In the private quarters, Churchill [John Lithgow] and his wife Clementine [Harriet Walker] have a quiet moment. The austerity reflects the times...
Note the balanced placement of furnishings, although purposely slightly off-center... This was another set built at Elstree Studios, London, which in turn, became the set for the Queen’s private quarters at the palace...
Elizabeth agrees to the postponement, but only if Philip [Matt Smith] is placed in charge of the Coronation, a strong demand. As Bobak points out, “Tradition dictated that the Duke of Norfolk and his antecedents arrange this most serious of ceremonies...”
Philip [Matt Smith] demands/ardently asks his wife not to make him, her husband, kneel down to her as Queen in the ceremony. As she takes deep responsibility as representative of The Crown, she refuses.
Bobak explains, “As the Coronation was televised by the BBC, a ground-breaking event, Peter Morgan dramatized the ceremony using television cameras, which we provided through the help of Dicky Howett of The Golden Age of TV Recreations. We set the OB...outside broadcast...control room in the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral...”
Queen Elizabeth agrees, but says Princess Margaret must wait until she is 25, because of the Royal Marriages Act 1772. She sends Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother on a state visit to Southern Rhodesia for the Rhodes Centenary memorial celebrations... Bobak has a fascinating story about this set! See article below...
THE CROWN tells the inside story of two of the most famous addresses in the world -- Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street - and the intrigues, love lives and machinations behind the great events that shaped the second half of the 20th century.
Two houses, two courts, one Crown.
Princess Elizabeth [Claire Foy] fully expects to have many years of quiet married bliss with her husband Philip’s [Matt Smith] Naval postings before ascending to the throne, the Crown, and the unimaginable burden it brings. But her simple life is cut short when her father, King George VI, dies unexpectedly, and, at the age of 25, she inherits the throne, and the unimaginable burden it brings.
Creator Peter Morgan, who penned the Oscar-winning film THE QUEEN and the critically acclaimed play THE AUDIENCE, which chronicled the relationship between Elizabeth II and her Prime Ministers, explores this dynamic further in the binge-able and lauded Netflix series THE CROWN.
“The ambition of the project is unlike anything ever made in Britain. The world inhabited by these characters is extraordinarily exquisite, and the creative team behind THE CROWN constantly had to push boundaries to give the series the scale it needed. If you’re telling a story about one of the wealthiest, most famous families in the world, you’ve got to live up to that,” says series producer Andrew Eaton.
To do so, the producers brought in Oscar® winning Production Designer Martin Childs [SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE], double Oscar® nominee Set Decorator Celia Bobak SDSA [THE MARTIAN, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA] and their teams, including Set Decorator Andrew McCarthy SDSA (in South Africa).
Bobak, ever gracious, gives us notes and answers questions about the making of THE CROWN...
Set Decorator Celia Bobak SDSA: Our focus and the main aim of THE CROWN was to re-create an England and Scotland that was as authentic as possible for the beautiful scripts Peter Morgan wrote.
To this effect, an enormous amount of research was undertaken from all the pictorial sources at our disposal, including film footage from the BBC and British Movietone News. Production Designer Martin Childs and I looked at period books of Interior Decoration in England from the late 1940s and 1950s. This was a period of extreme austerity for the British people. Interiors, even those being designed in the late ‘40s, were very restrained. Britain was in severe financial difficulty after the long war.
Buckingham Palace had been bombed during the war and it was leaking and some parts were very dilapidated. Everything was drab with the public “making do”. George VI and Queen Elizabeth (the current Queen’s parents) were very conscious of this and there were no displays of ostentatious wealth.
However, the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip was held in Westminster Abbey and was beautifully decorated with flowers, and was a joyous occasion which lifted the spirits of an exhausted nation. The wedding scenes were filmed at Ely Cathedral, standing in for Westminster. The floor was extended in the presbytery to accommodate the important guests. The graphics designer had the marble floor copied and printed. Helen Byrne, our florist, created displays down the apse of the church and, using photographs of the actual event in Westminster Cathedral, copied the flowers on either side of the altar. The flowers of the Princess’s bouquet were also copied.
SET DECOR: In order to get full scale, you filmed in many locations, but also at Elstree Studios in London...
Bobak: Yes, Martin designed a big composite set onstage there. These sets were revamped many times.
As the prime minsters are central to THE CROWN, the exterior of Downing Street was built on the lot of Elstree Studios and the interiors on a stage, including the Cabinet Room and the private quarters of Churchill. Downing Street, too, had had bomb damage during the war, and once again the sets are not ostentatious. Also on this stage were a series of rooms which were dressed as offices or redressed as private rooms.
In turn, these sets became the private quarters of the QueenandPrince Philip atBuckingham Palace, the Palace offices, and so on. There were very many transformations.
I think what I had to remember when dressing a set was that people had less. So, unless the set was very idiosyncratic, I used fewer items on furniture surfaces. I had to exercise restraint so different from modern interiors.
However, the home of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris was a set at Elstree Studios, and our aim here was to show their sophistication and love of interior decoration. Although pleading poverty, the Windsors entertained in great style and the Duchess used a famous Parisian interior decorator, Stéphane Boudin of the firm Jansen. We had panels painted similar to the wonderful Chinoiserie wallpaper in their dining room. Again, the blue bedroom was dressed following photographs, even including the little sofa with pug cushions. In addition to these sets, the entrance hall was filmed at West Wycombe Park and the Duke’s little study was recreated at RAF Halton.
SET DECOR: Was the series shot like a long movie or was it broken up into episodes, i.e. were all the scenes for the entire season shot over one period per each location? Or did you need to revisit/redress some locations/sets at later dates?
Bobak: The scheduling for this series was unusual. I have not worked in television since the 1980s at the British Broadcasting Corporation. In those days one director was hired. We had five directors on THE CROWN! Philip Martin started with various episodes, then Julian Jarrold, then Stephen Daldry and finally, Ben Caron.
Few of these were chronological. The schedule was absolutely daunting and very fast moving. In his quest for excellent scripts, Peter Morgan often changed scenes, added scenes and sometimes we had three directors shooting in various parts of the country on different episodes. I had wonderful assistants, without whom it would have been impossible.
SET DECOR: The episodes are fairly chronological, but there also appear to be many flashbacks as well, particularly scenes with King George, both as father and king. How did you evoke the change in time periods? What particularly defined him in terms of set decoration?
Bobak: Fortunately for us, large country houses and palaces do not change over the years. A television or a radio, perhaps, but not much else changes unless, as in the case of Clarence House, a renovation was done. This is partly why I used newly covered sofas for CH, to give a feeling of freshness.
George VI was an unwilling king. As we all know now, he had a terrible stammer and he and the Queen Mother had never expected to be forced into this public position. The Queen Mother and King George loved the countryside, and his passion was horses, shooting and fishing. He would have preferred to have lived quietly. If you study his rooms carefully, you will see that I have drawn on his interest in horses to a great extent. Equestrian bronzes and paintings.
He loved Sandringham, the Royal Estate in Norfolk, which we shot at Englefield House, Berkshire. The first time we filmed there was to re-create Christmas...in fact, the scene is of the last Christmas that George VI was alive, so it was very poignantly done.
My aim was for it to be as English as possible with attention to the period, Christmas cards hung on strings and flowers from the estate used to decorate the rooms. I did actually raid the woods for ivy and holly. Director Stephen Daldry wanted a giant, decorated fir tree outside the house for the arrival of the carol singers and, because they sing walking down the main corridor of the house, we dressed this with Christmas garlands as well.
SET DECOR: From that lovely intimate family scene, we turn to the formality of Buckingham Palace.We know that period has to be defined, and yet Buckingham Palace seems almost timeless to most of us outsiders... You mentioned that the Queen came into power at a time of austerity, so that would limit changes, but Philip was quite modern at the time, so did he have any updates made? Televisions? Radios?
Bobak: In due course, changes were made and I know the private quarters at BH are very comfortable and homely now. However, at the time and more importantly for our story, we wanted the Palace to be very austere with few nods to informality. Of course, television was never in the bedroom and I doubt a radio would be either. In the fifties, although radio was important, it was the morning newspaper that would have been read for news. This would have been “The Times” – a very august, intelligent newspaper at that time.
SET DECOR: Actress Victoria Hamilton, who plays the Queen’s mother, says... “You’ll be put in a room that you think looks splendid and rich, then you’ll suddenly realize that the wallpaper is peeling, there’s a large area of damp up there, and that this whole world we think we know is actually slowly crumbling. Then you’re looking at a group of people who are sort of desperately trying to hold it together and preserve this thing that is the monarchy.” A testament to the sets you created...
The King’s surgery at the Palace is something most Americans are completely unaware of – is there anything we should know about the set for that scene?
Bobak: I think this is one of the highlights of the THE CROWN. Indeed, George VI had lung cancer and it was thought at that time that the British nation should not be made aware of this. So, in point of fact, the operation was undertaken in a small, anonymous room at Buckingham Palace.
However, we had the wonderful Stephen Daldry directing this episode. He decided to make this a piece of theatre so a raised stage was made in the center of the Livery Hall in the Goldsmiths’ Hall. The surgery was as authentic as we could make it. My sister-in-law, who had been a surgical theatre nurse at one of the leading London hospitals in the 1960s, used her contacts to research exactly what was used.
SET DECOR: And please tell us about the Audience Room...
Bobak: As you mentioned, Peter Morgan wrote the play THE AUDIENCE, which was about Queen Elizabeth’s relationship with her prime ministers. This is interwoven into the series of THE CROWN. The set was created in a country house called Wrotham Park. We used the dining room stripped of its furniture. It is a lovely room with a semi-circle of windows looking over parkland. Stephen Daldry wanted the room to be dressed with yellow upholstered furniture. In order to make the room more essentially about the Queen, I used easels with paintings in the style of Canaletto whom I know is one of her favorite artists.
SET DECOR: The Crown’s offices... There were lovely scenes when Elizabeth met with her father and he told her of the Red Box, then later we see her reluctantly but dutifully open it...
Bobak: We filmed her working on the contents of the Red Box in many locations. The Royal family moves around a lot and the Queen a great deal. For this reason you see her working in a study, in a library, in a drawing room, in her private chambers...at any of her residences...
SET DECOR: The Palace staff’s offices, particularly those of Tommy Lascelles and Peter Townsend, were so perfectly detailed as well...
Bobak: These were fun to do because both Tommy Lascelles and Peter Townsend had good backstories. Tommy was a very keen fisherman, so we used a lot of items from an antiquarian collector of fishing elements. Peter Townsend had been a flying ace in WW2, so we used a lot of aviation memorabilia.
I should mention, however, that Tommy Lascelles’s office was not like this at all, but rather grand. For our purposes and for the geography needed for the actors, we down played the size of the office.
SET DECOR: The amount of period paperwork throughout this entire season, with all of the offices in the palace and Downing Street, etc!
Bobak: Yes, there was an ENORMOUS amount of paperwork. Most of this was researched and generated by Neil Floyd, a brilliant graphics designer who worked unstintingly to get everything done as correctly as possible. His assistant Victoria Reynolds worked hard beside him.
SET DECOR: Clarence House – The home of the young royals before she becomes queen—The decoration, overseen by Prince Philip, was actually part of the storyline. Would you tell us about incorporating that aspect and about the informality, compared to the palace, the welcoming warmth...
Bobak: The point being was that Prince Philip spent a great deal of money getting Clarence House habitable for the Royals in the mid-twentieth century. After the death of the Duke of Connaught who lived there until he died in 1942, the house was made available for the use of the War Organisation of the British Red Cross and Order of St John of Jerusalem. It was, therefore, in need of much modernization.
Clarence House was actually filmed at High Canons in Hertfordshire. I knew the house from when I did the film HYDE PARK ON HUDSON. We used the same drawing room. THE CROWN was, as you know, filmed in many, many locations. In order to meet our budget and also because the production was so fast moving, I did try to use a lot of the furniture that was in situ in these beautiful houses and add pieces where necessary. For the Clarence House sets filmed at High Canons, we brought in new sofas with slipcovers made from Colefax And Fowler's Alicia Chintz.
The Buckingham Palace private quarters’ interiors were very restrained with fewer floral arrangements and the use of predominantly blue and red. The wonderful thing about High Canons is the pink of the wallpaper in the drawing room, which is so beautiful with skin tones. That with the pale blue of the drapes and the floral fabric of the sofas, lovely summer flowers and more dressing all added to a feeling of comfort and informality.
Their Clarence House bedroom was also filmed at High Canons. The walls are lined in silk and we were asked to move as little furniture as possible. I changed the drapes and all the top dressing and obviously brought in a bed. The drapes are a beautiful pale, soft green and the silk walls are a wonderful pale gold. Again, trying to convey a sense of luxury as opposed to the severity of Buckingham Palace.
When George VI died unexpectedly in 1952, the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret swapped residences with Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip. No great changes were made. This helped my budget considerably!
SET DECOR: A bit of a digression here, and an indulgence, but you did mention fabrics... Is there anything you could tell us about the fabulous fabrics you used throughout the series?
Bobak: I cannot be specific, but my favourite go-to companies for THE CROWN were Colefax and Fowler, Brunschwig et Fils, Nina Campbell, GP & J Baker, Sandersons. I would have used Jean Munroe, too, because I adore their fabrics but I chose Colefax and Fowler in the end. No time to print or design our own, sadly….
SET DECOR: Please tell us about depicting the Coronation...
Bobak: The Coronation is the most important event of the reign of a Monarch. Prince Philip wanted modernization but this was contrary to what the government and the Aristocracy wanted. Tradition dictated that the Duke of Norfolk and his antecedents arrange this most serious of ceremonies.
The Coronation chair dates from 1300 and is called King Edward’s chair. I had a replica custom-made and it was copied most faithfully. This was the first time this had been done. Normally, a Victorian reproduction is used in TV and films. The chair back has a lot of graffiti on it, mostly done by the boys who attended Westminster School. I took the decision to omit this part of history as I thought it would be a distraction.
As the Coronation was televised by the BBC, a ground-breaking event, Peter Morgan dramatized the ceremony using television cameras. We set the OB...outside broadcast...control room in the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral. The Golden Age of TV Recreations provided all the equipment for the Coronation and many other sets as well. Dicky Howett could not have been more helpful or more well informed.
SET DECOR: Peter Morgan says... “Elizabeth’s sudden ascension to the throne gives Churchill a new lease of political life, and gives him the motivation to hang onto power.” We mentioned the sets for Downing Street, but what about his private country estate Chartwell and his art studio?
Bobak: One of my favourite sets to dress. We used the café in the grounds of Chenies Manor for his studio. For the interior of Chartwell, we used the drawing room of the manor house. The scene of Churchill painting by the pond was done on the grounds. We had the pond dug and the plants supplied by Palmbrokers, a film and TV greens company. I was involved in the planting as I did not want vegetation that was not authentic for the period.
For the studio, we shortened the length of the café and on the wall, our wonderful graphics designer Neil Floyd supplied many paintings which we framed, which were in keeping with Churchill’s paintings.
The draconian copyright procedure which has infiltrated our industry is destroying the richness and variety of our set decoration. Sorry to “go off piste” but it is something bemoaned by every set decorator.
I used a lot of portfolios, etc, to cover the café's water taps and fitted kitchen, which we couldn’t remove!
SET DECOR: As you mentioned, we do have such a complication with clearances these days. How did you deal with all of the painting in situ in, for example, Lancaster House, which was a location used for some of the palatial and state rooms of Buckingham Palace?
Bobak: We were able to use all the paintings in Lancaster House. The artists have been dead for 70 years and the copyright was granted when hiring the location. A lot of the art for this film was either in situ in the period grand houses we filmed in or hired from specialist suppliers of paintings to the film and TV industry. Again, it is a case of choosing the correct painting in terms of artist, period, frame, etc to work in the scene you are trying to create. As I mentioned, for the Queen, I particularly used Canaletto type paintings. She loves horse paintings and I did use lots, and she also likes family paintings.
SET DECOR: We haven’t touched on Scotland, which Martin perfectly and succinctly describes... “There’s a powerful emotional connection that the royal family have with Scotland. It’s important to them. We wanted to capture that and so we filmed the relationship between them and the landscape.” There are so many other fine sets, but we’re particularly intrigued by the location in Surrey, UK to stand for Rhodesia—the Governor’s House in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia, to be exact...
Bobak: Ah yes, the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret went on a state visit to Southern Rhodesia for the Rhodes Centenary memorial celebrations. The house on location in Surrey chosen for this could not have been more different to that of the Governor of Rhodesia! The Governor’s official home was of Cape Dutch design and quite elegant.
I was determined to do this as authentically as I could. My cousin’s father had had the biggest department store in Salisbury and it had an interior decoration section. I contacted my cousin to help me and, also, she had been to the Governor’s house in the 1950s! She put me in touch with the retired interior designer who had decorated the Governor’s house prior to the state visit. We travelled to his retirement home in the south of England and spent the afternoon with him. Then I did my best to re-create England-in-Africa in England! Of course, as a South African growing up in the fifties with English parents, I had a very good idea of what was correct.
*Editor’s note: Speaking of South Africa, while Bobak was handling the massive number of complex UK sets, she brought in Set Decorator Andrew McCarthy SDSA for the Commonwealth tour Kenya safari scenes shot in South Africa, and he, in turn, brought in vintage cameras and recording equipment from the prophouse History for Hire [SDSA Business Member] to depict the press corps that followed them. “It’s like taking a warm bath,” says actress Claire Foy, who plays Elizabeth. “This is where Elizabeth and Philip are at their happiest, before tragedy strikes. There’s a lightness, a warmth to the scenes filmed here.”