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Wednesday 24 Sep 2014

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Upstairs Downstairs – Eve Stewart, production designer

How did you go about recreating such an iconic address?

Having watched the original series when I was younger, I could clearly remember the iconic architectural positions of the internal set – like how the stairs went down to the servants' quarters and the main staircase and its relationship towards the servants' door. Once we had those in place I tried to work out the architectural design of the original house. The orientation of the servants' quarters in the original would have meant they would actually have been next door. So we turned it around a bit and expanded it slightly.

What is crucial is that we have kept the feel of the original design – like Mrs Bridges' hatchway through to the kitchen. Once we had things like that in place we started to satisfy the script and work out what exactly was needed to match this rich, lavish world. Heidi's scripts were very fluid and I didn't want to restrict the storyline by having restricted sets. So the sets are very fluid too. I wanted it to feel like it was a living, breathing character in its own right.

Externally we actually filmed in Leamington Spa. The architecture of the road we filmed on is an exact architectural match of the original series. Even the stucco is the same. The only difference about filming in Leamington Spa is that we didn't have to deal with London parking or London noise.

How did the original sets inspire you for your recreation?

The original sets inspired me with their scale. The scale of them was interesting for a TV series of that era. The attention to detail was quite remarkable too. There wasn't much magic on TV at that time and the reality of it was quite special – even as the walls wobbled you did still believe that they lived there. In terms of look and feel, I copied the original balustrade of the main staircase almost exactly and tried to copy the way it turned the corner in the hallway. I paid enormous homage to the pattern on the hall floor. And of course – the iconic wreath in the morning room is still there.

How is the set constructed?

The set is constructed out of an enormous steel frame that bolts together like a great big cube, grid. In fact, doing the interior of upstairs of 165 Eaton Place was actually like building a house and we did it in the same sort of way. We erected the steel structure first, then added the wood and then plastered the walls. I was quite careful to make sure that the mouldings etc were original and would go to see old guys who still ran plaster shops for moulds that matched the period. We would often find that they had 1930s things lying around in back rooms.

The colour schemes are stunning. How did you select them?

The servants' area is pretty near the original colouring. But we have given it more of a lustre. Because technology has advanced we have been able to plaster the walls and give them a glaze – which leads to more movement in the colour and texture. For upstairs we did quite a bit of research before choosing the final colour. We went to the Victoria & Albert Museum and looked at which paint colours were in vogue at the time. We also thought how Lady Agnes would want to be totally up-to-the-minute in terms of colour schemes.

Another interesting fact is that sometimes you have to tweak the colours that you've chosen once you know who has been cast. The cast will all have different skin tones and ultimately it's our job is to help make them look good. And if we need to we can tweak the colour to make them look better.

Where did you source your materials for the interior sets?

I did an awful lot of shopping around for original architectural salvage – there's such a rich vein of it in Wales. In this world of eco-friendliness, I'm really keen to recycle as much as I can. So I went to a lot of big reclamation yards. In the servants' hall all the wood and glazed panels that we've used are original panels from old pubs. All the taps we used were original and the fridge was even original. The only thing we built was the cooker. But even then, with me being so anal about research, I found the original drawings from the manufacturer and copied them.

So you pay particular attention to detail? Even down to the smallest of things?

It's crucial to pay attention to detail. I think that if you're trying to tell a story visually then you've got to get it all right – you've got to fit in to the narrative bubble. If there's something jarring or wrong then usually it will completely pop that bubble of belief – potentially spoiling it for the viewer. It's especially important to get the minute details right for the actors. I think it's essential they can go in to cupboards, for example, and be able to interact with things in there. It helps them become their character.

Even every letter or piece of correspondence viewers will see in shot has been handwritten. Each one is from a different person – from the fishmonger to the lawyer. And on each one the handwriting is different.

We had masses of tea sets too! I bought a lot of them from little town auctions but if we ever needed to supplement them we would hire them in occasionally. I think we had at least nine full sets in total. That might sound like a lot but it was really common back then – when you married you were given a tea set.

Did you want to be a set designer as a child?

When I was a little girl I used to have lots of dolls houses. Now I have lots of big ones and get to do it on a bigger scale!

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