Making a drama out of a classic

Matthew Rhys and Anna Maxwell-Martin
Matthew Rhys and Anna Maxwell-Martin
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Christmas needs a lavish period drama – and this year Yorkshire is providing the backdrop. Nick Ahad visits the set of Death Comes to Pemberley.

It’s one of those beautiful summer days with which we were blessed this year. The sort of summer’s day you are probably now beginning to wonder was a figment of our collective imaginations.

The ancient streets of York are heaving with tourists and many of them are gathering around the Minster. Well, obviously – the tourists who come to York always gather around the Minster – but today there is an added attraction.

Several, in fact: namely, the highly attractive cast who are bringing to life an enormously popular, sumptuous murder mystery, set in the elegance of the world of Jane Austen.

Yes, Death Comes to Pemberley really does tick all the boxes for a perfect festive television treat, one of those shows that the BBC selects to screen at those increasingly rare moments when families gather around the box together to watch a Christmas TV show.

The cast on set today, who are bringing throngs of people to stand around the edge of metal barriers and crane their necks hoping for a glimpse, are bona fide television and movie stars.

There’s Anna Maxwell Martin as Elizabeth Bennett, the interesting and intense actress who is known for appearing in period dramas that feature brains as well as bonnets. There’s Jenna Coleman as Lydia Wickham, formerly of this parish when she played Jasmine in Emmerdale and went on to play Clara Oswald opposite Matt Smith’s Doctor Who.

There’s Matthew Goode as George Wickham, a genuine movie star who has been seen in the big screen versions of Brideshead Revisited and in cult comic classic Watchmen.

Not enough? The final attraction for the crowds on set today is Matthew Rhys, who takes on the part of Darcy himself, the Welsh actor currently one of a crop of Brits seemingly taking over high class American television drama.

It’s an impressive cast. How has this cream of the crop been brought to Yorkshire to film a television show? Jenna Coleman and Matthew Goode look entirely nonplussed by the question.

Goode, who is a foul-mouthed, wildly mischievous presence, announces: “I’m having another child, a second baby girl, so I don’t want to be in the far flung corners of the earth, which is where I generally am. Plus, it’s a brilliant cast – and they asked me to do it and I love money! I’m a total whore.”

When she has finished giggling at her intensely charismatic co-star, Coleman composes herself enough to question the question.

“Why wouldn’t I be working here? Beautiful locations and I love working in the British film industry,” she says.

This is a big production.

The BBC has teamed up with Origin Pictures to make the three-part series being screened over Christmas and are filming it in the region because of support from Screen Yorkshire.

Based on the book Death Comes to Pemberley by PD James, it is a typically PD James novel – there’s a murder and there’s a hunt to find the killer. The added element is that this is a murder set in a very specific world – the world of Jane Austen.

Taking the characters Austen created in Pride and Prejudice, PD James took Darcy, Elizabeth Bennett et al, and put them in the middle of a murder mystery, set six years after Austen left them happily ever after. Producers David Thompson and Eliza Mellor are on set today and they are unequivocal about why the production, which has seen filming take place at Harewood House, Castle Howard and Chatsworth House, has come to 
Yorkshire.

“We see Yorkshire as the Hollywood 
of England,” says David Thompson. He does so without a hint of sarcasm. “Seriously – and we see this as just the beginning. Screen Yorkshire is really supporting the industry, not just with companies like us, but throughout the industry and on a number of brilliant projects.

“Without the backing of Screen Yorkshire, I don’t think we could have come up here to make this show. It’s bloody hard to make these shows and very expensive. To put all that earth down out there costs thousands and thousands. We’ve got horses, geese, cattle, chickens – and never mind the actors. All of that costs a lot of money.

“When you do a production like this, you can either do it half-cocked or full steam and we have done this the right way.”

They have definitely gone at it full steam.

The “earth” Thompson refers to putting down is several tonnes of mud that now cover the outside of the Treasurer’s House, which is serving as a base for today’s shoot.

It covers the courtyard and the front of the building where hundreds of tourists and visitors have gathered to watch the action unfold. It all looks seriously impressive and the folk hired to look after the various animals on set are being kept busy. Behind the scenes, the attention to detail is equally impressive.

Ivan Day is a food historian who works alongside Heston Blumenthal – he was drafted in to lend even the food that appears on camera a historical accuracy.

“He made theses incredible cakes, and jelly using moulds originally from the 1800s,” says producer Thompson. “There is the legendary white soup that appears in a lot of Austen’s books – it’s made with chicken and alcohol and it is really very potent.”

The attention to detail, the makers behind the show hope, will be squeezed into every frame. The writer charged with turning the work of Austen, by way of PD James, is Juliette Towhidi, the writer of the smash hit movie Calendar Girls.

“The characters, the wit, Elizabeth Bennett, in many ways it’s the perfect novel really,” she says. “It did feel a little daunting initially, but there is such a wonderful marriage between the two books, between the PD James book and the characters Austen created.

“I wanted to honour the original novel, but also bring some of the joy of PD James’s book. Once I got under way, I just enjoyed it so much.”

The trouble of course is that in many ways, as sumptuous as it looks, as high quality as those all involved are, they are on something of a hiding to nothing. Three high-profile screenings at prime time on three consecutive evenings starting on Boxing Day – it’s not exactly low key. How can the show’s makers satisfy those who want a big Christmas bauble of a show, fans of PD James and the even more difficult to please fans of Austen?

“My job,” says writer Towhidi, “Is to retain the essence of the original books, the main plot beats of the PD James story and to remain faithful to the wonderful characters.

“There is a lot of pressure. It’s going to be really scary when it’s actually on and people are coming with their expectations. I expect us to get picked to pieces a little bit.”

Producer Thompson is, it’s fair to say, a little more bullish about the prospects for this major new piece of television.

“We read the book and went after it very passionately and against some pretty stiff competition,” he says.

“It was a bit like studying for an exam – we spent three or four days really intensively looking at the book ahead of a meeting with PD James and made it really clear that we understood the book, knew what it was about and why we wanted to do it.

“It’s a murder mystery, a mixture of several powerful love stories, it’s thrilling and emotionally powerful. It’s an unusual combination. I have wanted to do a Jane Austen for a long time, but they have been done so many times before that you have to find something new, something different, an unusual take on it all - this felt like the perfect answer, something with a real twist on the whole thing.”

So he’s convinced.

How about Jenna Coleman, who appears to have Christmas cornered, what with playing Lydia Wickham in Death Comes to Pemberley and Clara in the Doctor Who special.

She beams.

“Yes, I’m going to be everywhere. I think my grandma will be very happy.”

At which point Matthew Goode reveals someone else will be happy.

“Yes, I’m good friends with Colin (Firth, who famously played Mr Darcy in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice) I think he’s going to be delighted someone else is playing the part so he can stop talking about it.”

Death Comes to Pemberley is being screened on BBC1, episode one, December 26, 8.15pm; episode two, December 27, 9pm; episode three, December 8, 9pm.