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24 September 2014

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Production Diary

Richard and Ada

Bleak House Producer Nigel Stafford-Clark describes the various stages of production.

The Idea

"Bold. Fresh. Imaginative" said the BBC's Head of Drama, Jane Tranter.

She was talking about adapting Charles Dickens' Bleak House. Andrew Davies and I had collaborated successfully on two Trollope adaptations, The Way We Live Now and He Knew He Was Right.

Now we had been asked by the BBC if we wanted to have a go at Dickens' Bleak House. But Jane wanted a new approach, something unexpected, rather than the well-established routine of 'four hours on Sunday nights at 9pm'.

The idea came while I was leafing through the book's introduction. Bleak House was written to be serialised in twenty parts - one a month. Why not mirror Dickens' original concept - twenty parts, half-an-hour each? Run them twice a week before the watershed. Bring Dickens back to the mainstream popular audience he was writing for.

The BBC responded with enthusiasm. Our BBC executive producers would be Sally Haynes and Laura Mackie, the Head of Serials, the same team with whom I had worked on He Knew He Was Right. It all felt so straightforward.

The Scripts

Script Editor Ellie Wood and I did a rough breakdown of the book into twenty parts, each with its own cliffhanger ending, whilst Andrew studied the characters and their stories in detail and worked out his approach.

It was February 2004. We weren't aiming to deliver the show until the end of the following year, but when I worked the schedule backwards I realised that Andrew would have to write two episodes a month for ten months if we were to make it. And his first drafts would have to be pretty close to perfect, because all the revisions would have to be fitted into the same period. Andrew was confident that he could make it work. He began to write.

The next ten months passed in a blur of storylines, scripts, notes, revisions, more scripts. We established a routine. Andrew would send us his ideas for the next episode. Ellie and I would work them up into a detailed storyline. Andrew would review it, and when he was happy he'd start to write, while we made notes on the episode he'd just delivered.

Ellie left to have a baby. Her role was seamlessly taken over by Caroline Skinner. Part of me had thought that my relationship with Andrew might not survive the relentlessness of the process, but we only had one serious row - over the ending of one of the episodes - and we managed to resolve it.

Halfway through we realised that we couldn't make the material last for twenty episodes. We cut it to eighteen, then to seventeen, then compressed two episodes into one.

Nine months later, after we'd finished shooting, we would combine the first two episodes into a double-length opener, to give us a final tally of fifteen. Andrew's first drafts were some of the best I'd ever seen.


"Are you sitting down?" asked Sally, "They need the show for Autumn 2005."

My skin went clammy. We were struggling to be ready to deliver by early 2006. Now we would have to pull everything forward by three months. And I'd just lost my director.

My original plan had been to start with Tom Vaughan, with whom I'd worked very happily on my previous project. Now he'd had to withdraw. Where could I find another director as talented, as positive, as meticulous in his planning as Tom?

"Try Justin Chadwick", suggested my line producer Alison Barnett, who'd worked with him on Spooks. Justin was sent the scripts and came in bubbling with ideas and enthusiasm.

I'd always planned to shoot with two cameras, hand-held - the way Steven Soderbergh shot Traffic. It suited both the fast-moving, multi-story approach that Andrew was writing, and the need to shoot far more quickly than on any previous period adaptation if we were to fit within the available budget. Justin didn't just embrace the idea, he grabbed it by the scruff of the neck and shook it till its teeth rattled.

I added a second director, Susanna White, who I'd been tracking since her drama debut Love Again, with Hugh Bonneville giving an extraordinary performance as the poet Philip Larkin.

Like Justin, Susanna was particularly strong with actors and performance. Like him, she was visually bold. Like all of us, she had no idea of what she was letting herself in for.

Some of the key crew, like Andrea Galer in Costume and Daniel Phillips in Make Up and Hair, were people I knew I could rely on from previous experience. Justin supplied our Director of Photography Kieran McGuigan, whose passion I fell in love with as he walked into my office for our first meeting.

We would be shooting not on film, but on High Definition tape. HD, everyone said, was the medium of the future. All the major US TV dramas were moving on to it. George Lucas used it for his Star Wars trilogy. But it made most DOPs very nervous. No-one had used it for a period show, and no-one knew how it would work, how it would look. "Let's find out," said Kieran, beaming.

The Casting

"She lives in London. It's not out the question." Our casting director Kate Rhodes James was talking about Gillian Anderson, known to millions as Scully in The X-Files.

We had seen her performance in Terence Davies' period feature The House of Mirth. She would be perfect for Lady Dedlock, one of the key roles. But how to penetrate the cordon of managers and agents that normally surround a major American star to protect them from doing anything so foolish as British television?

Encouraged by Kate, we sent her the script. Encouraged, rather than discouraged, by her agent, Gillian read it and said yes. We were elated. Our elation was short-lived.

There were still eighty five parts to cast. Forty of them were principal characters. If we were serious about bringing Dickens back to a mainstream popular audience, we needed to include actors with whom that audience would feel familiar.

We also needed to cast actors who could handle the complexity of the characters, with their massive emotional journeys and switchback storylines. Balance would be critical. But where to pitch it. Arguments raged. Was this actor a bold enough choice? Could that one handle the demands of the part? Time flew. Christmas came and went. Even Kate, who had experienced and overcome most casting crises in her career, began to look a little pale.

Somehow the momentum began to build. Alun Armstrong, Johnny Vegas, Nathaniel Parker, Pauline Collins, Alistair McGowan, Charlie Brooks, Denis Lawson, Charles Dance. Young actors like Anna Maxwell Martin, Patrick Kennedy, Carey Mulligan, Burn Gorman. Phil Davis, Matthew Kelly, Liza Tarbuck, Warren Clarke.

We were hurtling forwards now, but the early February start date was hurtling towards us even faster. Only at the script readthrough, with less than a week to go, did we look round the room and realise that somehow we'd done it. We had a cast to die for.

Now all we had to do was shoot the show.

The Shoot - part one

On 7th February 2005, Charles Dickens' birthday, we began filming Bleak House at Balls Park, a large empty period mansion just outside Hertford.

In order to save both time and money, our Production Designer Simon Elliott had suggested that we base ourselves at one house, rather than go on the Stately Home circuit in the normal way. We'd managed to find the perfect house, narrowly pipping Celebrity Fame Academy to it, and now Simon had begun the process of transforming its interior into numerous different locations.

You could pass from room to room, moving seamlessly from Chesney Wold to Bleak House to Tulkinghorn's office and Kenge's chambers. Upstairs in the eaves, the garrets above Krook's shop were taking shape. Here Miss Flite and her birds would live and Nemo would die.

Less than an hour away up the M1, the streets of London were coming to life in the old stable block of Luton Hoo. Showing both imagination and ingenuity, Simon was using the existing stable buildings with their network of cobbled streets, giving them Victorian shop frontages and constructing interiors for Snagsby's and Krook's rag and bottle shop behind the false fronts, so that we could follow characters down the street and into their very own worlds.

Filming is seldom, if ever, done in script order. Actors' availability, the need to shoot all the material that takes place in one location before moving on to the next (so as not to have to keep coming back and expensively recreating the same setting over and over again) - these and several other factors mean that the filming schedule is a complex mosaic trying to make sense of all the competing priorities. Preparing one has been compared to playing three-dimensional chess.

We began in the drawing room at the Dedlock's country mansion, Chesney Wold. We would start with scenes from the first episode, but within a week we would be shooting material from Episode 9, then moving into Tulkinghorn's office and jumping back to the early episodes, whilst in between nipping out of Balls Park and into Spitalfields for the day to film the Jellyby household. And so it would continue.

As you can imagine, this constant leapfrogging around the story makes severe demands on the actors' concentration, if they are to keep their character's emotional and narrative bearings. And it requires an almost unimaginable degree of focus from the director, who has to keep track of them all.

Justin Chadwick, who would direct the first nine episodes, and Susanna White who would take over for the last six, had prepared themselves immaculately. Both were very strong on performance, and had an instinct for each character's key moments.

But with forty principal characters, some of whom would undergo the most extraordinary narrative and emotional journeys, neither could afford to lose concentration for an instant. What's more they would have to maintain their grip day after day, week after week, whilst juggling two cameras and creating the fluid, pacy style that we had set our hearts on.

The Shoot - part two

We set our hearts on creating and maintaining an unshakeable team spirit - not always easy given the long hours, almost unlimited demands and constant pressure that are part of a modern film shoot. But it would be essential to our survival.

Every day we would have to achieve four or five scenes, with changes of hair, make-up and costume that could take up to an hour each time. We would be on the run from early morning until nightfall, but at the same time we needed to create a cocoon around our cast, so that they did not feel the pressure of time passing that hovered over us constantly.

And then there was the unforeseen. An errant fire alarm requiring the entire unit and cast to be evacuated from the building in the middle of a crucial scene.

A clubber in the East End, high as a kite, launching himself into the road and bouncing (unharmed) off the side of the lighting truck as it made its way to location, causing a tense negotiation with the police to prevent truck and contents from being impounded pending their investigation.

A sudden tear in a delicate lace sleeve, requiring an hour's worth of invisible mending by the costume department because it was about to feature in a close up. And that was just the first week.

Days passed in a blur. Coming off the set after the seemingly impossible had somehow been achieved, Justin (or Susanna) and I would be in the middle of passing out congratulations when the call sheet which detailed the next day's shooting would be thrust into our hands, and we would look at each other in disbelief.

The actors were a source of energy and a tower of strength. We began with Gillian Anderson, who set a tone of unflustered professionalism leavened by bright shafts of humour during the first of her several stints with us. Charles Dance, Timothy West and Anne Reid also helped us get off to a good start.

With such a long shoot it would be another month before we saw Denis Lawson and Johnny Vegas, although Denis would be with us until the very end. Some of the cast, like Liza Tarbuck, Catherine Tate and Sheila Hancock, came in only for a day or two. Others, like Anna Maxwell Martin and Carey Mulligan, were with us for so long that they felt like family.

There were days when we thought we were done for - one in particular forever branded in our collective memory as we tried over and over again to film one of the most intense and emotional scenes in the entire show whilst a squadron of small planes looped the loop overhead.

Other days left us euphoric, when an incandescent performance or a moment of luck, or magic, gave us a scene that was better than we had dared to hope. But every day, good or bad, was always followed by another. The mountain never seemed to get less steep, nor its summit any closer.

Until, one day in mid-July, the assistant director called 'Cut!' in the Growlery at Bleak House and we all looked at each other. Twenty-one weeks that none of us would ever forget had just come to an end.

More on Bleak House

Behind the Scenes

Ada and Richard

Get the inside story on the show’s production.

Nigel Stafford-Clark

Nigel Stafford-Clark

Discover more about Bleak House’s producer.

Charles Dickens Animation

Charles Dickens Animation

Watch the story of Charles Dickens.

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