Neil Crombie ,the distinguished TV director, producer and writer, who has been involved with making some of the most interesting documentaries of the past ten years, such as the riveting documentary on Grayson Perry, Why Men Wear Frocks and one of my husband’s favourites series, Philosophy: a Guide to Happiness, recently very kindly consented to give me his thoughts on producing At Home with the Georgians and on working with Amanda Vickery. My questions(in bold) and his replies are set out below. I do hope you enjoy reading them. The second episode of the series, A Woman’s Touch, concerned with the 18th century concept of good and bad taste, airs on BBC2 tonight- don’t miss it! And to whet your appetite, here is a link to the the trailer for episode two.
1) You were the producer and director of “At Home With The Georgians”. What made you want to work with Amanda Vickery on this series?
I’d actually interviewed Amanda once before, for a documentary where she was one of the “talking heads”, so I knew she’d be an exciting person to work with. But it was reading her book that really clinched it for me. I just thought it was magical the way she’d use often quite dry and dusty scraps of information – non-famous people’s account books and letters and diaries -and from them conjure up real living breathin people, whose stories, dilemmas and conflicts – sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking – I could really relate to. I thought: this is a historian with a real novelist’s eye.
So many of the stories she tells reminded made me of little 18th century novels in miniature – the vivacious young woman who has to outwit the dragonish mother-in-law; the hapless young law student who dreams of a wife. As television material, it struck me as gold dust. So I very quickly realised that it’s be a rewarding challenge to help Amanda try to bring these people back to life.
2) What audience were you trying to reach?
Well, two of the bankers of British television schedules are the Sunday night costume drama (and obviously I’m thinking particularly of those Jane Austenadaptations we all love), and the property show. And one of the ways to think about Amanda’s book is as an explanation of why that should be so. So we hoped we’d get as many of these genres’ audiences as possible. But also at the back of everyone’s minds on the series was the perception that history programmes on television are often very male in their language and focus. It’s always kings and wars and empires and weaponry and military derring-do. One of the things the Controller of BBC2, Janice Hadlow, who commissioned the series, was very clear about from the outset was that she hoped in some measure to redress that balance, and to see whether a more female audience might also be brought to history programmes. So it’ll be interesting to see whether that’s what happens. But certainly in my opinion it’s long overdue. It’s not just that Amanda is a bit different in her approach to the big male beasts of history television, the Starkeys and the Schamas. It’s more that the kinds of things she’s talking about – marriage, love, home, family, feelings, domestic politics, all the things Jane Austen talks about – are a vital part of our history too.
3) One of the means by which this series is sightly different from the norm is in its use of actors to re-enact the lives of some of Amanda’s diarists from her book, “Behind Closed Doors”, and not just employing voice- overs. I
think it works well as a device and makes their stories more immediate. Who was responsible for this decision? Was the casting of the actors difficult?
Before I’d come on board, the production company who made the series, Matchlight, had made the case to the BBC that there needed to be some sort of dramatisation. It just really helps you connect emotionally with the characters Amanda is talking about. But we all felt it was really crucial that we didn’t invent a single word – it had to be the unvarnished words of the diarists and letter writers she’d discovered.
And I hope your readers will agree that there’s a magic in seeing and hearing these ordinary people speak again in their own words from across the centuries. The difficulty in finding the actors wasn’t so much in casting people who could do it, but I was very aware that Amanda had lived with these people during her years of research and had very strong ideas of what they must have been like. But I think everyone’s risen to the challenge.
4) The locations used in the series are stunning- from the grand houses like Syon to the recreated workhouse. How did you choose which locations to include or exclude?
The choice of locations was very much led by the historical characters Amanda wanted to talk about. So yes, she does indeed take us into some amazing houses, but Amanda’s genius is to be able to relate them to the feelings and values and experiences of the people who lived there – and that’s what we’re all interested in.
But all of the dramatisations were in fact shot in four locations: two beautiful old early Georgian Huguenot weavers’ houses in Spitalfields, London, a little bit in Syon House, and also at Ditchley Park in Oxfordshire (which sharp-eyed viewers may spot also
served as Buckingham Palace in the film Young Victoria).
5) For potential viewers in the US, Australasia, Europe and the rest of the world who haven’t yet had the opportunity to see the programme, how would you sell it to them?Are there any plans to sell the series abroad? Are there
any plans to release a DVD of the series in the UK?
That’s really a question for the production company, Matchlight, but I’m sure they’ll be very keen to sell the series internationally, and it’s great to hear that you think there’s an appetite for programmes like this beyond Britain. So watch this space and we’ll keep you informed as and when we hear more.
I should like to thank Neil for his patience with my mundane and pedestrian manner of questioning( Journalist- in- Training Daughter shakes her head at my efforts)and for his generosity and kindness in answering the questions so fully, with such delicious detail. I do hope you enjoyed this different take on the series and how it was made.