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.


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    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.

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    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.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Loved, loved, loved it! Brings back memories of watching with my Grandmother when young, eating crusty bread, Mature Cheddar and homemade picked onions and drinking sweet sherry! However, to the point. I have been trying to find those fabulous lamp stands and fringed lamp shades on line all evening - where can I get one the same please Mr Jones for my restaurant in Dorset? Fabulous job with production design.

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    Comment number 7.

    LOVE the sets! Particularly the hallway with the turquoise and black colour scheme. I'm desperately trying to source a carpet like the stair runner you have at 165 Eaton Place. Any chance you can reveal your suppliers and also your paint colour palette?

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    Comment number 8.

    Whilst I appreciate that finding an original 1930s type London bus in Wales would prove dificult, there is absolutly no excuse whatsoever for showing those wartime Barrage Baloons flying upside down! The fins on said baloons, (unlike those on aircraft) were always arranged in a Y shape. not only that, but the top two usually tended to be slightly under inflated, giving them a characteristic droop, that rather remembled elephant's ears.
    Badly done, BBC!

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    Comment number 9.

    I was looking forward to see this back on TV again, but what on earth was going on with the Picture Quality?

    I watched BBCOneHD as usual, but the amount of extraneous picture noise in the first 15-20 minutes was extremely distracting! ruined it for me...I hope something can be done about this for the next episode.

    It's been a long time since I've seen so much 'noise' over & above what would be usually described as 'grain' in the image.

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    Comment number 10.

    Thank you all for watching & for taking the time to send in your varied comments.
    To answer a few of your comments – firstly ‘Hungry Joe’, some elements were indeed filmed on HDSLR but the vast majority was on shot on the Alexa, there are guidelines as to how much content can be filmed on an SLR. ‘Linda’ the lampstands themselves were hired in I’m afraid, we have to do this for cost issues as to purchase all the furniture for a house of that scale would have been prohibitively expensive, but the fringed lamp shades were purchased from a lighting store in Cardiff.
    ‘vlmh2’ I’m afraid that the stair runner carpet was a special make last year & not an off the shelf item !
    ‘Markham Bailey’ & ‘nic_wg’ both of you spotted the 1950’s bus ! This was a judgement call on my part – we could source a 30’s one but the cost difference to us meant having 3 more cars for that day’s filming in Bristol ! I decided that the minor differences in the overall look of the 2 buses wasn’t worth the extra money for travelling the correct type of bus there & back, sorry if this spoilt your enjoyment.
    We endeavour to portray everything as close to reality as possible but we are governed by tight deadlines & budgets which mean that some judgement calls have to be made to give us the most value on screen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    once again producers of programmes have decided that we need overpowering and deafening music to drowned out the speaking voices,when will the idiots realise that the music is supposed to accompany the program not swamp it,.

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    Comment number 12.

    I feel sorry for all these couch potato experts who can't just immerse themselves in the story, the set design and costume design. My only criticism is that the accents of those above stairs are 'awfully' stilted and everyone looks like they've been sucking on lemons, except for the fabulous Alex Kingston who brings some well need light relief to the 'Upstairs' family.

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    Comment number 13.

    As soon as I saw the plastic plug for the hot water bottle I gave up.

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    Comment number 14.

    Hello chris pagan #11 - thanks for your comment. Your point about audibility is one that is frequently made in response to TV programmes. In case of interest to you and others who've had the same experience - a while back Danny Cohen, the controller of BBC One wrote this post on the BBC TV blog - Is the background music too loud? Danny presents the findings of research the BBC did into why the dialogue can't be heard over the music for some viewers. 321 comments from the audience on that post!

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    Comment number 15.

    So "Naerume" thinks I'm a "Couch potato"?. Wrong! I'm a retired museum curator/historian, who also owns' and is restoring a vintage vehicle. Not only that, but am also old enough to remember the 1940s.
    So (my wife and I) having settled down and attempted to immerse ourselves within this period production, find that such historical errors are bound to destroy our enjoyment!
    That said, I fully appreciate the reason why Arwel Wyn Jones had to compromise over a sutiable 1930s bus.
    However there can be no excuse for those CGI Barrage Balloons flying upside down. Absolutly unforgivable! After all, there is a plethora of WW2 reference material widely available.

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    Comment number 16.

    Love the programme. Have always loved the styles of that era, and now have totally fallen in love with the domed table lamps in the German hotel. A little like the Bauhaus Wagenfeld lamps, but with four uprights. Where did you find them?
    Keep up the great work.

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    Comment number 17.

    Chamberlain at Croydon Airport? Didn't he arrive back at Heston Aerodrome?

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    From having watched the 2nd series of Downton Abbey, and now having watched the first 2 episodes of Upstairs Downstairs, I can honestly say that Upstairs Downstairs series 2 is knocking spots off Downton series 2. Downton got too OTT, I think Julian Fellowes must have got a bit carried away with the success, (even some of the actors looked a bit embarrassed with the script).

    The script and performances in Upstairs Downstairs, thus far, have captivated all members of my family. I do hope it keeps up this standard throughout the series.

    The BBC at its best, a finely crafted, and well written period drama ! Ahh yes ! BBC Sunday night viewing is back !

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    I love Sundays because of this programme, and I adore the costumes, hair and sets - well done to all those involved. In last nights episode Dr Blanche went to stay with Emilia Fox's character, and in her bedroom was the most beautiful monochrome large scale wallpaper over the fireplace. It was like an oversize toile with birds and flowers. Is it available to buy?

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    Comment number 20.

    In a recent episode of upstairs downstairs a poor monkey suffered a cardiac arrest after being gassed in a childs gas protection pram! The head butler ws seen to carry out CPR (cardio pulmonary resuscitation) to the monkey on the kitchen table . There is no way this procedure would have been known about at the time, it was first introduced in the USA in 1954. CPR would never have been carried out in 1938. Obviously his st johns ambulance training was way ahead of its time!


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