It's a costume drama, but it’s a world away from the warm bath experience of most TV period pieces. Jon Creamer reports on Origin Pictures' graphic and disturbing tale of Victorian vice - The Crimson Petal and the White
Although the adaptation of Michel Faber's sweeping and highly detailed novel The Crimson Petal and the White will come to the screen as a four-part BBC2 drama, it was originally to be made as a Hollywood movie starring Kirsten Dunst.
At least it was when ex-BBC films and now Origin Pictures' David Thompson first went after the rights and found that Sony Pictures had got there first. Luckily for him, the movie was never to be and Origin grabbed the rights when Sony backed off. "What I loved about it was its epic sweep," says Thompson. "I didn't see it as a movie. It was too big a book. Too many great books are destroyed when turned into a single movie."
The book is certainly epic, but it's also a very different proposition to what's usually expected from a period drama. Though set in the Victorian era, it's a modern novel and one that's keen to turn over stones to see what comes crawling out from underneath. "I've not done much period drama but I'd always been interested in doing it in a different way," says Thompson. "The book's full of smell and sex and opulence and poverty. It strips the layers off Victorian society and takes you behind the green baize door."
For such a proposition, it was obvious that the look of the film had to be very different to that of a typical costume drama. Says producer Steve Lightfoot: "It's a dark book. In a way it's a sort of riposte to Dickens and the idea that people might be poor but they're happy. Marc [Munden, the director] was keen to get that darkness" referencing third world slums rather than "cheerful chimney sweeps and market stalls."
The epic nature of the book also cried out for a series that could portray a sense of scale. Origin Pictures managed to tie up its BBC2 commission with help from Fremantlemedia (with whom it has a first look deal), Lipsync Post and a Canadian co pro agreement with Cite-Amerique (which meant three weeks of studio shooting in Canada) but, even so, the production needed some ingenuity to achieve that sense of scale. "In a world of diminishing budgets what tends to happen is [shows] get more interior," says producer Steve Lightfoot. "We tried hard to keep the sense of scale and show the world as it would have been at the time."
And to achieve that, the team needed to think beyond London for locations. "Trying to find big Victorian streets in London that are remotely filmable on," is difficult, says Lightfoot. And on a TV budget you can't close them. So the street scenes were done in Liverpool "which gave the piece some real scope." A lot of grand Victorian architecture in London is also a little too perfect, says production designer Grant Montgomery. "The buildings [in the period] were black because of the chimneys and fires. If you're trying to do a decayed kind of Victorian world, London's all cleaned up and very expensive to shoot in."
The locations also took in Somerset House, Waddesdon Manor, Disraeli’s house Hughenden Manor, and a building in Rochester that once served as a brothel. The filming also required the team to take over a private Georgian house that served as the Rackham family home where they repainted and furnished the place while the residents moved into a back room for the duration.
The main location required a lot too. Sugar lives in the Rookery, a slum world of three storey wooden shacks and dirt floors that crouched beneath the Victorian architecture that surrounded it in the St Giles area of London - a tall order to recreate in central London but perfect for Manchester Town Hall. "It's built around an internal courtyard so what you end up with is a more or less triangular inner space that's walled at all sides," says Lightfoot. "We built our stuff into it and it gave us this 360 degree set that we could walk round and shoot in any direction."
The location's closed off nature also meant there were "no problems with controlling traffic," says Montgomery. We could just let loose in there." It also meant the production could dump several tons of earth in there too as well as recreating a traditional Victorian open sewer. "The mud was a big issue," says Montgomery. "It looked like a First World War battle scene, but it gave it the atmosphere that you really didn't want to live down there."
Adapted from Michel Faber's sprawling novel, the drama tells the story of Sugar (Romola Garai), a young prostitute in 1870s London who yearns for a better life. She meets a wealthy businessman, William Rackham (Chris O'Dowd) who feels hemmed in by the strictures of his life and sets Sugar up as his mistress. Although set in the Victorian era, the language and tone of the book and the film are not. Graphic, visceral and disturbing, it is described as the sort of book Dickens would have written if he'd been allowed to.
Director Marc Munden and DoP Lol Crawley felt the script demanded the photography should avoid costume drama cliche and reflect the claustrophobic and unsettling tone: "We tested Canon K35 lenses, which are these old 70s lenses that had an interesting fall off in terms of their focus," says Crawley. "As soon as we started to get physically close to a subject, it was like crawling over them with a microscope. When we had a two shot I would be a foot away pulling focus from a veil to the eyes and back over the skin. So you're really examining the textures and the faces as the woozy, crawling camera wanders around these different textures. Then for the wide shots you jump out to a very low angle. The heads and conversations were played very low in the frame with a lot of negative space so you've got these low, wide angles intercut with these very intense close up, crawling cameras shots."
Although staying faithful to the era was crucial to production designer Grant Montgomery, so was reflecting the story's disturbing tone which meant "bringing in a lot of influences" from outside the period. The brothel was influenced by South America. And we wanted it to be slightly 'voodoo princess' and a really disturbing experience. The walls were painted with deep reds and we patterned Mary Magdalene pictures with Victorian photographic pornography and candles so it becomes sort of shrine. It's definitely not straight period."
PRODUCTION COMPANY: Origin Pictures
TX DATE: March 2011
ON SCREEN TALENT: Romola Garai (Emma, Atonement), Chris O'Dowd (IT Crowd), Gillian Anderson, Richard E Grant, Shirley Henderson, Amanda Hale, Mark Gatiss
CAMERAS: Red One with Canon K35 lenses
POST PRODUCTION: Lipsync Post
LOCATIONS: Various including Manchester Town Hall, Somerset House, Waddesdon Manor
Commissioning editors: BBC drama controller Ben Stephenson and head of BBC2 Janice Hadlow
Exec producer, BBC: Lucy Richer
Producer: David Thompson
Producer: Steven Lightfoot
Director: Marc Munden
DoP: Lol Crawley
Writer: Lucinda Coxon adapted the script from the Michel Faber novel
Production designer: Grant Montgomery
Casting director: Nina Gold
With the new rules for paid for product placement within UK television shows due to kick in this month, Televisual asked who will product placement benefit most; broadcasters or indies?
Business manager, sponsorship, placement, funded content, C4
We are hoping that the answer will be "both". Given Channel 4's unique position as publisher-broadcaster and supporter of the indie sector, we're pleased to be working hand in hand with indies to establish and execute the opportunities around this new revenue stream, and are in the process of negotiating how those revenues will be split. In order to run successful product placement campaigns, it is imperative that this is a close working relationship, and we’re looking forward to presenting our first PP opportunities with Hollyoaks to the market, fully in conjunction with Lime later in February.
Chief executive, Pact
The new rules surrounding the relaxation of product placement have to perform a balancing act between providing much-needed revenue streams for programmes (which are no longer fully funded by the broadcaster) and maintaining the audience's faith in the content. Pact was very involved in helping to frame the guidelines and this was the principle which underpinned all of our meetings. Going forward, for product placement to work it has to address funding concerns for both independent producers and broadcasters and there needs to be real benefits for both. In the end we need to ensure that product placement produces new revenue.
Md, Lime Pictures
There's a real opportunity for indies and broadcasters to work together on mutually beneficial projects. Although I understand broadcast commercial teams may want to lead on the majority of deals, it must be true to say that agencies or clients spending the money will want to look the person in the eye who will be responsible for delivery i.e. the producer. It is equally obvious that your average indie won't have as many agency contacts or as much industry intelligence as the sales teams. So, two interlinked, equally important teams playing to their strengths, with a share of revenue that reflects that combined approach and we'll all be happy - as long as both parties act with creative integrity taking priority over commercial opportunity.
Sponsorship and brand content specialist, Pulse Films
Product placement will, over time, create a crucial new revenue stream for broadcasters and indies. Indies must keep a firm eye on the way in which products will be used - editorial integrity and clever creative must win through for everyone to benefit. In the short term, ITV is best placed to manage product placement as they work with many in-house producers. Coronation Street and Emmerdale (from the pub to the corner shop) are often cited as perfect opportunities, however commercial broadcasters must demonstrate that product placement can drive additional revenue and not take significant money away from spot advertising and sponsorship.