Here’s a confession: I’m a historian. A historian who studies landscape. I’m also a chronic daydreamer, and I love picturing how things looked. I can’t take the harbour ferry over to Halifax, Nova Scotia without picturing sloops and brigantines and shabby unpainted buildings huddled under the big star-shaped fort on top of Citadel hill, instead of the modern iteration. So when I watch a costume drama, I want the setting to be as artistically “true” as the acting, costumes, dialogue and plot. The makers of period dramas get to make every-day places look like past places. They get to turn make-believe landscapes into real (if occasionally anachronistic) settings.
I have been watching Little Dorrit looking for the “past landscape,” and then evaluating the production efforts. My criteria are hardly scientific, and I don’t cling to the idea of historical accuracy. Attempts at accuracy do get bonus points, however (especially for observing proper hat etiquette). Here’s my Little Dorrit setting evaluation so far:
In the City: 2.5 out of 5.*
Evaluation criteria for cities in costume dramas: Does it look like a theme park, is it a little too manicured? Do you see any horse poo or gutters? Does the production use the same alley over and over again and pretend it is a different place each time, which makes you start to feel like you’re watching an episode of Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica? Did the producers/director challenge themselves and attempt any wide establishing shots? (Think North and South’s smogging up of Edinburgh to give the impression of Milton/Manchester, or Mary Poppins’ soundstagetacular but atmospheric shots of London’s roofs).
Little Dorrit gets 2.5 out of 5 for London. The film doesn't attempt establishing shots of the city, and they have it pretty easy with being able to show the Marshalsea and the stairway of Doyce and Clennam over and over. They never attempt a long shot of Bleeding Heart Yard, and they are over-using a particular alley (Amy and Maggie’s night out, Clennam seeing Miss Wade and Rigaud, Pancks walking around the city, etc.). Furthermore, the idea of Amy Dorrit hanging out on the banks of the gross stinky refuse-strewn Thames is absolutely ridiculous (and doesn’t really fit the novel – the bridge is meaningful, Andrew Davies). I could have given them a 3 out of 5, but when I remembered how well the recent Oliver Twist series worked in illustrating the London cityscape, I bumped it down to a mere pass.
Abroad: 3 out of 5
This category should be really easy to get right – all I want are big sweeping vistas of Typical Landscape, waterfront shots with all the modern bits left out, and one scene shot in a public square or a castle or a monument – something I could visit as a tourist if I ever travelled to the same place some day. Now, someone might ask me to be gentle and consider a filmmaker’s budget, but I say hooey! The Princess Bride has a ridiculously soundstagey look to it, but the Cliffs of Despair scene is made on the basis of that long shot of Andre the Giant climbing up the rope, and I frequently replay the scene in my head of Princess Buttercup and Wesley falling down that steep grassy hill. I don’t care if they shoot the action on site, I just want the pretty pictures.
I love the idea of the Dorrit family making the Grand Tour, so I wanted to see ridiculously gothic-influenced shots of the Alps and really see the murky decay of Venice that Dickens emphasized so much in the novel. While I understand leaving out the visit to Rome simplifies the story, it also limits the location shots. I liked the lighting styles they used to evoke these places. Venice was pretty much the first time the filmmakers attempted a decent establishing landscape shot, and I thought the interiors were nice. Still, it was no Room With A View.
In the Country: 4 out of 5
Country settings are kinda easy. See: Most Jane Austen adaptations. I know that producers sometimes have to cart in gravel and hide streetlights and use some tricky camera angles when shooting in towns (did you see the video about shooting the new Emma?), but rural areas are easy for a few reasons. One, there is more to choose from, and there is less built-up area to ruin the illusion. Two, rich people’s houses last longer than poor people’s houses, so movies involving rich people don’t have to go far to find a fancy house. Three, rural areas seem to be easier to modify - facades of cottages are not that expensive to plunk down in the middle of a field – and inconsistencies are easier to ignore – most viewers don’t care if a hedgerow is anachronistic to the period of the film.
Little Dorrit doesn’t really have a country setting, but I used the Meagles house as my basis. I was mainly struck by the gardens. Lots of garden designers will tell you never to mix red and yellow together in a border, but the Meagles garden broke the rules and was perfect. For its use of dahlias alone (although they were not really hybridized commonly until the 1850s – see: accuracy not that important), I would give it 5 out of 5, but that is even more arbitrary than my usual approach. I give points for the hedge (it seemed to suit the personalities of the family and how they tried to shelter their daughter) – but subtract points for not a single chicken, sheep, cow, or donkey. Not that any of those are in the book, but I want them. You will note I did not mention pigs (*coughP&P05cough!*).
So: How important is the setting to you when it comes to costume dramas, and what do you look for? Are you pleased with the Little Dorrit settings? More importantly, do you think they revealed important aspects of the character's personalities, or helped set the tone for the action?
*A question of accuracy, however: I missed the first 45 mins. of episode 1, and I don't mention it in my notes so I can't be sure - are there any establishing shots of London in the miniseries?
Thanks, Sarah O, from Fellow-ette. And readers, feel free to comment on Sarah's post or any other developments in the miniseries below!