Lark Rise: I design the costumes and corsets

Sunday 9 January 2011, 09:00

Pam Downe Pam Downe Costume Designer

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For a costume designer, Lark Rise To Candleford is an interesting project to work on. The research beforehand means I get to spend hours looking at photographs and paintings of the period. It's a part of the job I particularly enjoy.

For this fourth series of Lark Rise To Candleford I spent four weeks designing and preparing the costumes and three months filming.

Laura Timmins (Olivia Hallinan),Gabriel Cochrane (Richard Harrington), Dorcas Lane (Julia Sawalha) and Minnie (Ruby Bentall)

This spanned from July to October in 2009 and thankfully the majority of this happens in the Bath and Bristol area, which is handy as I live in Bath and the commute is a doddle.

I have designed programmes set in the 1890s before - one called Uncle Silas comes to mind as it had a similar rural subject matter.

The difference with Lark Rise To Candleford is that now it is in its fourth series the characters are well defined. The Pratt sisters, for instance, have very much evolved into the kind of WAGs of their day.

They pore over fashion plates from Paris (the fashion magazines of the time) and copy them but don't get them quite right - the fabrics are a bit too loud and their outfits verge on the tasteless.

This becomes more apparent when they stand alongside Dorcas, who tends to dress more elegantly and wears shapes that suit her, rather than what's the latest fashion.

For example, she has small proportions and the big leg of mutton sleeves that are fashionable would overwhelm her. The Pratts, on the other hand, don't give a damn - it's fashion, they will wear it.

Corsets are, of course, very much part of the female silhouette in this period and I love the way that the female actors shapes can radically change when they are in costume.

Julia Sawalha as Dorcas Lane

Julia Sawalha, who plays Dorcas, has a particularly malleable waist and I find it amazing how small a waist we managed to achieve with her.

Julia loved to wear her corset. Most of the cast found them uncomfortable and wanted to take them off at lunch time to have more freedom.

The only problem was that they then had to put them back on again and wear them for another five hours which they found even harder to take.

As much as I like designing around corsets, I also like to design more contemporary programmes.

I recently finished working on a 1940s project called The Night Watch for BBC Two, which involves doing as much research as for the 1890s and throws up different challenges such as the accuracy of Second World War uniforms.

This programme is based on a book by Sarah Waters and starts off post-war in 1947 and then moves backwards in time to 1944 and then 1941.

It is about the lives of four women and how they cope with the end of the war when suddenly they aren't needed in the work force anymore, and how their paths cross.

It was exciting to do, as there were blitz scenes and it was a nice change from Lark Rise To Candleford.

Luckily this was also shot in Bath and happened directly after Lark Rise To Candleford so it was relatively easy for my team and I to roll on to it (apart from being very tired).

My own style is pretty simple - I don't want to think about what I wear too much (I do enough of that for the actors).

The most important factor is comfort and, seeing as I spend 12 hours a day on my feet and am often dashing about picking up costumes that have been overlooked or added at the last minute, comfortable footwear is particularly important.

Also, much time is spent outside on exterior locations so warmth is an issue in winter especially. The Night Watch involved many night shoots in sub zero temperatures. I wear lots of layers and big padded jackets - oh, the glamour of it all!

Pam Downe is the costume designer for Lark Rise To Candleford.

Watch a clip of Pam and make up and hair designer, Lesley Faulkner talking about how they created Gabriel's look.

Series four of Lark Rise To Candleford begins on BBC One and BBC One HD at 8pm on Sunday, 9 January. Episode one is repeated on the BBC HD channel at 8pm on Monday, 10 January.

For further programme times, please see the upcoming episodes page.

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 1.

    I was struck this year but the wearing of the cloth bonnets of the working class women - Excellent. its missed so often in other series that women would have had their heads covered.
    There is fascinating footage of 1900's workers leaving the factories with most women (but not all) shawled in a hijab sort of way - tightly wrapped about the heads and faces.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    for "but" read "by"
    sorry xx

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    What year? is Larkrise supposed to be set. I have a photograph of my Great Grandmother taken when she was 21 in 1892, the hairstyle and fashion no huge
    'Mutton sleeves' yet that year! are quite different to 1899. I know accuracy and entertaing drama are always in conflict but how many dresses would a country Postmistress really have ...Dorcas seems to have a new one every episode, which is great TV but would it have been fact?

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Why is this series of Candleford being shortened to six episodes instead of the twelve it should have been when we have mindless programmes that go on for months. Dramas used to be BBC`s forte but they seem to be losing lately to ITV with Downton

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    I enjoy designing and making historical costumes as a hobby - total escapism from my real work as an accountant - and it is absolutely fascinating. Getting the undergarments right is so important, particularly the right corset, to get just the right shape. Hard work but worth it if you are going to get the overall look spot on, then properly finished off with hat, gloves, etc. I've really enjoyed Candleford for the costumes - well done! Now back to my own sewing as it is less than 7 weeks to the Venice carnival...

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Well done Pam the customs are absolutely spot on and as for the series it's brilliant. More of the same please BBC

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    it all looked rather to clean to me. Real victorians would never be fresh looking. Why is there nothing looking dirty? even the farmers look like they just come out of the shower. real victorians washed no more than once a week at most.

    theres one thing taking weeks to design a outfit but looks very fake worn on the fresh looking actor.

    feels more like a fantasy tale rather than a real victorian parish.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    I drive my family nuts, every time we watch Larkrise I do nothing but talk about the costumes. I am an avid seamstress and just love the sleeves on the sisters clothes. Very well done to you. Loving the progreamme.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Goodness I envy you - you have my dream job! I am a keen amateur dressmaker, and I always thought if I could choose my perfect career it would be a theatrical costume designer/maker. If you ever need an volunteer assistant ..........
    The costumes are brilliant - but someone should have a word with the 'spinster sisters'- don't they know 'less is more'!

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    Comment number 10.

    I adore the costumes in the programme and often sit with pen and paper and sketch some of the designs. I'm involved in historical and drama groups here in Shrewsbury. Can anyone recommend a basic dress pattern which could be purchased, that would be similar to the ones worn by the Pratt sisters this evening?

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    I love looking at the costumes all the details and colours, materials the structure. I am always amused at the Pratt sisters, immaculately dressed alike. I am very envious of your work. I studied dress and design in 1992 as part of my work I designed my wedding dress it had leg of mutton sleeves in fact very similar, nipped in waste and 26 buttons with loops at the back. Well done keep up the good work . I have been inspired again!

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    I have recently discovered genealogy and of course my family history research occurs mainly in the 19th Century. So a series such as Larkrise I find fascinating as it gives me an insight as to the lives and times of my antecedents, albeit a little less "perfect" than a TV series. From the few letters and photos that have been discovered some of the problems in Larkrise echo thoughts of my ancestors. My only comment would be that, of necessity, the TV series is too clean and the ladies dresses too perfect and too well made for a modest country town but it is only a minor point. We sometimes forget that the 19th Century was an era of great social change and how the advance of 'technology' impinged on everyday life.

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    Comment number 13.

    I love the costumes-design and fabric choices. If I hadn't chosen a career in teaching I would love to have worked in costume design. Oh to have had access to such opulent fabrics. Back now to making my niece's wedding dress!

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    I love the costumes, and I don't know if you have anything to do with props, but in tonight's episode, when the script mentioned 'Point Ground Lace', I thought it was a great shame that Maltese Lace was shown. There is plenty of genuine Point Ground Lace of the period available and easily obtainable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    I think that the costumes are excellent - if I were younger I'd love to do that job. However, as a lacemaker I was disappointed that the lovely fine piece of Bedfordshire or Beds/Maltese lace in ecru (silk?) was referred to as "point ground" although the piece that Queenie showed Pearl on her pillow was a Bucks Point ground pattern - but the thread was far too white and the pattern too basic for some-one of Queenie's experience to be doing. The short scenes of Queenie teaching Pearl were superb - just the same as we teach today.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Of course, I meant Ruby - not Pearl - silly me. But they will wear the same dresses!

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    Comment number 17.

    "The costumes are very good,Pam Downe,really is good,at what she does! I would agree with a previous comment made though,that the characters,even farm labourer's are much to clean looking,in reality they would look rather dirty!but otherwise this is a brilliant series,but sad only 6 eps.this time!bbc need to stay ahead of itv.for normally being ahead of itv in this area,untill Downton Abbey was screened,beebs new version of Upstairs Downstairs was quite enjoyable,please show much more drama and period drama and much,much less reality tv,much too much is shown on all channels these days,Yuk!

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Hi, I am currently designing a Victorian Bustle dress for textiles at AS. I have already started designing, and your costumes for lark rise to candleford have proved very helpful in helping me set the scene for that time. Particularly as I have been producing a page on costume dramas. Do you have any tips on how the bustle is best achieved?
    Thank you

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Kiriath 18

    The Pratt sisters wear "over the top" French designer influenced oufits to advertise their fashion business. They don't expect the ladies of Candelford to dress the same way, but to be aware of fashion and the need for new up to date clothes - in keeping with the changing times, as seen even in their business by the use of loom-lace.

    They are also very deft sales ladies, hence the new outfits Dorcas wears. The audience as well as Dorcas hopes that Mr Right will appear in any episode, and she has to maintain high standards of appearance as th Postmistress of Candleford.

    All of the characters look squeaky clean, as this is Weekend family viewing rather than serious Thomas Hardy territory, although even his novels are dramatised with a range of excellent costumes.

    We simply want to suspend our disbelief and enjoy the unfolding drama, as a portrayal of an age that seems golden to us, in contrast with contemporary
    and events in the world.

    Give me Larkrise and Candleford anytime!

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    BBC please bring 12 episodes back rather then just 6, this is my fave program and i have to wait ages each time for the next series. its very dissapointing finding out there are such a few left to see. Does this mean that larkrise is on its way out?? i really do hope not!!!!!


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