How to make a costume drama

Thursday, 15 March 2012

As Parade's End becomes the latest high-profile production to shoot at Freemasons' Hall, Oscar-winning producer David Parfitt tells Luke Turton why he enjoys filming there


Benedict Cumberbatch is in earnest conversation with a colleague as he hurries down a long corridor that leads to the huge bronze doors opening into the Grand Temple at Freemasons’ Hall. Cutting a dash in an Edwardian three-piece suit, the actor abruptly stops when a small woman with a big voice bellows, ‘Cut!’

Cumberbatch is shooting a scene for the BBC adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End novels. Set between the twilight of the Edwardian era and the end of the First World War, the tetralogy charts the love triangle between English aristocrat Christopher Tietjens, played by Cumberbatch, his beautiful but cruel wife Sylvia, and Valentine, a young suffragette he falls in love with. The two central novels follow Tietjens’ exploits in the army in France and Belgium, as well as Sylvia and Valentine in their separate paths over the course of the war.

An imposing art deco building in Covent Garden, Freemasons’ Hall has had a close working relationship with Film London, which aims to grow the capital’s film industry, since 2001. Today, it is doubling up as – among other things – the Department of Statistics for Parade’s End. ‘This is supposed to be the lobby of one of the most modern government offices and that’s meant to be the outside world,’ laughs Oscar-winning producer David Parfitt as he points behind the camera to the Grand Temple. ‘The novels are set between 1912 and 1918, so we’re slightly ahead of ourselves with Freemasons’ Hall. But the architecture is classic enough for it to look like a modern building from about 1910.’

With a career that has seen him working alongside Kenneth Branagh and Robert De Niro in 1994’s Frankenstein, and Gwyneth Paltrow and Dame Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love in 1998, Parfitt has recently finished post-production on My Week With Marilyn. ‘The scale of the shoot is not dissimilar to Marilyn but that was eight weeks and this is nearly seventeen. We’re on day seventy now, which is tough,’ says Parfitt. ‘We’ve shot in the Home Counties, in Yorkshire, Belgium for six weeks, and chose Freemasons’ Hall when we got back.’

Next to the Department of Statistics, in the Grand Temple’s entrance hall, builders are putting up a mini set of a Belgian drinking club for a scene to be shot later in the day. Parfitt explains that the crew didn’t get all that they needed at the end of a very busy shoot in Belgium. ‘But it’s a fairly close-up shot and we’ve brought along one piece of the set. We’ll patch the sequence together in post-production.’ The builders are politely but loudly requested to stop hammering and drilling while Parfitt and his crew shoot the corridor scene again.

finding the right fit

‘Stand by to shoot. Rolling. And action!’ Cumberbatch strides down the corridor with Stephen Graham, who currently plays Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire. Pulled along on a trolley by a frantic assistant, the camera hurtles down the passage in front of Cumberbatch and Graham, but something isn’t right. ‘Reset, go again!’ The camera is rolled back and the scene starts once more, with the two actors hitting their marks perfectly for what must be the twentieth time that morning. Finally, the director is happy and it’s time for a break. The actors retire to the Grand Temple, now a temporary changing room.

Having shot at Freemasons’ Hall over 1994-95 for The Wings of the Dove, which starred Helena Bonham Carter, Parfitt is keen to make as much use of the building as he can. ‘We’ll make the upper balcony into a grand opera box,’ he says pointing upwards enthusiastically in the entrance hall. ‘The Hall is unique architecturally – it’s in London so it’s accessible and there’s always a part of the building you can use. We were looking at Victoria House, up the road, as a possible location but you can only use that at weekends,’ says Parfitt, adding that experience has taught him to view buildings like Freemasons’ Hall in a very different way. ‘You’ve got to stand back and not be fooled by the geography of the building. When we first came into the Hall, we all had to come up the stairs into this area. We’ve now decided that, for the purposes of Parade’s End, this is ground level so you don’t have to worry about shooting the stairs. It’s all about making those leaps and using specific elements rather than being slavish to the layout.’

Adapted for television by British playwright Tom Stoppard, the five-hour series is due to air in the second half of 2012 on BBC2. We can look forward to a stunning rendition of the novel, with Cumberbatch joined on screen by the likes of Rupert Everett and Miranda Richardson. Viewers can also get extra points for spotting Freemasons’ Hall in
its many supporting roles.

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