Lucinda Wright talks exclusively to Clothes on Film about her contribution to ITV’s adaptation of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher starring Paddy Considine. The date: 1860. Place: South West England. Costumes: an elegant recreation of the revolutionary Victorian age.
Although probably known for costume designing the 2005 reboot of Doctor Who, Wright has worked in television since the late 1990s. She has also covered period costume before, principally with Henry VIII (2003) and Georgian era Fanny Hill (2007). The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is based on Kate Summerscale’s prize winning book about real life Scotland Yard detective Jack Whicher’s (Considine) investigation of an infant murder and his controversial conclusion that lead to national outcry. It is sober yet gripping drama.
Clothes on Film, Chris: How did you go about researching the period?
Lucinda Wright: There were two areas of research that needed to be fully explored for this particular production; the historical construction and style of the clothes of 1860 and secondly, to examine all the detailed accounts about the real life characters – Jack Whicher, Constance and all her family, with exposure of the Road Hill House Murder.
Firstly, an in depth reading of the many costume reference books I have amassed over the years and a visit to the V&A (museum). Also a trip to the Bath Museum of Costume to study the fabrics and actual clothes was a good foundation for designing this period.
Before working on the script, I read Kate Summerscale’s book, on which the drama is based, to gain background to the characters. It was a marvellous source of photographs, journalists’ accounts with artistes’ sketches of the Court cases illustrating exactly the outfits that Constance, Elizabeth Gough and many other principle characters had worn. I also read the 1970s book, Cruelly Murdered by Bernard Taylor and the Murder Most Foul by Paul Chambers, which day by day describes everyone’s movements especially the police work of Foley against Whicher’s endeavours to succeed. All these manuscripts gave me an invaluable picture of their lives, the costumes and the true characters of the people in Road Hill.
Lastly, I visited the archive section of Devizes library, the town where Constance was held in jail and the village itself, Rode, formally Road. It was interesting to see how grand the house and grounds of Langham House, or Hill House as it is now known, were. The village felt sleepy, quiet, remote – miles away from London. It certainly made you realise the scandal and horror Victorian England must have felt at that time – a real shocker.
CoF: How essential was costume design to telling the story?
LW: The costumes needed to portray the harsh, raw story of a child murder in a very bleak and unforgiving Victorian England; also to show the clashing ideals and traditions of the upper middle classes versus the working classes with the contrasting worlds of the city and the countryside. It was necessary to create a distinctive colour palette, with bold harsh silhouettes for each character to convey the mood of the piece. The major colours were purples, greens, metallic greys and, of course, black. This was not a romantic story, so gone were the yellows, reds, blues, or any pretty patterns of that period. Fabrics were slightly shabby, stained cottons, scuffed leathers; out were the quaint Lacy collars, stripped down to the basics.
CoF: How important was it that you create a strong visual iconography for Detective Jack Whicher?
LW: The arrival of Mr Whicher represented, to me, the lone outsider entering a tough situation; a claustrophobic world of menace and the old ways, i.e. the classic theme of Westerns. Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock; this is the look and mood I strived for. Whicher needed to have a strong silhouette, instantly recognisable whilst walking the streets of Road. This costume evolved from the fitting with Paddy. I wanted only his neckties to be the items Whicher would change daily for these reasons:
1. He believed that the case would be solved in a few weeks, so he wasn’t planning on being there long.
2. I find it very unrealistic and distracting when characters on film keep changing for the sake of it and
3. Who has the time, on such a tight shooting schedule?
CoF: Whicher’s clothing seems to deconstruct in line with his life, as he succumbs to alcoholism in the latter part of the narrative…
LW: The decline and frustration of Whicher was portrayed in the dishevelled appearance of the rough shirt and trousers; abandoning his look was in contrast to the rise of Dolly (William Beck) to Detective Inspector, with his flash black and purple pinstripe outfit. But we do go full circle when Whicher emerges in a new suit and constant bowler hat with coat for the last court case. Jack was back.
CoF: Whicher’s primary overcoat, presumably based on a Chesterfield, features two parallel rows of buttons down the front. What were they used for?
LW: I suppose the buttons are a detail, to me, on that style of coat. I approach Period production with the idea that a certain style of the era is vital, but with a sense of contemporary design. If the garments look right, it doesn’t matter if they are earlier or dated much later to the period.
CoF: As Constance Kent, Alexandra Roach wears a full-skirted mourning dress. How was it constructed?
LW: Constance’s black mourning outfit consisted of corset, crinoline, two petticoats – one a flounce, the black silk dress altered to fit Alexandra, a black mantle with trims, bonnet and a ribbon ties, plus the lace veil. The costume was an exact copy of a sketch of Constance in Temperance Hall (in Road) published in the Bath Chronicle newspaper during the trial. I chose that design of lace so the camera could focus on Alex’s innocent eyes. It was important to keep a sense of realism throughout the film by recreating the actual outfits worn by the characters.
CoF: Women’s clothing became progressively simpler during the 1860s. Did you strive to reflect this?
LW: The majority of women’s costumes were stripped of any fancy, romantic, lacy details; the simpler the better as the crinoline alone gave wonderful movement to blocks of colour – a strong image.
CoF: Constance’s aubergine house dress is seemingly reflective of this point….
LW: The aubergine dress was chosen as it followed the colour palette. It was bold, with a rough fabric that emphasised the second hand clothes given from her stepmother, Mrs Kent (Emma Fielding). In my research, I had found that many articles discussed an ‘unnerving stillness’ which belonged to Constance, and I felt this costume said it all. Also, it was a colour to contrast with Whicher’s greens and then the dramatic move into mourning black.
CoF: Dolly Williamson’s plaid overcoat and patterned waistcoats marked him out as a more youthful and fashionable man than Whicher. Was this your intention?
LW: Dolly’s costumes represented the stylish, colourful and fashionable world of London in contrast to the muted, rustic hues of the villagers of Road. He was a flamboyant character, a joker whose jaunty personality was an excellent foil to the solid, reliable and experienced Whicher. This was seen in the choice of Dolly’s golden embroidered waistcoats set against Jack’s more tweedy style of dress.
CoF: Even though they were popular at the time, Samuel Kent (Peter Capaldi) is the only main character to wear a top hat. Was this to reflect his latterly superior position in society?
LW: The character of Mr Kent was of a complex man; a facade, layers of deceit; a hypocrite who was revealed by the costumes of his public image and his private one.
Indeed, the outfit of the successful, rich Victorian landowner, the top hat, brocade frock coat; the complete look was to portray the position of power held by Kent in Road. Yet, in reality, he was of lowly origins. In debt; he only rented Hill House and believed himself to be better than he was, and loathed in the village. In the opening scene, his day wear is slightly too worn – a crumpled soft collar, faded woollen frock coat and rough brown trousers; all creating an unconventional private image of the supposed ‘lord of the manor’.
CoF: Superintendent Folly’s (Tom Georgeson) police uniform is somewhat similar to that worn by Jude Law in Sherlock Holmes (2009), a Blues Patrol tunic as selected by Jenny Beavan. Folly was presumably allowed to wear his military uniform on duty as a police officer?
LW: The choice of costume was determined by the research photos of the police force in 1860. Foley was part of the Wiltshire County Constabulary, the oldest force in England at that time. As most uniforms originated from the military, Foley needed a strong, visual look to show the traditional formality of the police; his chosen outfit said this. With pips for his position as superintendent and the ribbon of the Sinde Medal of 1843, he was complete. A key scene to illustrate the old versus new is Whicher’s arrival at the train station; whereas Foley is decked out in uniform plus swagger stick and gloves, Jack is the radical plain clothes detective.
CoF: How did you actually become involved in this project?
LW: In early August (2010), I received a call from James Hawes, a director I had previously worked on Enid (2009, about the life of Enid Blyton starring Helena Bonham Carter), discussing this project which would start filming in early October. I immediately started doing my research as, officially, I would only have four weeks prep. The ninety minute drama The Suspicions of Mr Whicher was shot over four weeks in and around London with Bampton (in Oxfordshire) doubling as the streets of Road. It certainly was a thrilling and unique production to be part of and we seemed to film at a fair lick.
CoF: Did you make most of the principle costumes yourself?
LW: The budget determined that I would need to hire the majority of costumes and only certain items could be made up from scratch. I sourced the costumes from various costume houses, trawled the stocks of theatres and shopped for fabrics in markets. It was in the fittings where the look was created, by working on the actors’ frame, adding and taking away the trims and breaking down fabrics. The only makes were a Saville’s nightdress to fit a dummy, where I had to determine the level of blood and dirt, and the breast flannel, also to be drenched in blood and foul matter. Both items were constructed in the department with me doing the final breakdown for the camera on set.
With thanks to Lucinda Wright.
You can watch Paddy Considine in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher at LOVEFiLM.com.
© 2011 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.