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August 2, 2005

BLEAK HOUSE: Do it like Dickens

An epic chiller-thriller wound around a bitter legal battle comes to BBC1 this autumn in bite-sized pieces - just as its author intended 150 years ago. Christina Pishiris reports

A row of well-worn riding boots abandon the struggle to stay upright. They flop against the leg of a table, on which sit a Victorian candle- stick, candles and an iron poker. Beside them is a cordless power drill. This may be Dickens for the 21st century, but electric tools have generally been kept out of shot.

It's the home stretch for a long shoot entering its last month. It's taking 21 weeks of filming to get such a big book to the small screen. Bleak House requires twice the usual amount of air-time for a costume drama: eight hours will roll out in half-hour segments twice a week come autumn.

Although "fiendishly unwieldy and complicated," according to writer Andrew Davies, Bleak House will be in the heart of the BBC1 schedule. And it's aimed at the same audience as Eastenders. In fact, one or two faces from the Square, including Charlie Brooks, are in the cast. "We wanted to tackle a classic in a different way," says Laura Mackie, BBC head of drama series and serials. "We wanted to draw in an audience who might feel costume drama is a bit alienating, a bit posh for them."

It follows the BBC's successful revamping of The Canterbury Tales and coming soon is an updated series of Shakespeare plays. But before purists throw down their Daily Mails in disgust, Bleak House is staying firmly rooted in the 19th century and Mackie is adamant it won't be "Dickens-lite." As well as drama doyen Davies, the producer is period- piece heavyweight Nigel Stafford-Clark, via his company Deep Indigo. The two previously teamed up for the BBC's The Way We Live Now and He Knew He Was Right.

The decision to do Bleak House in short sharp shocks was influenced by the way Dickens wrote. "It was written for serialisation," says Stafford-Clark. "And it suddenly occurred to me, why not do it the way he did it, in 20 episodes?" And after reflecting that no broadcaster could commit to 20 hours, it was quickly decided to go for half-hours.

Davies looked at the book anew to see how it could be broken down. The first thing was to find 20 cliff-hangers, which would give each episode its popular appeal. As he worked through it, it became clear that it was best divided into fewer parts. "Andrew could get through the material faster than Dickens because contemporary audiences absorb information more quickly," says Stafford-Clark. 16 felt right, recalls Davies, allowing a quicker pace leading to a "slap-bang finish."

Davies has rarely written half-hour shows, but he took quickly to the format ("for one thing, you finish an episode more often, so there's more occasion to have a drink"). He found himself borrowing elements from soap operas - "the lengths of scenes and the speed of movement." And the approach worked well with so many of characters (80, 40 of them principals) and multiple storylines.

"Bits of it lend themselves very well to an Albert Square treatment," he says. "They don't say 'Let's all go down to the Vic and have it out!' but there's the area around Chancery where quite a few of the characters live and a lot of the business is done. So I thought of those streets and squares around Chancery as our Albert Square."

When the action was in Chancery, Davies could put other characters in the background, and as they passed one another, the narrative could switch to the new face. That way he hid the seams between storylines and ensured all the leads got their share of screen-time in each half- hour.

With the scripts in safe hands, Stafford-Clark had to think about how to shoot on the funds available. The BBC is tight-lipped on the money issue. "There's never enough to go round, and at the moment we are being asked to be more competitive, which is a challenge," says Mackie. The reported figure of �8m is unsubstantiated, she adds.

The budget felt small, admits Stafford-Clark, but he understood the BBC's position. "You couldn't possibly do it at the same budget lever per-hour as you would for a four-hour Sunday-night classic adaptation because we're doubling the hours," he says. Logistically, that meant 13 days to film one hour instead of the usual 16 or 17 (or, put another way, four or five pages a day instead of three). "From the point of view of just getting through the material, it's the toughest shoot I've ever been on."

One way to get through so many scenes quickly was to shoot hand-held - which also felt right for this book. "It's so story-driven we felt it would work with a fast, fluid shooting style," says Stafford-Clark. "You're in among the action all the time, which is just what Dickens would have liked."

So he sought directors more used to contemporary drama than to period. Justin Chadwick (Eastenders, Spooks) helmed the first 10 episodes, and Susanna White (Attachments, Teachers) the last six. White tried techniques not usually seen in adaptations: "a lot of crash-zooms, whip- pans, things I used on Teachers," she says. "And we've used a lot of close-ups rather than those big wide shots you sit on just to watch a carriage go through frame to show how much money's been spent on it." The effect is "much rawer and pacier," says Sally Haynes, executive producer at the BBC.

Adding to the contenporary shooting style is the decision to use two cameras, with one aimed at the actors directly, and the other picking up profiles. "You never get profiles in period shows," says Stafford- Clark. "You can cut within the same scene from this angle to that angle, and that's something you associate with modern drama." Film would have been prohibitively expensive, so high-def was deemed the best alternative (in the shape of Sony's HDW750p). BBC Drama is still in the early days of switching to HD, but "it's the future," says Haynes.

White had never used the format before. "There are all these long cables and you have to be connected back to base at all times," she says. "But the pluses are brilliant. Sometimes you look at it and it looks just like 35m, you see so much detail."

Production designer Simon Elliott can be sure his work will be shown to best advantage. His sets are full of "textures and qualities" that HD loves, says DoP Kieran McGuigan, who's well-used to the medium. "And we just throw light on to that like a duvet cover." There can be too much detail if you're not careful, warns Stafford-Clark. There's a danger you might see wig-lines, "but you don't have a problem if you've got good hair and make-up people" (in this case Daniel Phillips and Tapio Salmi).

Sets and costumes are nothing if you don't have the right actors to fill them, and Stafford-Clark confesses casting Bleak House was, well, a Dickensian struggle. The actors needed to appeal to a wide audience. "We didn't want people to go, 'Oh, it's those great British thespians again.' They needed to be there, but they needed to be mixed with people from different backgrounds." So along with Charles Dance and Alun Armstrong, there's Alistair McGowan and Johnny Vegas. There's also Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, a real coup for the production. "We'd seen her in The House of Mirth and she was so brilliant in period. But we didn't think we stood the slightest chance," recalls Stafford-Clark, "but she's been such a supporter of the show."

Despite the drawn-out shoot, actors needed little encouragement to commit, which Stafford-Clark puts down to the material. "These parts are so attractive, they're so well-written. You don't have to ask in favours, even with the small parts."

And that meant getting the right faces for the roles was that much easier. "We never cast people just for their name," insists Mackie. "If people switch off after an episode and a half because the 'names' aren't appropriate to the parts, then we're in trouble," says Stafford- Clark. "Everyone cast had to be able to play the part they were cast in."

The mix of recognisable talent should help when it comes to promoting the show in the crowded marketplace of pre-watershed week-nights. "If they see a trailer and think 'Oh, there's Charlie Brooks - Janine from Eastenders in a funny wig and a long dress,' they might just watch," says Mackie.

"We're here to entertain people," says Haynes, and that's just what Dickens doing. "It's a thing that gets forgotten," says Stafford-Clark. "He was fighting to find a popular audience - and succeeding."

Bleak House has already found a home across the Atlantic at WGBH. And even if viewers there won't clock the common ground with Eastenders, there's scope for a nod to that country's erstwhile favourite soap. "Half-way through you've got 'who killed Tulkinghorn?' which is a bit like 'who shot JR?'" says Mackie. Adds Haynes, "we should start a poster campaign."

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