiveness and the fear that Peggy may blow their cover.
    Elaine was psychopathic and stabbed Len to contain the crimes. Vidya compromised that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    This was a brilliant murder mystery drama. As the ending was ambiguous - did Len die or not - can there perhaps be a second series please? David Threlfall was excellent as ever and his character would make a good retired cop turned investigator for another storyline. "What Remains' could apply to other themes very well as a title.


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