Watching movies and shows has always been a modern-day luxury of escaping our lives and getting transported to another realm. What better way to do this than indulge in the lives of the British aristocracy of centuries past? To meander through those castles, wrestle through possibilities of romance, courting, and secrets that pass on from one lady to the next as they eye the newest catch in town. British period dramas have been brought on screen with life-like locations, furniture, lighting, and costumes, and watching these is a feast for the eyes and transports the viewer into a life they never lived.
The Crown | British Period Dramas
The Crown depicts the life of Queen Elizabeth II, starting with her marriage to Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh, and leading up to the events of the early 21st century.
As it wasn’t possible to film in Buckingham Palace, the production designer Martin Childs had to recreate the interior spaces across different castles from the British countryside, showing the hallway in Lancaster house merging subtly with the private residences in Wilton House. Cathedrals have also been used extensively. The Ely Cathedral, for example, was used to film crucial scenes from Westminster Abbey, namely Queen Elizabeth’s marriage and her coronation.
The crew occasionally used CGI to ensure accuracy in the dimensions of the palace exteriors. However, they tried to adhere to a strict policy of only recreating one-third of any shot digitally. The main parts of the palace were created for the set: the central section of Buckingham Palace, the gates, gate posts, and its distinctive balconies.
The show also relied on period-appropriate props, which included ornate sections, old clocks, and candelabras. When the required rented props weren’t available for an episode, the team had to creatively turn to create a new room in Buckingham Palace with different but just as decadent furniture.
An important interior location was the long gallery at Lancaster House, which used to show scenes with a grand scale, to emphasise these events. It was set up meticulously for the proposed visit of the American president: from the dusting of the chairs to the placement of crystal glasses, silverware, and flowers, which the servants are seen assembling and later taking down when the visit is cancelled. While Buckingham Palace holds the central character’s storyline, other important spaces created are the house of Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister: a simple set up with an adjoining studio where he often painted. The Windsors, the Queen’s uncle, and his wife live an extravagant and tasteful lifestyle, and their home contrasts the spaces in England to emphasise the choice to live a different lifestyle from the family that shunned them.
Bridgerton is a period romance drama based on the set of novels written by Julia Quinn and is based in the 1800s, in the Regency period of British history. The Regency period was a lavish time in British history, from 1811 when George IV became Regent (acting ruler) of the United Kingdom. It ended with Queen Victoria ascending the throne in 1837, marking the start of the Victorian era.
The story revolves around the lives of the Bridgerton family, the children of the recently late Viscount Bridgerton. Britain was filled with art, luxuries, and grand gestures during this period. At the request of George IV, England’s famously luxurious Regent Street was made, along with Regent’s park. Bridgerton showcases the opulent lifestyle of the upper classes during this period. The show delves into the courting season when the high society aristocrats would come to London from their country estates to conduct business. This event was an opportunity for all seeking respectable hands in marriage. Debutantes, bachelors, and their families attended multiple balls, the opera, and the theatre multiple times in the hope of finding the perfect match.
The production designer of season 2, Will- Hughe Jones, did a great deal of research for the show, from scouring country houses to understand the right proportions of spaces to scan art galleries to find the correct paintings to match the language of costumes worn by the Bridgertons. An interesting thing to note is the use of tricks by the production design team to make filming easier. Instances with hundreds of flowers use fake ones to prevent drooping. The cobblestone street was built using rubber so horses and carriages could glide across it easily. However, the crew borrowed an authentic Stanhope printing press from the Reading Museum for Lady Whistledown’s use. There are only two of these in existence.
Downton Abbey | British Period Dramas
Downton Abbey portrays the years 1912-1926. In England, these years saw rapid changes in society, with the rise of the working class and the decline of the aristocracy. The show starts with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. The series portrays the Downton family, the Crawleys. Across the seasons, the Crawleys and their household live through World War 1, the Spanish Influenza pandemic, economic shifts, and rapid social changes. This period was a critical point in history when tradition and modernity collided.
Most of the filming was done at Highclere Castle, the castle and estate where the family resides. The advantage of Highclere’s rooms was that they were all different in style, even though the overall architectural style of the house is classified as Gothic Revival. The designers chose to keep most furnishings of the house intact. They did need to buy some period-appropriate furniture such as furniture, photo frames, cutlery, lamps, and dishware. The scenes in the servant quarters downstairs were shot in the studio in London. The production directors wanted to emphasise the contrast between the two. Hence these sets showing the servant quarters are dim and spartan. The castle, on the other hand, has spaces that are rich, sophisticated, and lavish to emphasise the two separate worlds living under one roof. To depict the timeline in history as authentically as possible, the show’s designers thoroughly looked through interior photos and conducted interviews with a range of people. One such case was interviewing the National Army in London to work on war scenes in battlefield tents and bunkers.
Changes are also made in the castle across seasons as per the need. For example, in Season 2, parts of Downton are temporarily used as convalescent homes. Numerous makeshift changes were made in the house: the library served as a games room for the wounded officers, the main hall was used as their canteen, and the lavish family drawing room was neatly stuffed with beds for the wounded. According to the set decorator, Judy Farr, the lighting was updated with time to show a natural transition from gas to electric fixtures.
The cinematography in British period dramas added another dimension to setting the stage for this story. To create a more distinct contrast between life upstairs and downstairs, the camera shots of the main family and spaces upstairs are framed to be very static and beautiful. On the other hand, the world downstairs is filled with energy and has a visible bustle.
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Zemler, E. (2022) Get an early look at the regency–style sets of Bridgerton season two, Architectural Digest India. Available at: https://www.architecturaldigest.in/story/the-regency-style-sets-of-netflix-bridgerton-season-two/ (Accessed: January 1, 2023).
Giardina, C. (2021) How ‘bridgerton,’ ‘the Crown’ and ‘Halston’ production designers re-created grandiose settings, The Hollywood Reporter. The Hollywood Reporter. Available at: https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/tv/tv-news/bridgerton-the-crown-halston-set-design-1234993025/ (Accessed: January 1, 2023).
Morgan, L. and Fernandez, J. (2016) Go inside the filming locations of the Crown, Architectural Digest. Architectural Digest. Available at: https://www.architecturaldigest.com/gallery/set-design-and-filming-locations-of-the-crown?redirectURL=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.architecturaldigest.com%2Fgallery%2Fset-design-and-filming-locations-of-the-crown (Accessed: January 1, 2023).
Ivie, D. (2017) How the Crown re-created Buckingham Palace without actually filming there, Vulture. Available at: https://www.vulture.com/2017/12/how-the-crown-recreated-buckingham-palace.html (Accessed: January 1, 2023).
Rosalyn (2021) Downton Abbey Timeline explained: Every season & movie, Tumblr. Available at: https://rosalyn51.tumblr.com/post/651377790223073280/downton-abbey-timeline-explained-every-season (Accessed: January 1, 2023).