I admit it, I love watching tv and films and going to the theatre. It must be something to do with the visual spectacle and the response it inspires in me. But it’s not just the script that I’m relating to, the setting and costumes are just as important. In any production this is the visual aspect that helps an actor to develop his character. I love this part of story telling because people seem to be largely oblivious to the role of the production designer, it’s always about the director’s vision. But let’s not forget, designers work to a brief.
Two such productions spring to mind from the last few weeks – Sherlock ‘The Sign of Three’ and Death Comes to Pemberley – both BBC crime dramas and as different from each other as night is to day, but both in their own way creating a visual spectacle. (For those who don’t know ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’ is a sequel to ‘Pride and Prejudice’ by Jane Austen. Written by P D James, it centres around a crime on the Pemberley estate six years after the end of Pride and Prejudice.)
So how did I come to compare the two productions? What inspired me about these two sets? The unashamed use of colour. Most television dramas seem to require more neutral backdrops or such tight shots that the background is simply blurred and thus rendered neutral. Not these two productions. In every sequence shot on these two sets, the colour was lovingly placed between the characters. The dialogue was delivered across a background that had as much presence as the actors did. But here’s the trick, instead of fading away, those backgrounds were chosen to support the action, to underpin the dialogue of the characters in such a way as to visually assert that these people are strong, individual and passionate.
But they’re period interiors, I hear you say, the taste of the Georgian era is different to our own and it’s not how we live today. Very true, but colour is just colour and neither of these sets is alien to our current understanding of the characters; Sherlock we know to be eccentric, wildly intelligent and disarming, Elizabeth and Darcy from the beloved book Pride and Prejudice, we know to be principled, caring and outspoken. They look at home on the sets they were given, if either production had presented us with a room that was shell pink for example, we might not have noticed the set at all. These dramas are about strong personalities and the production designers gave us strong sets to support them.
Perhaps that’s an assumption on my part but somehow, I don’t think so and it worked didn’t it? The wedding venue on Sherlock is far prettier than many I’ve seen on television and I took from it that the happy couple were confident and empowered by their union – because the characters wouldn’t choose to make a statement with their chosen venue if they were feeling hesitant. The drawing room in Death Comes to Pemberley is tranquil despite the strength of colour and gives our heroine added clout in her exchanges with Lady Catherine. What it really told us was that no shrinking violet would choose such a colour for her room. In using these strong colours, the production designers have allowed the occasion of entertaining – and the environment in which that takes place – to be a player in the drama. The set gives us a clue to the personality of the characters and how they present themselves to the wider world – including their television audience.
So, what’s the point I’m trying to make? We know ourselves better than any production designer will ever know a character and yet we don’t think about how our homes support us. Not only that, we create strong opinions about our world but then insist on a neutral (and sometimes bland, let’s be honest) interior at home. Is that a good balance? We don’t often consider that our environment has an impact on our wellbeing yet we all know that the ‘drama’ of life is stressful. We know that colour creates an emotional response but don’t explore the emotions we feel for our homes. If we don’t like where we live, how can it make us feel content or connected to the life we lead? We talk about life imitating art, well maybe it’s time that it did!
Shouldn’t we use our homes the way a production designer does a set, after all our ‘action’ is played out on the ‘set’ of our homes? This ‘set’ is part of the action of our lives and the ‘background’ that we choose for our ‘real life drama.’ If a film set creates the illusion of reality, our homes are the embodiment of imagination. If we’re prepared to allow someone else’s vision to move us, why would we not have the courage to act on our own?
And what would I do to follow my own advice? This…
It’s destined for my dining area – when the kitchen is reconfigured!
There’s a wonderful line in the film ‘the Holiday’ – “you’re supposed to be the leading lady in your own life.” Shouldn’t we feel like we have the visual support of our ‘set’ to be one?
images taken from BBC, de Gournay and Sandberg – with thanks