The British have landed
It’s a biting cold day as a British military brass band marches up and down a parade ground in front of the neo-classical castle of Sint Flora, near the Flemish coastal town Koksijde. With their stiff woollen khaki uniforms, bushy moustaches and patrician English accents, the soldiers are immediately dated to the First World War.
Flanders’ fields are the authentic setting for a big-budget British TV drama series
The illusion is almost perfect until a voice rings out with “Cut!”, and one of the soldiers reacts by fishing in his pocket for an iPhone.
The action is part of a lavish €14 million, BBC/HBO mini-series. The five-part drama is an adaptation of Parade’s End, a 1920s four-book series by British author Ford Madox Ford about love and duty between the twilight of the Edwardian era and the end of the First World War.
Scripted by acclaimed British playwright Sir Tom Stoppard, it chronicles the love triangle between English aristocrat Christopher Tietjens (Benedict Cumberbatch), his beautiful but cruel wife Sylvia (Rebecca Hall) and Valentine Wannop (Adelaide Clemens), a young suffragette with whom he falls madly in love. The series, which also features superstars Rupert Everett and Bill Nighy, is expected to hit TV screens in a year’s time.
Just a stone’s throw from the makeshift parade ground, another scene is being shot: the soldiers’ quarters behind the front line, a collection of some 20 tents in a field that computer wizardry is expected to multiply many times over. Crowded around one of the tents is a busy film crew, capturing a moment where Cumberbatch and his commanding officer, played by Roger Allam, inspect the kitchens. The director, BAFTA-winning Susanna White (Generation Kill), is watching the action on one monitor, while producer David Parfitt (Shakespeare In Love) watches another screen.
“Not a First World War drama”
Between takes, Parfitt explains that Ford’s story offers a broad tapestry of life, love, death and drama. “But it’s not a First World War drama. It’s more a romance against the backdrop of the war, and other events like the suffragettes,” he says. “It’s also very funny. There are some great comedy moments, some ludicrous situations about the way the war was carried out.”
Parfitt admits that Parade’s End could benefit from the surge in interest in the Edwardian era that the hugely successful Downton Abbey series has stoked, but insists it is a very different sort of drama. Parade’s End is also a raw reflection of the very real upheaval and confusion of the era: Ford himself was involved in the British propaganda effort after the war broke out, and then enlisted at 41 years of age into the Welch Regiment in 1915.
Meanwhile, skulking through the muddy field and enjoying a cheeky cigarette is playwright Stoppard himself, who is also executive producer. He hadn’t read the books before the BBC approached him, and he spent 18 months turning about 900 pages into five 60-minute episodes. Ford was known for his literary ingenuity, a quality that added to the challenge for Stoppard. “The structure of the book is non-linear,” he says. “It’s complicated, and you have to unscramble it. But those are enjoyable problems. It just takes time.”
Stoppard’s role on the shoot is ill-defined. “I’m here to help adjust if I’m needed,” he says. “Frankly, it’s completely arbitrary as I’m not here every day. I’ve been about six times for a few days at a time. One is just trying to help, to answer questions from actors.”
Filming in Flanders
In all, there have been seven weeks of filming in Belgium, including scenes at the St Michael and St Gudula Cathedral in Brussels, the De Borrekens water lock in Vorselaar (serving as a Scottish castle, hunting lodge and German spa resort) and a field near Namur for the trench scenes. Some €4.5 million of the total budget is set aside for the Belgian shoots.
Parade’s End also benefited from a €150,000 grant from the Flanders Audiovisual Fund, but the most important financial contribution has been provided by the Belgian Tax Shelter System, which annually channels about €60 million into audiovisual productions and has transformed the rather artisanal local film sector into a solid professional economy (see p6).
Flemish producer Martin Dewitte was enlisted, along with broadcaster VRT and the BNP Paribas Fortis Film Fund as a local producer, helping find many locations. “It’s a major circus organising this,” says Dewitte, who runs his own company, Anchorage Entertainment. “I’ve never been involved with anything like it.”
The trench shoot was particularly tricky to arrange, he says. “We needed a No Man’s Land with two to three kilometres of nothing. We found a place near here, but found that once you dig, it quickly fills with seawater.” The eventual venue near Namur featured 300 metres of British and 100 metres of German trenches.
Dewitte became involved through a chance meeting with Parfitt at the Cannes film festival, when he let slip his own plans to produce A War Of Their Own, another war-time drama about two British nurses. As Dewitte enthused about the filming prospects in Flanders rather than the planned Ireland and Canada, he was brought on board to co-produce.
“It does make it more authentic to actually film in Flanders,” he says. He points to Sint Flora itself, which is in a small corner of Flanders that was never occupied by the Germans during the First World War. “We have photos of King Albert I meeting colonels in this very castle,” Dewitte says. The production is also using many Flemish extras for the shoot, as well as a few Flemish actors, including Jurgen Delnaet (Aanrijding in Moscou) and Hilde Heijnen (Witse, Code 37).
As night falls, members of the crew race to get their shot. Stoppard is occasionally pulled aside for advice but keeps a respectful distance. “On the whole, you are working together continually, so you don’t get many ambushes from the director,” he whispers. “But you are working within the conventional norms. Right now we are running out of light, for example.”
And with that, a voice bellows: “Quiet on set!” Stoppard is silent, but a dog barks in the distance. And then the scene is run again.