“We’re going to build it.”
Welcome to the second #book2screenmagicmonday. Today I’m sharing some #behindthescenes glimpses into the process that James North and his team went through to recreate the period atmosphere. Next week, we’re going to look at the details of set dressing and props. This week, it’s about the Big Build.
As a historian of sixteenth-century London, I was understandably concerned about how we were going to replicate a city that had, thanks to fire and World War II bombings, almost completely disappeared. Certain aspects of Elizabethan London–its crowdedness, the way the buildings were constructed, the use of space, the unique skyline–were going to be impossible for us to find anywhere else. I know. I’ve looked for such a place so that I could share it with my students. People always point to the Shambles at York, or an isolated street here or there, but honestly this doesn’t do much to give a sense of what London was like. London, then and know, was greater than the sum of its individual parts.
So imagine my skepticism when James said “It’s ok, Debs, we’re going to build it.” Build a city that extended over a square mile, had a wall wrapped around it, and had more than a hundred churches in it?
Then James took me to the farm. Yes, the farm. It was mostly mud and sawdust the first time I saw it, with a few crumbling old buildings made of stone, a shed or two, and a lot of people wearing safety vests. But when I stepped through the gate to London–really a giant barn door–I was absolutely speechless. Somehow, James had worked a miracle. He’d built the Blackfriars in a field in Wales. It had twisty streets, three-story houses, a tavern, a blacksmith’s shop, a wax chandler, a print shop, a water landing (!) for the boats to come and go, and of course the Hart and Crown.
It’s pretty well known that I burst into tears when I saw the Bodleian Library set, because it was so perfect. I was so overwhelmed by Elizabethan Blackfriars I just stood there, eyes wide and heart beating, trying to take it all in.
And it wasn’t just Elizabethan London that James had to magic out of thin air. So, too, he had to build three complicated interiors for the sixteenth century: the Hart and Crown, Sept-Tours, and Rudolf II’s palace and curiosity cabinet. As you will see next week, the amazing work that had been done to build the structures was only part of the challenge James and his team faced. They had to see to every detail in every room so that when the cast showed up for filming they really believed–as I did–they they had time walked to 1590.
There’s more information in the captions, so be sure to check that out and I’ll be back next week with all the DETAILS that James, Dan, Kate and the rest of the team made and found to dress and decorate the sets.

The gate to Elizabethan London. It was through this magic portal–an old barn– that James and his team built what was to become Elizabethan London.

 

Whenever possible, James built against existing structures. The little shed in the background was part of the original farm buildings. James had plans for it–until the safety officer proclaimed it to be too unstable to film in, even if it were given structural support.

 

As the sets went up, it was clear that something very special was happening in the Welsh countryside.

One of the team working on the Sept-Tour interior to recreate the period’s “bulls-eye” glass.

Water Lane begins to take shape.

I had to climb up to get a better view of the way the street seemed to curve into the distance–just like the real Water Lane would have done as it extended down to the Thames.

No roof, no windows, and no set dressing, but one day this will be the printing shop in the Blackfriars.

The tavern where Kit and his friends hang out–here showing the way that electricity was run so as not to be seen, and the existing old farm buildings were used to provide the shell for James’s work.

London wasn’t the only challenge. This is the beginning of Rudolf II’s kunstkammer, the room where he kept his treasures like The Book of Life.

This shot gives a great sense of the way in which James and his team built sets that provided open ceilings for lights and cameras, but still retained a sense of period architecture. This is the team working on the interior of Sept-Tours for Series 2.

Upstairs at the indoor set for Diana and Matthew’s house, the Hart and Crown, there was a platform to hold crew, cast, and equipment during filming. First, however, it provided the perfect spot for staining all the wood that went into the interiors.