Rye stars in television jewel

Having fun on set are Anna Chancellor, Miranda Richardson, Gemma Whelan and Jeremy White

I’m standing on West Street by Lamb House, but the sign above the door reads “Mallards” and a deep commanding voice calls for silence. For West Street is now a BBC set in the latest television adaptation of EF Benson’s Mapp & Lucia.

They rehearse every shot for the camera as well as for the actors. It is time consuming but the hard-working crew’s attention to detail is meticulous. As well as actors and extras the set is home to chippies, hairdressers, makeup artists, designers, directors, assistants, camera operators and even chefs, all on standby to tweak and make everything just so. This hive of activity in the morning sun of another beautiful day in Rye feels like it could be the best job in the world. But come rain or shine, the days can be long, often starting at 7am and going on until late evening.

To explore the production process I am introduced to the queen bees, Executive Producer Lisa Osborne and producer Susie Liggat. Their role is to deliver, financially and editorially, the programme the BBC has commissioned, very much like strict project managers. Both are delighted to be filming in Rye. But what’s it like filming everything on location in one place? Emmy award winner Lisa and Sherlock’s Susie both namecheck Brideshead Revisited as a game changer for location filming. Lisa explains “Until Brideshead, dramas were filmed part on location and part on set” something which was evident in the 1980s series of Mapp & Lucia, “but filming entirely on location provides a particular filmic quality.” For example, this time around there is delight at being able to film in the real Mallards, evoking the spirit of Benson who lived there when mayor of Rye and surveyed the redoubtable curtain twitchers of Tilling on which his books were based.

Lisa recognised the importance of the location early on when scouting with the writer Steve Pemberton: “It’s great to be able to do Benson’s Tilling in TILLING, right down to Georgie’s crooked chimney.” Those familiar with the stories will remember Lucia and Georgie’s famous artwork incident involving his sketch of the chimney, visible from Lamb House – or should I say Mallards. Susie adds: “an awareness of the previous TV show is actually not helpful because you have an awareness that you don’t want.”

You know, any success is all down to the writer
You know, any success is all down to the writer

“With this adaptation” says Lisa “it was important to explore and capture the essence of Benson and to be faithful but not slavish. It was a choice very early on to do Mapp and Lucia rather than the individual stories about each character, especially in terms of being on location. It’s a great cast at the top of their game and a great deal of comic invention, with more than enough in Steve’s script to convey the spirit of Benson.”

Surprisingly, regional funding and accessing money is under-represented in the south-east, so it is to the Beeb’s credit that they were keen to be involved and had a desire to invest in the area, which should benefit from the production. Susie’s enthusiasm for the show blossomed last Christmas. Although Rye was not the only location considered, because of the costs of not being near a production hub, living in Hastings allowed Susie to draw upon local resources and consolidate the argument for using Rye. Susie prefers the reality of working on location as there is more to play with in terms of set. “Closeness is what works. The Rye citadel is smaller than a regular film lot which is something that makes filming in Rye both unusual and attractive.”

The producers have been keen to involve the community from the outset using as many locals as possible. From the Rock Channel offices to the workshop at the wharf in Rye Harbour, the production has incorporated local painters, gardeners, floral designers and of course extras. “The authenticity means there’s less to dress and we’re lucky to have this,” says Susie, “all the little bases are here, [it’s] more manpower than machine based.” So where does this production fit into the BBC’s Original British Drama identity? Television has changed radically even in the last decade and Lisa explained: “Twenty years ago you watched something and that was that, whereas today TV shows have a longer shelf life.” That means not just an opportunity for wider visibility for the production, but also of Rye’s unique heritage and Benson’s legacy. “It is great to get out and positively want to get out and reflect other parts of the country beyond London.”

Rye is unique as a location so what next, a further series perhaps? We’ll have to wait and see but frankly this magical production should make this new adaptation a sure fire success, with Rye it’s brightest star. Let’s hope the weather holds for the industrious cast and crew who, it should be reiterated, are thrilled to be in Rye and who thank everyone for their continued patience.

Mapp & Lucia airs sometime next winter 2014-15. For updates on the production of Mapp and Lucia in Rye see the BBC’s Facebook group: www.facebook.com/groups/mappandlucia.

Sounding out Mark Gatiss and Gemma Whelan
Sounding out Mark Gatiss and Gemma Whelan

Photos by Nick Briggs for BBC