Lucy Montgomery and Rhys Thomas, the writers of CBBC’s Dodger, explain how the three new specials of the drama came about. The pair also star in and produce the shows with Thomas also directing.
The aim for the three Dodger specials was to ramp up the ambition even further from the first series – making the episodes more filmic, bolder than ever in its storytelling and to get Dodger out and about in some unexpected places. The first special – Train – saw Dodger rob a moving train. The Christmas special found Dodger breaking into No 10 Downing Street. So, what about the third? We realised from the ‘Imposter’ episode in the first series (where Dodger finds himself trapped in the bosom of a rich family) that there was a lot of comedy to be had from placing him out of his comfort zone. How would our lovable scamp fare in an elite Victorian public school – a place with strict teachers, Latin mottos and loads of rules? We created the fictional school, St Albion’s, for our fish out of water comedy.
Like series one and the first two specials, we wrote and appeared in the Easter special, with Rhys also directing. For this special, we gave ourselves lighter acting roles and, except for gang member Tom, many of the lead series characters also took a back seat in ‘Bad Egg’. The world of the lair and the pub fades from view as Dodger learns to live with the top one percent of Victorian society. In the writing stage, we drew inspiration from several classic films – there’s a dash of Dead Poets’ Society, our take on the famous champagne hurdles scene in Chariots of Fire and a nod to All the Presidents Men. With an intrepid school newspaper reporter named Woodward and, perhaps unexpectedly for a family show, a gang who bear more than a passing resemblance to the terrifying droogs in A Clockwork Orange. As has become a Dodger staple, this Easter special features some very exciting comedy guest stars – Matthew Holness as the wise headmaster and Harry Peacock of Toast of London fame as the furious sports master.
We needed a knock-out location, as the scenes in the school made up the bulk of the story. Our location manager Jake Sainsbury found exactly what we needed at Clifton College in Bristol with its beautiful chapel and grounds. The boarding houses were too modern so we shot the dormitory scenes at the Georgian House Museum in the centre of the city. The old library at Wells Cathedral doubled for the school library. Filming took place over the sweltering summer break.
The logistical challenges included one character escaping an art room kiln and another emerging from a tomb. As always it was a team effort. Our art director David Ferris built a kiln from scratch. Then, using the Chariots of Fire champagne on hurdles race as a template, our DOP Pete Rowe shot the races in one continuous take using the Ronin. Our costume designer Jacqueline Mills scoured archive photos of Victorian public schoolboys to get the uniforms just right.
As with any production, there were a couple hair-raising moments too. The episode opens with a heist in an art gallery where Fagin and the gang attempt to steal a priceless Faberge style egg. Due to some logistical shifts, Christopher Eccleston’s (Fagin) scenes were rewritten as flashback instructions to the gang and were shot later in the studio. It worked better than originally scripted, giving the scene an added urgency.
Another hurdle we had to overcome was creating the impression of a teeming public school without having hundreds of extras. Luckily Jim Solan at Dock10 in Manchester was just the CGI wizard we needed. In a scene where Dodger and Tom exit their prison van to find themselves in the schoolyard, he trebled our population of schoolboys. The crushing heat was another factor to contend with. Some of our actors were wearing three-piece suits, in a boiling library, with a lot of dialogue. Additionally shooting with children and the limited filming hours really ramped up the time pressure a thousand-fold. The droog style school vandals smash up an antique shop in the final scene. By then we were at Bottle Yard studios with only fifty seconds to go. With only a few smashable props left, the boys went for it, Malcolm McDowell style. And… CUT! With nifty editing from Chris Bird the final scene worked a treat.
The third and final Dodger special, ‘Bad Egg’, airs on BBC One on Saturday 8th April at 3:45PM. The special, along with series one and the first two specials are available now on BBC iPlayer.
Written by Rhys Thomas and Lucy Montgomery.
The Dodger specials and series one were commissioned for CBBC by Commissioning Editor, Amy Buscombe and are produced by Universal International Studios, a division of Universal Studio Group.
Mark Freeland is Executive Producer for Universal International Studios. Rhys Thomas and Lucy Montgomery also serve as Executive Producers, with Marcus Collier and Jessie Hawthorn as Producers. NBCUniversal Global Distribution is handling international sales.
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