Having explored the bottom of the London race, class and economic ladder with his gritty sleeper debut "Bullet Boy," director Saul Dibb scrutinizes the very top in "The Line of Beauty." BBC mini, originally broadcast in three one-hour parts, faithfully transcribes Alan Hollinghurst's Man Booker Prize-winning novel about a young gay man given giddy --then disillusioning -- entree to the innermost circles of Tory wealth and power during the go-go Thatcherite 1980s. Juicy, incisive drama will be in demand by the book's many offshore fans as a DVD item. Discreet trimming could also make limited theatrical exposure possible.
Middle-class scholarship student Nick Guest (Dan Stevens) becomes best mates at Oxford with Toby (Oliver Coleman), scion of rising Tory member of Parliament Gerald Fedden (Tim McInnerny). Their platonic (if subtly yearning on Nick's part) friendship leads to a post-graduation offer that Nick move into the Feddens' London manse. He's ostensibly there to work on his thesis project (tellingly, about upper-crust critic and portraitist Henry James). But the Faddens' glittering world of European summer homes, parties, and infinitely high connections proves mightily distracting.
While he's treated -- more or less -- as a member of the family, there's also the tacit understanding that he has certain duties consisting primarily of being a "friend" to Toby's troubled sis Catherine or Cat (Hayley Atwell), who's rebellious, unstable and occasionally suicidal. As such she's something of an inconvenience and embarrassment to ambitious Gerald and glacially composed wife Rachel (Alice Krige). It's Nick's job to keep her out of trouble while not appearing to be her designated watchdog.
Kate Lewis, The Line of Beauty's Producer, describes how the novel was adapted for television.
Being one of the generation of 'Thatcher's children,' I was captivated when I read Alan Hollinghurst's witty and beautifully written novel set in 1980s London. It was fascinating to look back at Thatcherism, excess, the tabloid scandals and AIDS with the perspective of the intervening years. And it's also a real page turner with richly textured characters and an ending that packs a punch.
Andrew Davies, the adaptation maestro, had suggested the novel to the BBC and was to write the screenplay. It felt daunting to be adapting such a highly regarded novel, but having worked with Andrew as a script editor numerous times, I reckoned he could pull it off if anyone could.
The novel went on to win the prestigious Man Booker Prize, and I found myself rather star struck when sitting down for dinner with Alan a month later. In fact, he couldn't have been nicer. He's a courteous and modest man, softly spoken though occasionally revealing a flash of the biting wit that makes his novels so remarkable. And his enthusiasm for the project was infectious.
Andrew found the novel lent itself well to adaptation. Nick's story fitted neatly into three parts, and the detail with which Alan had drawn his characters meant that there was loads of brilliant dramatic material that Andrew could distil and shape.
Fans of the novel will notice a few changes - Nick's introduction to the house and the foregrounding of the Feddens' charming but emotionally unstable daughter - but overall it's a pretty faithful adaptation.
We were keen to find a cinematic director, but one who would keep things simple and concentrate on the nuances of text and performance. Saul Dibb had just received great plaudits for his remarkable debut film, Bullet Boy.
Although very different from The Line of Beauty, he pointed out some interesting parallels between the two pieces - both are about life in London and dysfunctional families. But importantly, he had got these wonderful performances from a cast who were almost entirely non-actors.
With Saul aboard, the next challenge was casting. We didn't have a lot of time, especially as we wanted our young leads to be completely new to the screen. We were fortunate to get aboard casting directors Kate Rhodes James and Andy Morgan, who have a sharp eye for new talent and had just assembled a stunning cast of young actors for the BBC's Bleak House.
They spent weeks with Saul, meeting the industry's brightest young talent, work-shopping them over and over. Dan Stevens, who plays Nick, was finally recalled after being up all night at the Edinburgh Festival.
He was so exhausted but did the most incredible audition. We thought, "Imagine what he can do if he gets some sleep!"
We wanted to give this sense of freshness to the rest of the casting too. For example, Tim McInnerny, who plays Gerald Fedden, is well known in theatre and film but hasn't had a big profile on television in recent years. The most familiar TV face is probably Don Gilet, who plays Leo, but he just did such an incredible audition we had to cast him.
Filming was a challenge, especially recreating Notting Hill in the 80s and sunny South of France on a cold Autumn afternoon in Sussex. But the young leads were incredible, especially Dan who was in almost every scene.
Alan came along to watch a lot of filming. Having writers on set can be tricky, as they often get frustrated that things aren't as they had imagined. (Andrew Davies is often humorously quoted for saying that he prefers his authors not to be living!) But Alan was great, standing back with an objective and generous eye but filling in the gaps when we needed.
Alan says he likes what we have done with his novel, though I know that he is too polite and generous to say otherwise. But I hope there is some truth in this, as there will be many fans of the novel waiting to lynch us if we get it wrong.
Melanie Allen, The Line of Beauty's Production Designer, reveals how she made the show look convincingly 1980s.
"A set designer does all the backdrops for the film. We don't do costume, but we do all the props, furniture and locations," explains Melanie.
"We choose the locations with the director (Saul Dibb) and the locations manager, and we dress all the interiors."
For a drama like this, where getting the right look is vital, research is key, says Melanie. "The research is an ongoing thing. You start immediately and you never finish. I have ten weeks prep and the entire time alongside everything else, somebody on the team is researching."
Melanie and her team looked at a huge range of references to get the design on The Line of Beauty right.
"We started with the novel, and then went on to references. I did an interior design degree and I graduated in 1985, so I have a lot of reference books.
There was an exhibition called The Europeans [by Tina Barney]* at the Barbican, and a book. It was photographs of aristocrats across Europe, all contacted through Sothebys. That was my starting point for the Feddens."
"We mixed in photographic books like Martin Par, and also a lot of interior decoration books like Terrence Conran's Home Furnishings came out in the 1980s. We just montaged loads and loads of references, so we knew exactly what would have been used in the 80s, the shapes of milk bottles, the cars, the graphics, the subtle differences."
"Then we went to a local history group in Notting Hill itself and got photographs of Notting Hill in the 80s. There are still parts of it that don't look that much different, Some of the shop fronts haven't changed in thirty years. But you have to be quite selective where you use to get the feeling of the 80s, because it just wasn't as wealthy then. It was rougher, untidier, and grungier."
"We had to make quite a lot of calls to check things like what the dustbins were like back then, were the market signs up, that sort of thing. We'd look at pictures and say, "Oh yes that lampost's fine."
It's such an age of was there or wasn't there. For instance, satellite dishes didn't come in until the late 80s. We had to make sure we had all our own dressing vehicles, because there's very few cars around that were around in the 80s."
Once the locations had been decided on, Melanie's work came to the fore.
"At the Feddens' we had to dress absolutely everything because the location was full of expensive antiques they didn't want us to damage, so we were starting from scratch. And at Nick's parents', the house that we found had a very good exterior, and the right size living room that went through to the back garden, but the interior was completely wrong. So we had to redress it."
"You have to empty the room of furniture, you've hired all the furniture, and you bring it all with you. You spend two or three days dressing the whole room to shoot."
Melanie stresses that it's important to remember that there was huge variety in interior decoration in the 80s.
"There's three very different worlds. There's the aristocratic, Tory world, which is very wealthy, then there's the middle classes, and then there's the working-classes of Leo and Russell."
"A lot of the wealthy world is timeless. We made a definite decision to keep it as timeless as possible, so it didn't feel laden with 80s references. It's all classic antiques."
"Stately homes haven't changed, probably since the 50s. That whole world stepped out of fashion, in a way. The things that would be different would be the telephones, cookers, appliances and so on, but it's a very subtle level of detail that you have to change."
The props themselves come from many sources.
"There are hire companies, and the prop buyer has done a lot of period drama. She's very resourceful. She went through all the magazines like Harpers and Vogue, got stuff through eBay, went to specialists that she knows, and to the hire companies."
One setting Melanie worked hard on recreating was the middle-class home of Nick's parents, the Guests.
"It's about depicting his parents, who we know own an antiques shop, to get the feeling of their status, their world. It's very important to know where Nick's come from. You feel comfortable at the mum and dad's, but you see the contrast with the Feddens. It feels like a mini-antique shop in the house."
"We redressed the house with lots of little bits. It's full of the patterns that were around in the 80s, which was very concerned with coordination of curtains and carpets and bedspreads. It's that Laura Ashley world."
"Soft furnishings were big in the 80s, Melanie observes. "And wallpaper everywhere. Another thing we used for reference were films and TV series like Mona Lisa and Edge of Darkness that were out in the mid-80s. When they're not trying, you notice all the papers and the detail and the phones in the background."
"It's a world we're more familiar with than the Feddens. Nick's parents might still have that sofa now! It's quite boring, quite beige. My feeling about these places is that they're dead on a Sunday afternoon."
"Although it's very lovely, you'd understand why Nick wants to leave there and become part of the Feddens' world. That's the balance we had to get. It was difficult not to be patronizing, but you have to feel it's slightly claustrophobic, and that's why he wanted to go."
"It's so well described in the novel that you can see it when you read it."
In stark contrast to the homely comfort of Nick's parents was the privileged life of the Feddens. Melanie described the process of getting the pool at their French holiday home just right.
"The French pools are mostly stone or rendered, not red brick. And we also used Hockney paintings as reference. It's not just about looking French. Yes, it's got to believably belong to the Feddens, it's got to feel 80s, and it's got to feel French. But the most important thing is it feels right for the story and the scene."
"We found wooden seats to go round the pool. Most outdoor furniture is plastic now, although you do get teak too. But you have to beware of the associations people have. You might find that yes, those teak chairs were around then, but if Homebase has been stocking them for the last five years, we all associate them with now and it doesn't feel 80s."
"So we spent the money on upholstering furniture for the Feddens' pool, because it had to feel very luxurious and it had to feel exclusive, and we invested quite a lot of money in planting around the pool as well. Everywhere you go in the Feddens' world has got to be absolutely beautiful. The pool feels quite 80s, which is quite nice, but it doesn't feel any more modern than that."
Another important location was Wani's luxurious batchelor pad, probably the setting Melanie's proudest of.
Wani's was the most 80s, and I think we depicted his character well for the time. With anything that's period it's still about telling the story visually, not just recreating the era. We went for his background. He's Lebanese, he's a playboy, he's gay and he's got a lot of money. So we went for high design but fitting his character."
"We started looking at loft apartments, but there's a much longer association with them in the 1990s. And we realized we could get the look of wealth by going for a traditional space and then putting in plain black leather sofas. We mixed in antiques, and I went to an artist and got the paintings."
"It was very masculine, but it was mixed in with Wani's world. There was actually a Philip Stark interior from the same time that has the same mixture of extremely ornate interiors with leather sofas. So that's the way we went."
Another crucial aspect to get right was the characters' cars.
"We didn't want clichéd 80s cars. It's very easy to make a pastiche of the 80s, and get everything that's like a classic 80s vehicle, but we wanted them to feel real. We went for stuff that wasn't a design classic necessarily, but that people were really driving," says Melanie.
"The Feddens' Range Rover was specified in the book, but we made the decision that we wanted a blue car, because they were in the city. It just felt right for them, and that's the important thing with all the vehicles."
"Toby had the Golf. It feels so basic now, but at the time it was a really prestigious car! Now the value has gone down on all these vehicles, it makes you chuckle and think, "Wow, I remember when those were around and everybody wanted one, and they look really basic now."
Will the final result be seen as a period piece? Melanie thinks it depends on your definition of "period".
"Do you know, what will be interesting is what people who are 20 think. For those of us who are older, it still doesn't feel period. It will be interesting if people notice how period it is."
Locations manager Patrick Schweitzer talks about finding the right settings for The Line of Beauty.
The Feddens' House
"Knowing that it was going to be 1980s, it was always going to be quite a tricky thing. For me, it's very recent, but things have changed so much that filming the street sequences was going to be very complicated." says Patrick.
"Finding the Feddens' house was the initial one to crack. It has an awful lot of action, there's cars pulling up, photographers... Basically we had to have flexibility to clear a whole street, and believe that it was the 1980s with set dressing. It was all very subtle, but there is still a difference, the road markings weren't really there, that sort of thing."
Although everyone was keen to find a house in Notting Hill, doing so proved problematic.
"My job, while in some ways incredibly exciting and very creative, is also very restrictive. I'm the messenger of doom and gloom because I deal with the councils and the police who come back and say, 'You can't do that, what were you thinking of?'" says Patrick ruefully.
"I have a little bugbear about Kensington and Chelsea - they have such a restrictive filming policy. On Kensington Park Gardens, where the story is set, you are not even allowed to place a camera on the pavement."
But Patrick's years of experience meant he had an alternative up his sleeve. "There's a very good street [Tredegar Square] in the East End that looks very Notting Hill, all white stucco. It's a Square that you can lock off the whole top side of. The residents are absolutely lovely, and it's got a garden square in the middle. I personally think it's very believable as Notting Hill. Maybe we shouldn't be telling anyone it isn't!"
The crew did get to do some filming in Notting Hill though.
"We filmed in a real communal gardens [in Notting Hill], where the residents were really wonderful and co-operative, and there were little gems like recreating a whole section on the real Portobello Road. That was really exciting to set up and everybody was surprisingly helpful behind the scenes."
With the exterior of the Fedden home sorted, an interior to match had to be found.
"It's a real house, just north of Boreham Wood, called High Canons," explains Patrick. "What I find great about it is that it's proportioned in the same way as a London town house, whilst it's a completely detatched country house in acres of land.
"The way it's structured means you can film in a way that's believable as a London town house. It also gives you huge flexibility as a crew, because it means you can have your costume and makeup facilities outside, and much more space for the crew to work in. Even the most expensive London town houses are fairly small once you use them for film sets. You spread everywhere!"
Another important location was Lord Kessler's house, the scene of Toby Fedden's 21st birthday party in episode 1.
"That was at Wrotham Park, which is in Barnet." says Patrick. "It's a beautiful house belonging to the Byng family. Still privately owned, but they rent out the main body of the house for private events and have filming there. We were trying to play off the different textures.
"The Manoir, Kessler's, the Feddens', they needed to look slightly different, so you got their different status in the world. It was all given a very rich feel, so their life immediately felt exclusive, and you suddenly entered into their world of money and the Thatcherite era.
The Feddens' holiday home of Le Manoir isn't really in France, Patrick reveals.
"It's a fantastic, beautiful house called Firle Place, just outside Lewes, which is owned by Lord Gage. It was actually built in French stone, which his ancestors brought through the canals of France and shipped to England. We were initially thinking we might well have to go to France, but that was an amazing find, only an hour and a half's drive away. And Lord Gage could not be more helpful. He has beautiful family possessions all over the house and we were made incredibly welcome.
However, Patrick admits that a bit of location trickery was used in the poolside scenes.
"We shot that at Wrotham Park, because Lord Gage's pool didn't look French enough, whereas the pool at Wrotham Park looked a lot more French. So there's a little bit of cheat going on when they walk away from the pool and into the Manoir. It's really two hours drive and two weeks apart in filming time."
THE ART OF ADAPTATION