Adventures in television

TV production designer Eileen Aldous has just returned from creating a children's adventure wonderland for the Channel Five series The Secret of Eel Island.

By Andrew Clarke

TV production designer Eileen Aldous has just returned from creating a children's adventure wonderland for the Channel Five series The Secret of Eel Island. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke spoke to her about creating spring in mid-winter in the Fens and her years poking fun at the great and not so good in Spitting Image.

Film and TV production designer Eileen Aldous is just back from a couple of months dashing between the Norfolk Broads, The Fens and Anglia's former TV studios as she is has been designing the sets for the second series of Channel Five's children's drama series The Secret of Eel Island which is produced by East Anglian-based Eye Film and TV.

“It's been exhausting but great fun,” laughs Eileen collapsing with dramatic effect into a padded swivel chair. On her desk is small computer screen with her screen saver producing a slideshow of stills and set shots. “One of the biggest headaches was trying to reproduce lush spring like weather in dreary February and March. I tried to find as many evergreen shrubs and tree-filled areas as I could and just fill the background with green camouflage just to disguise the fact that there were huge bare patches in the undergrowth.”


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But such problems are all in a day's work for a production designer whose job is to create the sets and the look of the film or TV programme.

“Thinking on your feet is all part of a designers job. It gets easier with experience and with contacts. You get to know who's reliable, who's got what, who can turn things around quickly and with experience you know more tricks of the trade and get a feeling about what works on camera and what doesn't. It's all about talking with the director and with the DoP (Director of Photography) and finding out how they intend to shoot the scene.”

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Eileen is justifiably proud of the fact that last year she won the Aegis Award for best production design for arthouse film A Mind Of Her Own by writer-director Owen Carey Jones which was shot in Yorkshire, Edinburgh and Paris.

“That was a special moment because it is always lovely to be recognised for your work. Also you get so much more time to get things right on a feature film, even a low budget movie like A Mind Of Her Own, than you do on a TV series.”

Of all the shows that Eileen has worked on she says that her five years on Spitting Image still occupies a special place in her heart. “It was fantastic. It was hard work. It was a seven days a week job. We were still putting things together on Sunday morning, the day of transmission, just to keep it topical, but it was a fantastic show to do. Although the schedules were tight, it was a very well resourced show. I don't remember anyone saying you can't do that or we can't afford that. By the time I arrived in the mid-1980s it was already a huge hit and Central Television knew they had a ratings winner and basically supplied us with whatever we needed. We had lots of stock sets in storage and things we could disguise or reuse, so we weren't building everything from scratch, but they were always open to us doing new things and maybe not always in the cheapest way. But, having said that, we were never extravagant for the sake of being extravagant - it had to work on screen and above all it had to be funny.”

Eileen said because the Fluck and Law puppets were made life size, it never felt like she was working on a puppet show. The schedule meant that before each season started they had a four to six week run-up in which they could produce any new sets they knew they would need. “I built some very large sets such as Buckingham Palace, a very grand church and a prison which was full-sized. I also built a full-sized, cut-away, charabanc which was to be filled with St Trinian style characters going to the World Cup. The way the director wanted to shoot it meant that as well as the full-sized mock up, I had to produce a half-scale complete model and then a even smaller one that could move which was no more than 18 inches long.”

The two weeks before production started was spent shooting music videos for the satirical songs which closed each week's show and once the series was underway it was a seven day a week job just getting the sketches done.

“It was exhausting but hugely satisfying. We knew we were creating something special and we didn't mind that the amount of time it took. Funnily enough Monday was our easy day - that was when we were discussing the following week's show, looking at props and materials, getting things started, Tuesday was busier, Wednesday we would go onto studio floor and then Thursday the production would really go into high gear and then Friday it would be manic. I would be required to deliver and to dress a possible 36 sets in six days - although some of them could be quite small.”

She said that because of the need to disguise the puppeteers, each set needed to be raised two feet off the ground which always meant building false floors. The final shots and the topical sketches would be shot on Sunday morning when shooting would end at 1pm and then be edited into the final show during the afternoon. “Monday of course it all started again. Adrenalin and the thrill for working for such an exhilarating show would get you through the best part of the season but once the rosy glow had worn off it was extremely hard, tiring work.”

Eileen said that she had wanted to work in design ever since she was at Ipswich Art School after she gained her A Levels at Suffolk College.

“It was all down to my art tutor Roger Lowe really. He had worked for the BBC and he wanted to start a course on production design for exhibitions and television. I thought that sounded interesting and jumped aboard. I did a three year post-graduate course and it was through Roger that I gained my first job at the BBC in Manchester in 1981 - which at the time was a fantastic training ground because there was so much going on.

“There were a lot of opportunities in television then because there was so much production work. We were making all sorts of programmes. You had to learn on your feet. I remember one of my first assignments was for Cheggers Plays Pop. I had no real idea what I was doing but I thought fast. I remember bring on the studio floor and the head of construction asking me what I wanted to do and me standing their waving plans about trying to sound authoritative.

“Thankfully I learnt fast and I enjoy working on all sorts of shows. Things like Top of the Pops and Cheggers allows you to do anything you want within reason. Allows you to use your imagination but even then you can't just go wild and do your own thing you have to liaise with the director and try and create what he is looking for.”

She said that period shows can be difficult especially those in the recent past. “Finding props for films or television shows in the distant past is funnily enough not too difficult - it's just a question of knowing the right companies who hire out the right stuff. Antique desks and chairs and what have you are relatively easy to come by because there are plenty of antique shops willing to loan stuff if you have the money of course.

“A programme like Life on Mars is far more difficult because it is much more recent, and is part of our current disposable society. It can be really difficult to track down a 1970s trim phone for example. You an't get those from an antique shop. It's silly things like that which take the time. Much of the time you end up having to make them.”

After working in Manchester she moved to BBC Television in London working on such classics as Top of the Pops, a children's drama Who Me Sir, and the sit-com No Place Like Home.

Eileen also was kept busy at BBC Birmingham's Pebble Mill studios where she worked on the classic Howard's Way and The Adventure Game.

She also worked a number of one-off dramas and short films including One Game, The Rat in the Skull and childrens' drama series Bernard's Watch and Out of Sight.

“I love working on childrens' series because they are such fun. There's plenty of energy about them and you can use your imagination.”

She said imagination is the key any successful job these days. “Budgets are definitely not what they were. Everything is spread very thin these days. In the past you would phone up props house and hire everything. Today we simply don't have the budgets to do that. I spend half my time as a public relations person, charming people to lend us stuff so we don't have to pay them. To be honest I find it quite embarrassing sometimes. People think because you work in television you are swimming in cash but sadly that is not the case.”

She said that The Secret of Eel Island was better than most recent series because they did have a decent budget and although time was short for such a demanding series they did have the luxury of shooting at Anglia Television's big studio in Norwich.

“For the first series they did everything on location which is great but when you are shooting interiors the design of houses doesn't allow for easy access for cameras and lights and what have you. So this time it was decided that we would shoot as much as we could on location but the interiors would be shot in the studio.”

Eileen said it was quite a challenge recreating last year's real locations in Anglia's studio. “I was quite pleased with the way they came out because, they did look the same but different. I added bits, the way you can when you are creating something for yourself. I put extra windows in, so the camera can have more areas to shoot through and made if ever so slightly bigger, just two feet wider, to accommodate all the technical side of things - which made shooting a lot easier.”

She said they created two stunning sets at the Anglia studio which is very proud of The Junk Emporium and a cave which had to be full of water where a young girl had to be rescued after she went in search of precious gems which had been discovered set into the roof. “it was a huge challenge to do and I was extremely pleased with the way that it came across on screen.”

When Eileen isn't designing for television or film she runs an interior design business in Felixstowe By Design which she says keeps her busy. “The discipline is exactly the same designing for film or television and for a customer. It's all about interpreting a director's or a client's wishes and sticking to a budget.”

She says that she also relishes the opportunity to do some stage work which she says has been lacking in her portfolio. “It seems that I am known as a television designer which is why not many theatrical jobs have come my way but I did do a Lee Evans sets for one of his West End shows at the Lyric and I have designed sets for DanceEast at the Snape Maltings and for The Co-op Juniors at the same venue. “I just love what I do. It's a great feeling creating something out of nothing and just helping to bring a story to life.”

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