Dickensian – The Devil was in the detail

Jenny story produced Dickensian and is a development Executive at Red Planet pictures. Previously she was series producer of Eastenders has script edited or storylined all the BBC’s continuing drama series and produced the Inspector Lynley mysteries for BBC One.

By Jenny Robins

The first time I stood in an empty warehouse in West London and tried to imagine it housing a snow covered Victorian street – I failed. That was until I walked into the equally cavernous warehouse next door and found an antique collector’s dream of Victorian miscellany; a whole row of fireplaces from the very grand to the very meagre including Mrs Cratchit’s stove where she was going to make her all-important pies;  a rather flat badger amongst several shelves of stuffed animals for Mr Venus; and beautiful old toys to go in to Gruff and Tackleton – a shop that had no story purpose but in whose window Nancy stared on her way to see Jacob Marley and saw the childhood she never had look back.

Toys for Gruff and Tackleton & The Props store

Toys for Gruff and Tackleton & The Props store

Over the weeks the street took shape: walls were covered in carefully made brickwork then distressed to reflect the dirt and smog of the time.   The perfectly flat, concrete floor was suddenly cobbled and made to dip and slope like so many horses and carriages had already trodden down it allowing us to have puddles when it rained or drifts when it snowed.

The cobbles go down.

The cobbles go down.

All the writers came out on a visit to see just how long it took to walk from the Three Cripples to Scrooge and Marley’s or how much dialogue they would need to write to get from Mantalini’s to Garraway’s.  The more detail that was added; brightly coloured frontages, bay windows, the two bridges that ran across the street, and most significantly the arrival of those detailed props in the rooms, the more it began to feel real.

In fact, when we started filming it wasn’t unusual to find the director enjoying his lunch in the Three Cripples (sadly without a pint) just taking in the atmosphere, enjoying a moment to himself without being asked questions. On one occasion the make up department held a coffee morning in Garraway’s and it didn’t feel at all odd to see the prop cakes replaced by real ones and the china tea cups full of proper tea.

And then there was the snow…. Standing in July in the snow in a lamp lit Victorian London street somehow I actually felt cold. My children were lucky enough to accompany me to work one day in the holidays and were amazed to discover snowballs and a snowman.  It took a great deal of chocolate cake bribery from location catering to stop them running their hands along every railing and ruining the carefully placed drifts on every step and doorway.

Snow in July!

Snow in July!

Maybe it was because the scale of ambition of this project was so huge that there was a ‘no problem too great’ attitude I haven’t encountered before. There’s nearly always a moment several drafts into a script when you realize that what has seemed like a fairly innocuous stage direction is in fact totally impractical and another solution has to be found.  On Dickensian there were plenty of these stage directions.  In episode nine Nell referred to ‘a shrunken pygmy head’ – it had no particular relevance to the story and I’m sure if the writer had been asked he would have changed it to anything else that might be found in the Curiosity shop but sure enough, when we came to filming, there it was in pride of place.  Later we had a stuffed cat dressed as Little Bo Peep, two death defying roof top scenes and a fire in the police station.  And as for Marley’s ledger - a book which offered various clues across the series to the identity of his killer -  I will always be grateful to the graphic designer who patiently wrote and re-wrote those pages in faded calligraphy until we were all satisfied it told the right story.

Dickensian was a project on a huge scale: twenty episodes, the largest TV set built in the UK, but at the end of the day it was all the tiny details: battered top hats, the fob watches, the Victorian knick knacks in every shop and house, the oil paintings that were painstakingly created for the Pub and the grander houses, the quills and the ledger, which made it what it was. The devil, as Inspector Bucket might have said, was in the detail.

 

Our special exhibition Dickensian: Behind the scenes of the BBC drama series finishes on Sunday 17th April 2016! 

Exhibition is free with general admission, buy your ticket now! 

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