Netflix’s royal drama, The Crown, is rumored to have cost over $100 million—a fitting price tag for a show about British royalty. The show, which recreates the tumultuous early reign of Queen Elizabeth II (skillfully played by Claire Foy), features — not surprisingly— exquisite costumes and sets. But the program’s most innovative achievement isn’t its reproduction of monarchal pomp. It’s the ability to effectively merge Royal abundance with the tattered frugality of post-war Britain.
“You can’t have drama without contrast,” says production designer Martin Childs. He’s dreamed up sets for many films, including Shakespeare In Love, Mr. Holmes, and Much Ado About Nothing. “From the very beginning, executive producer Stephen Daldry and I were keen to recreate a world of austerity.”
Maintaining this contrast accentuates the show’s historical accuracy. “It’s important for us to remember that Britain in 1952 was still in a very tough place. Rationing had only recently concluded, and Britain had suffered tremendously,” says Marquette University historian Steve Frieder, an expert on the British royal family. Achieving that balance wasn’t easy. “Frugality on screen can look like impoverishment in film-making,” says Childs, who chose to stress subtleness rather than “hammer the point home.” The walls of 10 Downing Street are peeling, but only here and there; the lights in Royal residence Clarence House flicker sporadically.
“We have the luxury of an audience returning to sets several times to check out the state of distress. In a shorter format what we did might be seen as accidental or neglectful, rather than a depiction of neglect.”
The irony is recreating a state of deterioration was expensive. The team shot at a variety of locations, particularly historic homes like Wilton House near Salisbury and Lancaster House in London, which they couldn’t alter look like they’d just survived the war. Instead, they built sets and combined the real with the make believe.
Their most ambitious recreations at Elstree Studios outside London include mockups of Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street, places they could never dream of filming. Despite some adjustments (set designers raised ceilings and doors of faux Downing to accommodate John Lithgow, who stands a foot taller than Winston Churchill), they hewed as closely to reality as possible. Rooms from historic houses filled in when possible to create another layer of realism. Buckingham ultimately consisted of two sets and rooms from six historic homes.
“If you make a left in Goldsmiths’ Hall then you’d appear at the end of corridor A on our set on Stage One at Elstree, or if you disappear through a doorway in Lancaster House you’ll wind up in the Queen’s study at Wilton,” says Childs.
Although the production team preferred real shots, it used a little CGI. But Childs insisted no more than one-third of the screen could feature digital effects. “Our VFX people were more than happy to run with this, to keep their work out of focus, keep it framed in a window to throw it away almost. Never to present the impossible by filling the screen with it.” He adds: “If your drama depends on a helicopter shot of London in the 1940s, a sophisticated audience knows very well it’s fake.”
Still more resources went into research. A full team of experts, working for both the show’s writers and designers, poured through archival films of London, books, magazines, paintings, and feature films from the time.
The show makers fused the look with a shooting style that gave the final product a duller quality. “Digital cameras have a tendency to give an unwelcome crispness to period drama. A kind of hyper-reality that wouldn’t sit well with austerity, with distress, nor with the integration of archive. It’s perfect for Planet Earth II, less so for recreating a brown and grey past,” Childs says.
As in fashion, sometimes the hardest look to pull off is the one that looks the least put together. Take heed, Royal wannabes.