Upstairs Downstairs: I design the sets

Friday 17 February 2012, 14:28

Arwel Wyn Jones Arwel Wyn Jones Production Designer

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I was standing on a rooftop in central London on the last day of filming a crucial scene for Sherlock when I got a call offering me the role of production designer on the new series of Upstairs Downstairs BUT - I had to start the following day!

This was my introduction to the rollercoaster ride that was to take over my life for the next five months.

We pick up the story of 165 Eaton Place in September 1938 which is a great era for design - the height of art deco.

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Returning to 165 Eaton Place

As the production designer, I was very keen to utilise this in our distinction between 'Upstairs' and 'Downstairs' - the opulence and crisp elegant lines of art deco as opposed to the rougher, more textured world of the working classes.

The interior of the house is all a set and is spread between three studios at BBC Wales' new facility down in Cardiff Bay (next door to Casualty and Pobol y Cwm).

We've added a couple of extra rooms to the interior set this year and one of those is a dining room.

I enjoyed designing it as we were able to introduce some very contemporary shapes and patterns into the set. Look out for the pair of doors leading into the dining room and the floor inside.

We designed and made these ourselves - without seeming too Changing Rooms, they're all paint effect and MDF!!

The main hall is in a larger studio than the rest to allow for it to be two storeys, which helps sell the idea of it being a real house. You can follow the actors from the dining room across the hall and up the stairs to the landing and drawing room.

The decorating of these sets correctly is very important.

We must make sure that the patterns and colours look good on camera, so we co-ordinate with the costume department to make sure that the actors' outfits are complementary to the scenery and don't blend into the background.

The cost of redecorating a room could be the difference between coming in on or over budget.

Therefore I have to discuss options and themes beforehand - with the producer, director, director of photography and costume. I have to admit that I tend to get my own way most of the time!

Harry Spargo (Neil Jackson) stands in front of one of the vintage cars sourced for Upstairs Downstairs

Harry Spargo (Neil Jackson) and one of the vintage cars

Interior design is only one aspect of the job however, and as much as I like my wallpapers, we also have cars, planes, trains and buses to source as well as all the props.

I have a very good team helping me with all these as it would be an impossible task on your own - the organising of the vehicles alone is a monumental task.

The cars, for example, are mostly privately owned and are brought to set by the owners or drivers on their behalf. Due to their age some are trailered if they need to travel very far.

The aeroplane we sourced from Duxford Air Museum, who were, as always, very helpful.

It's also a big task sourcing the dressing props (what we use to make the sets look real) and action props, which are used by the actors and often described in the script which means we have to source or reproduce. We hire some, trawl round antiques markets for others, and eBay is also a good resource.

We even have some made especially - look for the special gasproof pram! It was based on a real one but there were only a few very sketchy photos that survive of it, which were sourced from the internet and some old newsreel.

Anne Reid as Mrs Thackeray

Downstairs: Anne Reid as Mrs Thackeray

There is also all the food and flowers. The end products of Mrs Thackeray's work in the kitchen need to both look good enough to serve at a royal dinner party and be authentic for the period.

Because of this a specialist TV and film food economist was hired in.

She would pre-prepare some of the food and then it would be finished in a specially-made food preparation area just outside the studio so that we could serve it piping hot straight to set!

To support her expert work, we also depended on the culinary skills of our very own Hannah Nicholson (my set decorator) who also did most of the flower arranging as well as a myriad of other things!

It was a very challenging project but with a great team behind me I think we managed to achieve something beautiful - I hope you agree.

Arwel Wyn Jones is the production designer on Upstairs Downstairs.

Upstairs Downstairs returns to BBC One and BBC One HD on Sunday, 19 February at 9.30pm. For further programme times, please see the episode guide.

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.

    Pity with all this attention to detail no one noticed that the version of 'The very thought of you' played in the Berlin scene was sung by Al Bowlly and therefore would have come from London, not the US.

    Pity also that no one thought to ask whether an FO official would have called the Prime Minister out of a meeting to remonstrate with him about his conduct of negotiations.


  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    I love the production but as a designer have some reseravations about the use of art deco in a a home like that. It was too "full on"-also in your info above art deco was not at its height in 1938-it was well and truly over and replaced by modernism. Art Deco was late twenties -earlier thirties.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    I'm not sure whether to welcome this series back or mourn its passing. The dialogue was all over the place - sometimes modern, sometimes formal but with a complete lack of feeling for the era or the values of that time. In recent years the BBC has found itself unable to break away from the Eastenders format and candidly this is akin to a retro Eastenders with a tweak or two. The wrong type of buses, the hackneyed but inaccurate portrayal of Chamberlain saying 'Peace in our time' at Croydon airport when in fact that happened at No 10 all added to a rather sloppy effort that ticked all the 'politically correct' boxes but never even came close to giving Downton Abbey a run for its money. Give it back to ITV. They're obviously better at this type of tv than the Beeb - don't you know.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    This is head and shoulders above Downton Abbey and always was. By the way Julian Fellowes was greatly irritated by the nit-pickers who thought that they had found inaccuracies in his show. Often they were proved wrong.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    loved the filming, the cinematography - the handheld?, the shallow depth of field, pull focus, the colour and the grain (nearly noise). Looked like available light or bust - please tell me you used HDSLR. Any way shooting it this way gets closer to the people and the emotion and gets away from being too anal about whether the doors are correct! Do people never notice that real life is full of anachronism - I live in 2012 but our house is 1895 with ikea kitchen. Where are the blogs from the people who shot this? Get them on to talk about cameras and technique.


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