It’s the new costume drama from the makers of Poldark – and hotly tipped to be another rip-roaring hit.
With a cast of stars from Michael Palin and Martin Clunes to Suranne Jones and Frances de la Tour, racy mini series Vanity Fair is bound to pull a big audience when it starts its seven-part screening next Sunday.
Based on the classic 1848 novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, it tells the story of social climber Becky Sharp – played by up and coming actress Olivia Cooke – and her ruthless attempts at making a better life for herself in 19th century high society.
But not everything went according to plan during filming. There were some hilarious moments behind the scenes during the six months it took to shoot it.
It’s Vanity Fair-eeezing
Filming, which took part mainly in the UK, ended in February, with the cast having to brave icy temperatures.
Screenwriter and executive producer Gwyneth Hughes revealed: “It was minus 10C when we were in Gloucestershire. You could see people’s breath.
“One scene was supposed to be set in India where bosoms were meant to be heaving and everyone sweating but there was not a bead of sweat on anyone’s forehead.”
The costume department had to come up with clever ways to keep body temperatures and spirits up in the long days of filming.
Designer Lucinda Wright said: “We got through endless hand-warmers. A lot of the ladies’ shoes were little silk slippers so we put the warmers in them before they came in.
“Other times they were in beautiful dresses with big furry boots underneath. And as beautiful as they look on camera, you’d never know how many reams of thermals they wore.”
Not plane sailing for Palin
Michael Palin, 75 – who plays author and narrator Thackeray – ended up having to shout his lines in West London stately home Syon House – because a Heathrow flight path was overhead. He had only one night to film his introductions to all seven episodes and ended up working into the small hours.
Weigh to go
Leading lady Olivia Cooke, 24 – star of Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi movie Ready Player One – found the best way to deal with wearing a Victorian corset was to skip meals during filming. “She didn’t bother eating while she had it on,” said Lucinda, 56. “Even though it fitted her perfectly. She said it was just easier.” The actress joked: “No wonder women wanted to be liberated. The corset is so stifling. You are strapped in first thing then on set for 13, 14 hours. It restricts your appetite. I lost so much weight.”
Clunacy on set
Martin, who plays rough-around-the-edges Sir Pitt Crawley, had colleagues in stitches between takes. He would crack jokes on set with cast and crew – even during the serious ballroom scenes.
“He was the funniest person I’ve ever met,” said Lucinda. “Even just seeing him have a cuppa would have us all in stitches. It takes a lot to make a crew laugh but we did.”
The ambitious adaptation was filmed at more than 30 different locations across England and in Hungary’s capital Budapest, which stood in for Brussels and the book’s fictional German town of Pumpernickel.
Many scenes were filmed in London, including Fitzroy Square, Lancaster House, Osterley House and Marble Hill. Beach scenes were shot at Deal in Kent. Set designers had to be at their most creative for the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens scenes shot for episode one in the grounds of 16th Century Syon House, home of the Duke of Northumberland.
Olivia, Claudia Jessie – who plays Becky’s pal Amelia – and male leads Johnny Flynn, Tom Bateman and Charlie Rowe are all part of scenes featuring fire breathers, tightrope walkers, an original Victorian carousel, a hot air balloon and a monkey.
Screenwriter Gwyneth, 64, said: “There was a level of hysteria that night, what with everyone being surrounded by fire eaters, the noise of the aeroplanes above, and the fact the younger cast had to go round on a carousel a hundred times. By the end they were all weeping with laughter.”
Hustle and bustles
Busy Lucinda and her team made over 2,000 period costumes for the 85 characters and their stunt doubles – shipping in material from as far afield as Italy. It was a challenge,” said Lucinda. “People think period is stuffy but I wanted to make it colourful and fun.”
Although Thackeray’s novel is set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, the 1815 Battle of Waterloo is notably absent from its pages. But Poldark producers Mammoth Screen were determined not to miss out. Military costumes were shipped from Poland for 400 extras who enacted the Duke of Wellington’s victory in a week of filming on a farm near Reading
“We wanted to give it a go – we were so tempted we couldn’t miss it,” said Gwyneth. And if we hadn’t followed the characters into battle we thought the audience would be disappointed.”
From karaoke nights to a shooting wrap party in a pub, the cast all got on famously behind the scenes.
While filming in Budapest they would head out to a bar at the end of the day. School of Rock stage star David Fynn, 35, who plays Amelia’s brother Jos Sedley, said: “Filming in Budapest was one of the first things we did and we got know each other.
“If we had days off we’d have a couple of drinks and be goofs.
“At one point we had a karaoke bar to ourselves and so people would endlessly get up and scream into the mic.”
To celebrate the show’s wrap the cast also went to a pub off London’s Fitzroy Square, where much of the filming took place.
“On the last day of filming when we all went out and got hammered,” added Lucinda. “That was hilarious.
“They were the nicest group of actors I’ve ever worked with.”
- Vanity Fair starts on September 2 at 9pm, ITV.
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