Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Pickwoad Pictures; or, Uncle Monty's Stucco

I only learned on Monday that Michael Pickwoad (picture, left, from his interview at BAFTA's Guru site) was talking to the Friends of the Bodleian in Oxford on Tuesday lunchtime. Not only has Pickwoad's extensive career in film and television design led him through Withnail & I, Lost in Austen and The Queen's Sister among others to his current engagement as series designer for Doctor Who, but he displays a deep appreciation for historical architecture and construction methods, particularly those of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. To adopt an appropriate idiom, this seemed a fortuitous conjunction of my interests, so along to the Bodleian I strolled and took my seat in the Convocation House beyond the Divinity School. The venue was no stranger to location filming itself, and as was pointed out probably looks much as it did in the 1640s when Charles I held his counter-parliament there.

As his presentation revealed, several of the projects upon which Michael Pickwoad has been commissioned have led him to visit country and town houses in various states of preservation, and over the past thirty years he has been able to see the evolution of numerous buildings as well as contribute towards their development himself. A householder might request that the architraves which they insisted be removable should instead be made permanent, or the property company planning to turn a country house temporarily customised for a regency drama might demand that a temporary colonnade be retained as if it were an original feature.

Finding the right location can be an exhausting business. Working for the Children's Film Foundation, with low budgets, made Pickwoad used to being his own location manager; but even when with (slightly) more assistance on Withnail & I it still took several weeks of driving round the Lake District before Wet Sliddale Hall was found at the end of a road which became progressively less suitable for vehicles. Even then, the stucco facade on the house had to be plastered over and painted and the roof altered before it could assume the role of Uncle Monty's cottage. Locations demand sensitivity to the morality of the owners, too, sometimes necessitating arranging a window of time in another house for scenes to which the hosts object. Since first touring Oxford prison - long before it was converted into a hotel - for Let Him Have It, he has carried a profound awareness of the privilege of those at liberty and the isolation of the incarcerated. Reading gaol, used for an episode of Kavanagh QC, is proud of its association with Oscar Wilde, but it was there that cast and crew overstayed their welcome and were held for forty-five minutes while the prison count was taken.

The lecture was rich with reflected experience to which I couldn't do justice. Michael Pickwoad should be allowed loose with a coffee table book budget at some point to produce an illustrated memoir. Doctor Who was mentioned in passing, when Nostell Priory in Yorkshire was cited as the source for a twin-column design which Pickwoad adapted for use in Doctor Who. I asked how his observations on historic architecture fed into his work on more fantastical settings, such as those in the remade The Prisoner and Doctor Who. He replied that both these worlds, and especially the 'African Portmeirion' of The Prisoner, were dream worlds, and what are dreams but assemblages of images and ideas from life?

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