There was a time on TV when the phrase “period piece” conjured images of grand country estates, stiff corsets and even stiffer acting. But those days are gone, as evidenced by a trio of shows finding variety and vitality in the world of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, thanks in no small part to their talented production designers.
A newcomer this year, The Knick was created by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler and directed by Steven Soderbergh. Regular Soderbergh collaborator Howard Cummings is the man charged with bringing back to life Brooklyn’s Knickerbocker Hospital, which long since has been demolished.
“There’s never very much exchange with Steven about what he’s looking for,” laughs Cummings. “But on this one he did say, ‘If I could make this a black-and-white project I would, only no one would fund it.’ I took that and applied it to this world.”
While Manhattan has changed at a great pace since 1900, Brooklyn, by contrast, still boasts plenty of period buildings. In line with Soderbergh’s drive to shoot on location where possible, Cummings began by looking for period buildings to offer the show historical accuracy.
“Steven shoots with the RED (digital) camera and he really doesn’t like sets very much,” Cummings says. “He uses available lighting rather than a lot of film lighting. We started out thinking we’d find a location, but it soon became clear that wasn’t going to be a practical way to do it.”
Indeed, while there are exteriors that can be dressed by covering up modern street paraphernalia and coating the asphalt in a layer of dirt, hospital interiors like those at the Knickerbocker don’t exist at all. They’ve been—thankfully—modernized in the intervening century. “Most all of the hospital interiors are built,” says Cummings, “but that meant I could take Steven’s black-and-white idea and apply it to the hospital itself. The colors are black, white and four shades of grey, plus there’s brown from the wood paneling.”
Perhaps the most enticing things about the show’s bloody take on early 20th century medicine are the devices The Knick’s lead Dr. John Thackery—played by Clive Owen—employs to get the job done. “We got so much reference from this company in Chicago that manufactured medical devices,” recalls Cummings. “The wild contraptions they had developed are hard to believe, but they’re all real. Doctors used to create their own devices as they were inventing procedures.”
He teases: “In season two they get even more steam-punk!”
Stephen Knight’s Peaky Blinders, by contrast, favors fantasy over reality. Says production designer Grant Montgomery: “Stephen’s writing takes you to this other world, and you could just see it immediately, rooted in cinema history. It read like a Western, and the first movie that sprung to mind was Heaven’s Gate. That was the look; that was the feel.”
The show offers a window on a working class Britain of the early 20th century that few have explored, particularly outside of London. Following the titular gang of backstreet bookies, the show is set in a heavily-industrial Birmingham that is somehow romantic, despite the dirt and constant churn of manufacturing.
“There were lots of photographs of the original gangsters like Billy Kimber,” notes Montgomery. “But essentially there wasn’t much pictorial research in any great detail. It was a patchwork of different images of the original city. Birmingham was a great second city of the Empire, and it had a real style to it.”
The buildings were pitch black from the soot of all the munitions factories that Birmingham made its stock in trade. “At the start of the 20th century it was a powerhouse for weapons manufacturing and these furnaces never stopped,” Montgomery says. “For the show, it created an industrial backdrop that was key.”
From the very first scenes, there always has been a kinetic energy to Montgomery’s sets. As Cillian Murphy’s lead gangster Tommy Shelby trots down to the Garrison pub atop a horse, people rush to get out of his way and fireballs emerge from the blacksmith shop next door. On the soundtrack, Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand” crescendos, leaving us in no doubt that the Peaky Blinders are crime’s rock and rollers.
“People either get the cinematic references we use or they don’t,” notes Montgomery. “But you’re always mythologizing with Peaky Blinders. It’s a gangster epic and getting into all of that gives it a real life. It doesn’t become at all stodgy.”
For the second season, the predominant reference switched to The Godfather. “As Tommy’s ambitions increased, the world became about the perversion of gold,” Mongomery says. “And the size of the spaces we see gets larger too.”
The show’s success has impacted on modern day Birmingham—“you can now do Peaky Blinders tours of the city, and go to the real Garrison,” laughs Montgomery—but since it has shot mostly in Liverpool and Yorkshire, the real places won’t be very familiar. “The Garrison isn’t in an industrial area, and in fact our reference for it was a New York prohibition-era bar.”
It says something about the creative thinking production designers are responsible for that more historical reference has gone into the most defiantly fictional show. Penny Dreadful—created by Skyfall scribe John Logan—is set amongst monsters and the macabre, in the world of Dr. Frankenstein and Dorian Gray, but for production designer Jonathan McKinstry, authenticity was essential to sell the fantasy.
“We strived for historical accuracy to make the world our characters live in seem as real as possible,” notes McKinstry. “It had to be believable and I didn’t want it to become too fairytale and fantastical. There was a lot of real, human emotion in the storyline, aside from the fact they were these fictional characters. I wanted to entice the audience and make them feel this world could really exist.”
But at a certain point, adherence to reality can become slavish. “I try to read into what the characters are,” he notes. “Rather than faithfully recreate some background that might be historically accurate, I want to ask what their world would be and who they really are.”
The TV renaissance has offered an appetite for the rich worlds McKinstry can create, but it’s also increased the challenge of the job, he says. “Gone are the days in which you could say, ‘Oh it’s TV, people will never notice.’ You can probably get away with that more on the cinema screen now, because TV technology has changed so fast that people can look at their 65-inch, high definition screens and pause and rewind and really scrutinize.”
But the opportunity TV offers is to explore a story over an extended time period. “It’s hard to pull yourself away from these worlds,” he says. “And it’s nice to keep coming back to work with a strong team around you.”
McKinstry suspects that the late Victorian era proved such a fertile breeding ground for so many horror classics because it was ever changing. “People were writing these stories because they didn’t know how the world would work out,” he notes. “Where was this new technology going to lead them?”
Using the past as a tool with which to examine the present might, he thinks, explain the recent flurry of TV examining this period of history. “We’re going through similar changes now. All the technological change of computers and the Internet is making the present generation wonder where it will all end. Television really is reflecting back a time in which people were struggling with very similar feelings.”