Bridgerton is set to be the televisual equivalent of a trip to Disneyland this holidays: larger-than-life characters, and pops of colour emerging from lavish sets and costumes.
Arriving on Netflix on Christmas Day, the drama is set in the Regency-era period of 1800s England and is based on the novels of the same name by Julia Quinn.
The show will attempt to fill the void left by shows like Downton Abbey by offering an escapist journey into the past, but this Shondaland production (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal) also brings the 1800s up-to-date – the cast is probably more diverse than any period drama before it, and styles mirror current fashions without neglecting obvious truths from the era.
“As much as possible we keep true to history, but quite often, you know, history’s a bit boring,” production designer Will Hughes-Jones said in a virtual press conference. “We’re about doing something vibrant which is accessible to our audience. And sometimes history does get in the way, but we try to keep as historically accurate as we can – until it’s not convenient.”
Showrunner Chris Van Dusen added: “We have this incredibly diverse, multi-racial cast that really tells you this isn’t this typical period piece. The tone of our show is spirited and it’s daring. People talk fast, the story moves fast, the banter is sharp, it’s funny and of course it’s really, really sexy, which you don’t always get in period pieces.”
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Delivering much of that sharp banter is Dame Julie Andrews, who plays Lady Whistledown in the series, the anonymous narrator and holder of gossip about the goings-on between the two central families to the plot, the Bridgertons and the Featheringtons.
As much as possible we keep true to history, but quite often, you know, history’s a bit boring.”Production designer Will Hughes-Jones
“I personally still cannot believe that actually happened,” said Chris about Dame Julie’s involvement. “She was always at the top of our wish list. It wasn’t even a thing were we thought it would actually happen. We sent her the scripts and she surprisingly said yes. She loved them and she wanted to be a part of it and she has been so amazing to work with.
“She gets to say the most scathing things, the most non-typical Julie Andrews things that you would imagine, it’s a blast.”
Of Julie’s involvement, director Tom Verica added: “She was so open to shaking up the rhythms that she was accustomed to or used to.”
Netflix has become synonymous with incredibly high budgets, and the attention to detail lavished on Bridgerton is up there with the streaming service’s most ambitious projects.
An industrial-scale warehouse stored 7,500 outfits, each tailor-made for the show, with no two costumes the same.
“There is a very clear aesthetic that we always look for, fresh and young and aspirational: would a modern girl wear it today even though we are set in 1830?” said costume designer Ellen Mirojnik. “What can we do to disguise the prim and properness that 18th century Regency was all about and make it something new and young?
“We kept the style and the silhouette of 1813 for the most part, but 1813 is shaken up and turned on its head by using more modern fabrics, modern techniques, taking a little bit of what was authentic and mixing it with many different periods of time to create our own style.”
An embellishment team created individual looks for items, complete with flowers, gems, headpieces and motifs, each of which is bespoke. The whole costume creation process took five months. “Myself and my team are very proud, we never thought we could make it but we did. These ideas and ensembles are not of history, they are of Bridgerton,” added Ellen.
“If I saw an article of clothing I’d start the scene on the detail… to bring out and highlight things that so often get lost [in other period dramas],” added Tom.
The same scope and attention to detail was given to the sets. All the carpets were made specially, due to their size. “Even if we could hire them or buy them we wouldn’t have been able to find them, so that was a new thing for me,” says Will Hughes-Jones.
There are nearly 100 locations too, each differently designed. “These rooms are like nothing I’ve ever seen built on a stage before,” Will says.
He describes being inside the various rooms of the Bridgerton household as “like being inside a piece of Wedgwood ceramic, that beautiful soft blue and lots of creams,” whereas the Featherington’s aesthetic is more acidic: yellows and greens. The idea was to make the vibrant colour palette of the sets work to enhance the costumes, and vice versa.
Everything may look different to an ordinary period piece, but that didn’t make it any easier for actors to mentally prepare to play characters that felt both historical and modern at the same time, says Tom.
“I had to take them out of their comfort zone: they’re used to a certain way of doing period pieces and I would really try to keep spontaneity open and throw them curveballs before we go,” he says of a process that he describes as “really shaking up the rhythms” of period drama.
Much of Bridgerton is an imagined reality filmed in huge studios, but the crew did also film in a building frequently used by today’s royal family.
“We filmed in the building next door to where Prince Charles lives, which is regularly used by the royals,” reveals Will. “We would have a very, very short period of time to get in there, get rid of the 20th century, take it back to our period and dress it with the crew bearing down on us. They would then shoot and we’d have even less time to get out.”
But will the no-expense-spared approach to Netflix’s big Christmas show pay off? Well, you can now peer a little closer into the lives of the Bridgertons and the Featheringtons and judge for yourselves, as all episodes are available to stream now.
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