If you’ve been craving your dose of Sunday night period drama since ‘Downton Abbey’ finished three years ago, ITV has the perfect replacement with their much-hyped adaptation of ‘Vanity Fair’, which finally arrives on screens this weekend.
Despite the four BBC versions that have gone before it, this one promises to be bigger, bolder and brasher than any of them - not least because of the all-star cast it boasts, which includes Suranne Jones, Martin Clunes and Frances De Le Tour.
And while working on a show of such scale - and also one whose story is so beloved thanks to William Mackepeace Thackeray’s classic novel - is the dream job for most actors, it is not without its hard work. Yes, believe it or not, filming a period drama is not just one massive game of dressing up.
Ahead of the series’ debut, we sat down with actor Charlie Rowe, who plays George Osborne, to talk through what life is really like behind the scenes...
The audition process was a thoroughly modern one
Charlie was working in Canada in June last year when he got the call for the audition. After heading back to the UK for the initial 15-minute meeting with bosses, his call-back was throughly modern - if not a little flawed.
“I went back to Canada and continued working on my job and got a message from the director asking to Skype and talk through the scene again,” he says. “We spoke, but there was no signal and we both kept freezing - it was terrible!
“In the end I had to send him an email with a recording of me doing the scenes with the notes he’d given me, and a week later I got the part.”
Charlie had two months to brush up on his ‘Vanity Fair’ knowledge before filming started
With filming on the series beginning at the end of August last year, Charlie had just two months to discover the world of Vanity Fair after landing the role.
“I didn’t study it at school,” he says. “I was aware of Thackery, but I didn’t know the story. My friends seemed to think I was doing an adaptation of the magazine!
“I bought and read the book, and tried to do as much background work as possible without knowing any of the other cast, and without even being in London. I was actually only back in the country for about three days before we started filming.”
Hair, costume and make-up were the first port of call for the cast
After meeting all of his cast mates, Charlie’s first job was to attend costume fittings and meetings with the hair department to discuss how his character would look.
“You go into the costume studio and work through the outfits, telling the team what you like, want you don’t, and what feels right and what doesn’t,” he reveals.
While it is a collaborative process, Charlie didn’t have a lot of say on how his hair and - most importantly - his sideburns would look like.
“I had to get a big haircut as it had grown really long,” he says. “They wanted to make me look a lot more formal and a lot less shaggy.
“George is described as having ‘faintly delicious whiskers’ in the book, but my sideburns were non-existent before - I didn’t have any. So we went through a few wig sideburns that get stuck on, but the director said they were a bit too big. They asked me to try and grow them, but I knew that wasn’t going to happen for a very long time,” he laughs.
“So what Vicky, my make-up artist, decided to do, was to glue them on hair-by-hair each day. It probably took an hour and 20 minutes to put them on each day.”
He adds: “What I found interesting about talking to the hair and make-up team is that they didn’t want to alienate the audience with these period haircuts and costumes. They wanted to try and tone it down to keep everyone on board, otherwise they can become distracting.”
Filming the seven episodes took nearly four months
Having begun filming in August, the cast and crew didn’t actually wrap until January. Luckily though, there were some breaks in the schedule for those characters, like Charlie’s, who didn’t feature as heavily.
“I had two weeks every now-and-then off,” he reveals. “Olivia Cooke and Tome Bateman [who play Becky Sharp and Rawdon Crawley] though, they were in all the time. They must have been completely knackered.”
The series was mostly shot in central London
Filming took place in and around London, with many of the houses located in the Bloomsbury area of the capital.
“The interiors of the Sedley house, Amelia’s house, my house - that was all filmed in the same houses that we filmed the exterior shots at in Fitzrovia Square,” Charlie reveals.
“There’s something about filming in London that I got very excited about, especially being a London boy, it was a dream come true.”
A typical day on set is long - very long
“If you’re shooting there all day, you’re picked up about 5.30am, get there at 6am and go straight into hair and make-up where you get a cup of coffee and and a bacon roll,” Charlie explains.
“I’d sit and chat to Vicky, my make-up artist, and go over my lines before going to rehearse that day’s scenes with the other actors and the director for about 30 minutes. Then when everyone is ready to see it, we bring the crew in, who start lighting it and positioning the cameras, and that’s when we get changed. The women have corsets, and everything takes longer for them, and they have to get there earlier too.
“Some scenes are filmed on one camera on one shot, but that doesn’t mean it takes any less time, because we then rehearse more to make sure everyone is on the same page.”
The cast would film about four to five pages of script a day, which works out at about three to four scenes.
Charlie comments that this is “actually pretty quick”, but adds: “But by 5.30pm, you’re a ghost on legs.”
He continues: “Usually then we’d finish on set about 7pm, but then you have to go back to base, get out of costume and de-wig, and only then is it home time. In the car on the way home, you’re learning lines for the next day, and then it all starts again.”
Downtime on set is incredibly surreal
“It’s very odd,” Charlie says. “You have all these people who are dressed as soldiers from the Battle of Waterloo just hanging out having a chat, or having a cigarette or eating food. But we spend a lot of time milling about - we all get very bored when we’re not needed on set.
“We had a really great time though. There was a really tight-knit group of us who spent a lot of time laughing together, trying not to fall asleep.”
The cast and crew were on high alert for continuity errors
“The ‘Downton Abbey’ water bottle mishap was in everyone’s heads,” Charlie admits, referencing the infamous promotional photo for the period drama that saw a stray plastic bottle find its way into shot. “But we were all pretty good at keeping that stuff away from set,” he says.
“That isn’t to say there weren’t moments where there was a car in the background. They would happen - not a lot - but it definitely did.”
However immersive filming the show might have been, with all the costumes and incredible props, the reality of the real world was never far away, though.
“It is quite funny when you’re doing a scene in Fitzroy Square and behind the camera there is a massive white van and a queue of people waiting to cross the road that are being held back by the crew,” Charlie laughs. “We’d built these beautiful sets that had been dressed incredibly, but about 10 feet away is the real modern world.”
The Battle Of Waterloo scenes feature over 200 extras and 50 stunt horses
And despite not being full-time members of the cast, they were still completely committed, and very method in their approach.
“All of the extras had a week of military bootcamp together beforehand, and a lot of them even camped together in the field we shoot the battle sequence in,” Charlie explains.
“They would work all day pretending to be this army, but would then camp together each night. I was so unbelievably impressed at how much they wanted to feel this camaraderie.”
And the biggest challenge of working on the show was...
For Charlie, it wasn’t just a case of turning up and being able to deliver the lines - he really had to work hard to inhabit George.
“There’s a whole set of manners and the way people hold themselves is completely different to the way I was brought up and the way me and my friend hold ourselves,” he says.
“It’s so far from today and what I know that it can be a real challenge to keep that up all the time.”
But having seen the first few episodes, we can confirm Charlie - and indeed the rest of the cast - nailed it.
‘Vanity Fair’ begins on Sunday 2 September at 9pm on ITV, with the second episode following on Monday.