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On set with Austen

PUBLISHED: 13:04 18 September 2009 | UPDATED: 16:13 20 February 2013

Romola Garai as Emma Woodhouse  © BBC/David Venni

Romola Garai as Emma Woodhouse © BBC/David Venni

Jane Austen's novel, Emma, appears on our TV screens this month in a new BBC production, and where better to shoot the bulk of the series but in our beautiful county? Kent Life went on set to investigate...

Jane Austen fans will delight in the news that not only is her masterpiece, Emma, on our TV screens early this month, but that more than half the novel has been shot in Kent. Adapted by award-winning writer Sandy Welch (Our Mutual Friend, Jane Eyre, North And South) into a fresh, humorous and perceptive serial for BBC Drama Production, it will be shown on BBC One in four hour-long episodes.
Emma boasts a glittering cast, with Romola Garai (Emma Woodhouse), Jonny Lee Miller (Mr Knightley), Michael Gambon (Mr Woodhouse), Tamsin Greig (Miss Bates), Robert Bathurst (Mr Weston) and Jodhi May (Mrs Weston, formerly Miss Taylor, Emma's governess).
Austen's classic comic novel follows the story of the "handsome, clever and rich" Emma Woodhouse. Dominating the small provincial world of Highbury, Emma believes she is a skilled matchmaker and repeatedly attempts to pair up her friends and acquaintances.
Brought up sharply against the folly of her own immaturity, the consequent crisis and her bitter regrets are brought to a happy resolution in a sharp and sparkling comedy of
self-deceit and self-discovery.
Emma was first published in 1815. Set in Regency England, it was the final Jane Austen novel to be published before the author's death in 1817 and is one of her most popular and best-loved books. It was last adapted for television in the 1996 ITV single drama, starring Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong; Gwyneth Paltrow starred as Emma in an Oscar-nominated film version by Miramax in the same year.


On set in Chilham
I spoke to producer George Ormond (Silent Witness, EastEnders) back in April as we waited for the rain to clear on set in the beautiful village of Chilham. George saw the first draft of the script in July 2008 and started work the following month - and finding the right location was uppermost in his mind.
"The most important locations for us to find were Emma's house and the village, they both needed to feel as if they belonged to the same world," explains George. "We didn't want to go to the Cotswolds and get the classic stone chocolate box thing, we wanted a place that hadn't been seen on the TV too much and felt very fresh."
And that place was Kent, where more than half the series is shot - Chilham, which becomes Highbury and then on to Westerham's Squerryes Court (representing Emma's home, Hartfield) for five weeks of shoots.
George is enormously enthusiastic about Chilham, despite the relentless rain. "What is brilliant about the village for us is that this square gives us a self-contained world that we can dress and shoot nearly 360 degrees."
"It gives us a controlled environment, but it also gives us four roads going in and out and that means we can broaden the whole world out and give it some depth. For the story, it's very important that the audience understands Emma's world us very small and provincial - she doesn't travel, she doesn't go abroad, she's Queen Bee in quite a small world.
"In the book Highbury is described as not quite a town. And what's so fantastic is that Chilham is undiscovered to a wider public."
A bit of 'window dressing' was, inevitably, required and the more I look, the more Regency England does Chilham become. "What we've done is put in a central piece we call the 'bus stop' - it gives us interesting things to shoot through and to centre the marketplace around, without it there's a danger this is just a big, open space," explains George.
"Modern doors have been covered over and bright white paint has been dirtied down to 'knock back' the white - the danger is that a village like this can become too perfect!
"The pub has been converted into a barn, with doors up and down to cover up existing doors and windows, this house on the corner was white and had lattice windows, which really drew the eye and we didn't want that, so we painted it a dirty green and put in false windows. We also put up a false frontage to create Ford's the shop and all the floor is fake - we laid it down to cover tarmac."
I ask about progress and am astonished when George tells me his cast and crew are on set in Chilham for six days and will film just four minutes a day - so roughly half an hour in total. Seeing my face, he is quick to point out: "That's a pretty fast pace for a period classic! It looks as if 60 people are here doing nothing, but they're actually working round the clock to get things done."
Moving across county, Squerryes on the edge of Westerham, takes up roughly half of the screen time. "Two hours out of the four will be there, so it's absolutely our centrepiece," says George.
As Hartfield, where the Woodhouse family is "first in consequence," Squerryes makes the perfect choice. A fine 17th-century manor house, the Warde family home since 1731, it is surrounded by 20 acres of gardens which include a lake, a folly, restored parterres and an 18th-century dovecote. Emma would be delighted.
"We wanted a house that gave us a sense of somebody who could think of herself in her circle of friends as the most important, and a Hartfield that would suit our Highbury," explains George. "Squerryes immediately felt like a welcoming family home and was a brilliant location for us. The actors really loved being there."
So did they have to do much to the house? "We wanted the dining room to feel particularly gorgeous, so we darkened down the wood panelling to a deeper blue and found a fantastic turquoise and gold wallpaper to put up within the panels," says George.
"Another key room is the drawing room, to which we added our own furniture and drapes, and set up gas fires as coal ones would have been too hot for the actors in May and June."
So apart from a "very aggressive swan who chased the crew," it was pretty much a dream location. And George is fill of praise for his dream cast, too. Speaking of the lead, Romola Garai, he says: "She has an unerring ability to bring a scene to life in a surprising, fresh, witty and energetic way. You get all of Emma's precociousness but with all her warmth and wit, and you can't help but love her, despite her flaws.
"We tried to assemble a cast that was absolutely right for every character and felt fresh. What is brilliant about Romola is that she hasn't been on TV, she's been off doing films, so it was a real coup to get her, and she was also the first member of the cast we found: we knew immediately that she would be perfect. Emma is her favourite Austen novel and it's also a great part. We're very excited to have her."
George is also very excited about the pairing of Romola with Johnny Lee Miller, whom he describes as a perfect Knightly. "He's such a fantastic actor and there's a real chemistry between him and Emma, the sense that he is the moral compass, but not paternalistic - there's a real energy and spark between them.
"And Michael Gambon brings that weight but also the wit to Mr Woodhouse's character - it's the dream cast really."


Tamsin Greig -
While we wait for the endless rain to stop in Chilham, I get a chance to visit the comic actor Tamsin Greig in her caravan. Dressed in full costume and waiting her turn to appear as the relentless chatterbox Miss Bates, I ask Tamsin what she has done to prepare for the role.
"I am an Austen fan, but do you know, I deliberately don't watch what's been done before," she tells me. What I did watch was Clueless, the American teenage version of Emma, which I think is a brilliant film and perfectly captures that naive meddling style of Emma. But you can't help loving her - Romola has a very light touch and handles it brilliantly."
So how does she amuse herself, waiting for her own scenes? "We drink a lot of tea and eat a lot of toast, do a lot of reading and yet we have to be ready all the time," she laughs.
"You can't cough or sneeze in a corset - lying down at lunchtime takes an age - but it does give you that sense of being slightly held, makes you much more upright, slightly busier.
Appraising my windswept curls, she adds: "You've got bonnet-wearing hair - I haven't, this is a wig - my hair is slightly too chic, I'm just too funky for Jane's world! I did 17 seconds this morning and I might do another 33 seconds this afternoon, but it's the set up that takes so long. There's a lot of animals today, for example, because we're shooting market day."
Tamsin was actually born in Hawkhurst, but the family moved when she was very little to London - "but I was grown in the Garden of England" - and she is really looking forward to filming in Westerham. "Kent is so beautiful, and the houses are lovely," she enthuses.
How does she feel about her character, the spinster aunt to the enigmatic Jane Fairfax? "Miss Bates - what an incredible character, when you read the book there's about three pages of her not drawing breath, and you get the sense that Jane Austen really enjoys writing for her," says Tamsin.
"There's this sense of someone talking about everything at the same time, like children do, with that same speed of thought and energy.
"My sister read Emma in her book club and when I asked her what she thought, she just said, 'Oh Tam, there's so many words, oh, so many words!' But I think it's great that we've been given four hours to take time to discover the detail - where a letter turning up or someone disappearing
is a major event."
So what does she think about her co-stars? "Jonny has done a couple of Austens over the years - the breeches do suit him, but I can't imagine them not suiting any man really. Romola is on in nearly every scene, but she's very playful in the role. She's brilliant."



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