Q&A: ‘The Crown’ production designer Martin Childs shares how he creates those lavish sets
Netflix’s “The Crown” may have assumed a darker tone in Season 2 as Queen Elizabeth II struggles to juggle both monarchy and marriage, yet the show’s period sets continue to dazzle.
The lavish big budget production was shot over eight months on 398 sets, which explains why the series is so popular with design fans. For this reason, it’s somewhat surprising to hear production designer Martin Childs describe his mind-set as one based on restraint.
“Subtlety is a double-edged sword or, being British and subtle, I like to call it more of a double-edged butter-knife,” Childs said in an email. “Philip in the tropics is a case in point, or Margaret’s discovery of a more permissive, bohemian lifestyle. It has to creep up on the audience rather than bang them over the head.”
When viewers witness Queen Elizabeth “back in that familiar old palace with those familiar courtiers, being exposed to Philip’s and Margaret’s actions,” her isolation is inarguable.
For further insights and trivia about “The Crown,” Childs agreed to answer some questions about the production via email:
What item gets the most “Where can I get that?” questions?
I love it most when it’s not an item of impossible furniture, like a throne with an “E” on it. Recently, I was asked where I got a light box like Tony Armstrong-Jones has in his studio. The more mundane the request, the more I feel people are noticing the detail and that’s pretty gratifying.
Do you rent, buy or build the furniture?
All of the above: Rent, buy, build. We rent furniture that’s so grand it’s impossible to buy, we [buy] things for when the sets are likely to repeat themselves and we build when something is totally unique, like the crazy coronation chair in Season 1. Everything rented or bought is genuine and from that period. Our craftsmen are more than sufficiently skilled to be able, on occasion, to replicate what can’t be bought or rented.
Do you have any actual relics of Windsor or the other royal homes in the sets?
Nothing that real, no, but I’m flattered you think there might be. We must be getting our fakery right!
How do you research the sets? Are they based on books and original photos?
I read books, I look at paintings, I research photographs. We’re re-creating a period that’s covered by movies shot on location, some in color, so there’s a wealth of visual stuff out there. It’s a matter of going through it until you find your “Eureka!” moment that gives you the key to what you hope to convey.
The characters are isolated. In what way do the set choices reflect that?
Isolation was the key to designing and building the private apartments at Buckingham Palace. The facts tell you that Elizabeth’s bedroom is separated from Philip’s by two dressing rooms. The facts tell you that in houses like Buckingham Palace, rooms are arranged in an enfilade, connected via doorways that frame the rooms beyond, one leading to the next and so on. Combining these two and placing the beds centrally in the frame seemed to me to be a perfect metaphor for this particular marriage -- isolation, separation, distance, formality, absence, the meeting in the middle and the resulting significance of one coming to the other.
Around 20 or so years ago I designed the sets for a low-budget film called “Mrs Brown,” where priorities had to be firmly laid out. We had a small woman in black. What better way to show her astonishing wealth (when you have none in your budget) than to place her, with greatest respect to Dame Judi [Dench], black silhouette, alone, in the most extravagant room you could afford. I brought that graphic simplicity to “The Crown” and ran with it.
In the first three episodes of Season 2, you’ll notice the royal suite on Britannia has a similar arrangement to Buckingham Palace…. Philip’s absence becomes a presence in Buckingham Palace, Elizabeth’s absence becomes a presence on Britannia.
The interiors are filled with artwork, which is tricky for production designers. Are they custom painted?
There are occasions when the clearance department forbids use of certain artwork so we have to find or make our own. It’s a lot easier than newspapers, magazines and books, all of which we create ourselves.
How do the interiors reflect not just the era but “The Crown’s” particular tone and theme (that the monarchy needs a makeover to survive in a world where non-royals seem to have more fun).
You always need a counterpoint. For Season 1 it was postwar austerity. For Season 2 it’s the dawn of the more permissive ’60s. London doesn’t suddenly go all Austin Powers and Carnaby Street. The luxury of long-form TV is that you can introduce these things subtly, by stealth, leaving some of the world as it was in order to notice what it’s becoming.
Can we look for any hidden messages (Easter eggs) in the set? Deliberate anachronisms, nods to the current players like Princes Harry and William?
Nothing deliberate, though given that history repeats itself, there’ll inevitably be some signs and signifiers that I don’t know about but in years to come I can pretend I knew all along and placed deliberately!
What was the inspiration for the outrageous floral sprays?
Real life! The palace floristry team is at work constantly and we have a one-woman equivalent in the form of the wonderful Helen Byrne. Her job is pretty much like the costume designer’s: Show the changing fashions, who’s keeping up and who’s left behind. In fact the royal wedding in Season 1 was nothing like we portrayed it. It was quite an austere affair. But ... you have to balance facts with emotional truth. When we portrayed postwar austerity and neglect, it looked like a creative choice rather than a pragmatic one. [Winston] Churchill’s bedroom is a better place to tell that story than a royal wedding.
How did you arrive at Margaret’s modern “egalitarian” apartment design?
Research, simply that. The crazy cooker hood was designed by Tony Armstrong-Jones so that’s one set I can’t take all the credit for!
Any tips on what to expect in Season 3? Are you looking for ’70s home décor right now?
I do have one or two surprises lined up but I’m afraid you’ll have to wait and see, otherwise they won’t be surprises.
Season 1 and 2 of “The Crown” are currently streaming on Netflix.
Jan. 11, 5:03 p.m.: This story was updated to clarify a quote regarding when set items are rented, and when they are bought.
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