In the third series of Killing Eve, beguiling assassin Villanelle arrives at an apartment in Barcelona. She dumps her keys and bag and, wearing a full-length floral dress, glides towards the Art Nouveau windows, opens one and emits an operatic high note.
She is an unlikely criminal, so every mundane detail in her domestic world is a carefully chosen signal to help the audience understand more about her.
“When we design an environment, it is always based on the footprints of a character — their existence in the world,” says Casey Williams, the series set decorator, who worked with production designer Laurence Dorman to form the look and mood of the interiors in the BBC’s television spy-thriller series. Villanelle, played by Jodie Comer, revives her deadly tour of Europe, closely pursued by ex-MI6 agent Eve Polastri, played by Sandra Oh. “The sets are there to draw you into that story and to help you get lost,” says Williams.
That compulsion to “get lost” in television drama has intensified in recent months as new programmes have offered a sense of escape to viewers sequestered at home. In the first seven weeks of lockdown, 927m individual programmes were streamed on BBC iPlayer — an increase of 61 per cent on the same period last year. Research from Enders Analysis found a 75 per cent rise in “unmatched viewing” (a measure that includes on-demand services such as Netflix and Amazon) in the UK between mid-March and mid-April.
Visual storytelling plays a vital role. On any production, it is usually the job of a production designer and set decorator, working with the director and producer. They create the overall look of a project, breaking down the script into sets and sourcing every item.
No setting is more revealing than characters’ homes. “All design should inform the viewer and complement the character,” says Lucy van Lonkhuyzen, production designer for BBC drama Normal People, another lockdown hit with detailed interior set design. “Every item on set must give us a glimpse into the character’s personality before they say a word.”
Williams came to set decorating from a career in photography. She assisted on commercials and moved up to set decoration on larger productions, such as The End of the F***ing World, a Channel 4/Netflix drama, and the sitcom Flowers, by Sister Pictures for Channel 4. For the Barcelona episode in Killing Eve, she scoured Spanish prop houses for antiques and mid-century designs. “I could have propped in the UK and sent it over, but the pieces we found in Spain are rich and sumptuous. They told the story we wanted to tell,” she says.
Villanelle’s apartment is already partly furnished when she moves in. “We deliberately left some mid-century and period pieces there to create the idea that the flat had been empty for a while,” says Williams. Later, a contemporary, cardinal-red button-back sofa appears. “Villanelle has this childlike compulsion about her, so even though she is only in the apartment for a matter of weeks, she is able to nest here for a short period of time.”
In another episode, we see Villanelle’s family home in rural Russia, which was shot on a sound stage in London (the exteriors were shot in Romania). “It was important for us to use furniture and textures that told us where we were, both geographically and socio-economically,” says Williams. Using the equivalent of Gumtree, she worked with a Romanian buyer to source pieces from former communist countries that reflected the background of Villanelle’s world in a “visually seductive way”.
The search unearthed a three-piece suite and rolls of 1980s wallpaper, as well as older, heavier pieces of furniture “that would have just stayed in place for a long time”. This sense of the unchanged is reinforced during scenes when Villanelle lets herself into the house and refamiliarises herself with the kitchen, playing with the sugar bowl and inspecting the contents of a pot on the stove. Nostalgia is rife.
Another intriguing interior in this series is the home of Carolyn Martens, played by Fiona Shaw. As head of MI6’s Russian desk, Martens is professionally ruthless and unapologetically eccentric (she holds top-level meetings while in the bath). To see her character at home is revealing.
The location is Clayton House, a Grade-II listed building designed in the mid-1960s by Peter Aldington, a British architect. The house is in Buckinghamshire, though set in London for purposes of plot. We first see Martens unpacking boxes in front of a wall of bookshelves. The interiors are pure modernism: white-brick walls, clerestory windows, a spiralling, open-tread staircase.
Like Martens, the house is bold; a rejection of her past (“Your father chose our last house,” she tells her son. “And to be honest, I never liked it”). “We don’t see Martens’ previous home, but we do see elements of her more traditional past, such as her gilt mirrors and kilim rugs,” says Williams. “These are mixed with this new aesthetic.” Martens’ modernist home is where she can be herself.
Normal People , a 12-part adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel, delivered another dose of lockdown escapism — a story of first love as brutal as it is beautiful.
The show premiered on April 26 in the UK, and was streamed nearly 22m times over the following seven days, according to the BBC — more than double the previous record of 10.8m for the first series of Killing Eve in 2018.
The drama follows the relationship between two teenagers, Marianne and Connell (played by Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal). From their first awkward encounter at school, we watch them navigate the choices that repeatedly, inexorably bring them together.
The series, set in Dublin and Sligo, was produced by Element Pictures for BBC Three and Hulu. Van Lonkhuyzen’s career began 20 years ago when she trained as a production designer for Ireland’s national broadcaster RTE, and before Normal People she worked on epic period dramas including King Arthur, Vikings and The Tudors. But she is surprised by the level of scrutiny that Normal People has received. “Perhaps it is because people were made to slow down,” she says. “Viewers took time to look, to listen, to observe new things.
“The story acknowledges an existence of class structure in Ireland, which is rarely seen on camera,” van Lonkhuyzen adds. Working with the directors Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald, and the director of photography Suzie Lavelle, her job was to convey the lives of those characters within that structure.
Rooney’s original text gave the television art department very little to go on: “For Marianne’s home in Sligo, the book describes a white door and a marble floor: that was it.” Van Lonkhuyzen and the team were left to colour in the rest. The location house they found had just been bought and was standing empty. They had two weeks to dress the set “from top to bottom”, which included a new kitchen, new carpets and full decoration.
“I wanted Marianne’s house to reflect the mother, Denise. She is a Dublin-born solicitor who has moved to Sligo with her two children,” says van Lonkhuyzen. The house is decorated in shades of muted grey and taupe. There is no clutter, and very little of Marianne’s character here. “Aesthetically, the house is perfect, much of it comes directly from the pages of the interior magazines we see dotted around her kitchen,” says van Lonkhuyzen. “But the lack of those personal touches says a lot about her character.”
Denise’s seldom-mentioned husband, now deceased, was abusive, and she chooses to ignore her son’s cruel treatment of Marianne. “For her, it’s all about keeping up appearances,” says van Lonkhuyzen. “Her taste, though good, is perfunctory. Sadly it is perhaps the only thing within her control.”
By contrast, the house Connell shares with his mother Lorraine, who works as Denise’s cleaner, is intimate and welcoming. “Lorraine may not have a lot of money,” says van Lonkhuyzen, “but she cares about the house, and her son, so the house was made to feel more loving.”
Van Lonkhuyzen repainted the rooms in warmer colours and chose an oversized sofa. “The whole place was designed to feel like a hug from a good mother,” she says, pointing out the upcycled dresser in the kitchen (“Lorraine’s frugal nature”) and the collection of family snaps that lines the walls of the hallway. There are no family photographs in Marianne’s Sligo house.
Marianne’s student house, where she escapes the sterility of her mother’s home, was shot in Wellington Road, Dublin, in a terraced house that had barely been touched since 1840. “I wanted to make this Marianne’s safe place, a place where her character could flourish. While the family house was all surface, I really wanted her own space to have more layers and depth,” says van Lonkhuyzen, who filled the set with “smalls and softs” such as books, throws, Polaroids, cushions and trinkets.
Van Lonkhuyzen and her team scoured local charity shops and auction sites for props. “Everything we sourced had to be lived in,” she says. (Everything apart from Marianne’s yellow bed sheets, which were inspired by the sexually charged mess of Nan Goldin’s photograph “My Hotel Room in Valencia” and found in a bargain bin at big-box retailer The Range.)
In an effort to separate herself from her mother, Marianne brings her own sense of style to the house. Her 1970s desk lamp, for example, would not be countenanced in Sligo. Similarly, the cluttered kitchen is a deliberate contrast to her mother’s immaculate one. “The kitchen is a complete mess,” says van Lonkhuyzen. “But that’s what you get when you have a room for entertaining many friends.”
Little Fires Everywhere, the eight-part Hulu adaptation of Celeste Ng’s novel, offered viewers another detailed domestic setting to delve into. Set mostly in the late 1990s in Shaker Heights, Ohio, the drama explores fraught questions of race, sexuality, abortion and motherhood, pitting two characters, Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon) and Mia Warren (Kerry Washington), against one another.
Both inhabit very different homes. Richardson, a journalist, lives with her husband and four children in a mock-Tudor mansion; Warren, an itinerant artist, rents a nearby duplex with her teenage daughter Pearl.
“Ohio is not known for its design,” says Jessica Kender, the show’s production designer, whose credits include the TV series Dexter and the time-travelling comedy Future Man.
“Elena would have looked to the East Coast for inspiration. Brands such as Ralph Lauren and Laura Ashley would have inspired her taste, but she would be buying her matching curtains, cushions and table runners from high-end catalogues: think slightly above Pottery Barn,” says Kender.
Warren, by contrast, moves into the duplex with only her clothes and her art supplies. Reluctantly, she makes a second-hand home for herself and her daughter.
“I drew on the way I decorated my college dorm and first apartment,” says Kender. “You gradually see the empty space filling up, but Kerry [Washington] was very keen for us to keep the set minimal: she wanted her bed to stay on the floor.”
That sense of impermanence is reflected in Warren’s home, the contents of which, ultimately, have to be able to fit on the roof of her car.
The Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown may have increased audience appetite for transportive production design, but they have also left those who create and build such immersive interiors in a state of uncertainty, as the television industry struggles to restart filming.
According to van Lonkhuyzen, in Ireland, two of the country’s four prop houses have closed because of the pandemic. “Work stopped overnight for all of us,” says van Lonkhuyzen, who was three weeks away from shooting the Netflix series Vikings: Valhalla when lockdown came into effect.
“Everything is just a huge unknown,” says Williams. who is based in London. “We [in the film industry] don’t work like anyone else. It’s a huge collaborative effort and I just don’t know how that will work with social distancing.”
Kender, who is based in Los Angeles, agrees: “Our industry is so familial. We see each other every day for nine months. We are physically close to each other all the time. I can’t see how that can change.”
The introduction of working pods or circles could see filming restart in the UK in the autumn, with more linear shoots (such as adverts) starting sooner. Kender predicts a slower start for the US; she does not expect to return to work until January 2021.
In the UK, Williams envisages a new world, with longer turnround between hires, as prop houses ensure the virus is not transmitted via stock. On set, cleaning crews will regularly disinfect handheld props.
Inevitably, filming will cost more, but will that mean set design will be less lavish or detailed? Kender predicts that, ultimately, the industry will adapt. “Smaller shows will die out because of increased costs,” she says.
“But budgets will increase, and the viewing audience won’t see a difference in what we do. This is just a little bit of a change in the script.”
‘Killing Eve’ and ‘Normal People’ are available for streaming on BBC iPlayer; ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ is available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video
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