From brushes to budgets

From brushes to budgets

By Michael Pickard
April 14, 2023

In production

Making the move from make-up designer to producer, Jessica Taylor has completed an unusual career switch. She tells DQ how support from some high-profile TV stars led her to become the producer of the third season of acclaimed crime drama Happy Valley.

As a make-up designer who has worked on series including Vera, The Village and Death in Paradise, Jessica Taylor is used to seeing people transform. But the biggest transformation of all has been the change in Taylor’s own career path, with her partnership with writer Sally Wainwright and actor Sarah Lancashire – on both Last Tango in Halifax and Happy Valley – starting her on the road to becoming a series producer.

In fact, the third season of Wainwright’s acclaimed BBC crime drama Happy Valley, which aired earlier this year and stars Lancashire as police sergeant Catherine Cawood, marked Taylor’s debut as a producer, after she originally worked as the show’s make-up designer on S1 in 2014. And she is now on location in Cheshire in northern England to film Netflix’s latest Harlan Coben project, Fool Me Once, again as a producer.

“Happy Valley was a great one, but it’s set the bar quite high now for everything else. I’ll only do high-end stuff,” she jokes. “I feel like I’ve made the transition over to producer so, unless I mess up, this is what I’ll be doing now.”

Taylor had been interested in producing before building a relationship with Wainwright and Lancashire, but it was only when they told her, ‘We think you’d be good at it,’ that she was convinced to take that step.

Jessica Taylor

“It wasn’t a deliberate career move,” she tells DQ. “I did have to think quite hard about it because it is a big change in role and job, but I think filming is filming, and when you’ve filmed for as long as I have, you know the workings and the mechanics of everything.

“In make-up, you’re like the eyes and ears of everything, and you are very central to the whole filming process. When they asked me to do it, it was very daunting but I thought I would like the challenge with their support. Sarah really championed me.”

Produced by Lookout Point and distributed by BBC Studios, the eagerly anticipated third and final season of Happy Valley was announced towards the end of 2021. Wainwright had previously spoken of her desire to wrap up the series, but with new seasons of Last Tango in Halifax and Gentleman Jack also in the works, it took a little while to get Happy Valley S3 into production.

Taylor joined the project as producer in June 2021, when storylines were beginning to be discussed, before prep got underway that October for a January 2022 production start.

“That then took us through most of last year, pretty much until it went out [in January this year], as we were onboard with the edit,” Taylor says. “It was a long process, but Sally’s scripts are amazing. They’re really well honed and she knows the material so well, she knows her characters. It’s very exact with Sally and the detail’s all there in the script so, as a producer, it’s my job to make sure that detail transcends onto the screen.”

Set and filmed in West Yorkshire, most notably in the town of Hebden Bridge, Happy Valley S3 sees Catherine discover the remains of a gangland murder victim in a drained reservoir – an event that leads to the resumption of her bloody battle with Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), the father of her grandson Ryan (Rhys Connah) and the man ultimately responsible for her daughter’s suicide.

Now 16, Ryan has ideas about the kind of relationship he wants with the man Catherine refuses to acknowledge is his father, leaving Catherine’s sister Clare (Siobhan Finneran) caught in the middle. Meanwhile, a local pharmacist gets in over his head when a neighbour is arrested.

Returning to an established series, albeit seven years after S2’s debut, you might expect it to be easier to find and secure locations, particularly for a show as firmly rooted in its environment as Happy Valley. But one of Taylor’s first tasks was to approach the new owners of the property used for Catherine’s home in Hebden Bridge, after it changed hands while the show was off air.

Sarah Lancashire leads the Happy Valley cast as Sergeant Catherine Cawood

“I did go round, knock on their door and have a cup of tea with them and say, ‘We really want to come back and film, will you be happy for us to film there?’” Taylor says. “Sally’s really specific about how she wants stuff to look and which house people will be in. She usually knows the road and the street, and she’ll ring you at all kinds of odd times and say, ‘Can you just get on Google Earth, can you get up Arkwright Street in Sowerby Bridge?’ and you’ll get it up and she’ll say, ‘You see that house there? I want to try to use that one.’

“She’s really specific, which is brilliant because there’s no grey with Sally. It’s just black and white, and that’s what she wants or doesn’t want. You want to find that for her and make sure you deliver what she wants.”

Taylor and the casting team were also able to secure all of the returning cast, most notably Lancashire, Norton, Finneran, Connah, Charlie Murphy (Ann Gallagher) and Con O’Neill (Neil Ackroyd). Similarly, she was keen to bring back as many of the crew as possible. Ben Foster returned to lead the music, while Ian Holmes once again led the costume team.

But as with any Wainwright drama, the focus usually returns to the standout writing – and season three of Happy Valley was no different, particularly when it came to one notable scene in a café at the start of episode three, in which Catherine and Clare discuss Ryan’s relationship with Tommy Lee.

“It is Sally’s dialogue. It’s so rich and real, and that’s what everybody relates to,” Taylor says. “Put Sarah Lancashire and Siobhan Finneran across the table having a cup of tea and you’ve got TV gold. Those conversations they have are so real, and there’s humour in it, among them talking about a terrible subject matter. Sally’s ear for dialogue and the way she structures a story, she’s a genius. Nobody writes like her.”

A make-up technician touches up the wounds on James Norton’s face

Taylor has been listening to Wainwright’s words performed as far back as 2012, when she first worked with the writer as the make-up designer on Last Tango in Halifax. She would also work on seasons two (2013) and five (2020) of that show, as well as 2016 feature-length drama To Walk Invisible, which chronicled the lives of the Brontë sisters.

Working on season one of Happy Valley, Taylor spent a lot of time helping to create the look of the characters. Particular attention was paid to Tommy Lee, whom it was decided would have bleached blond hair, which he would later shave off in addition to growing a beard.

“It came under much discussion with James himself,” she says, remembering how she first met Norton after he had finished working on 2014 feature Northmen: A Viking Saga. “He was away filming in South Africa, so when I made the initial contact with him, I said, ‘What’s your hair like?’ He had long blond extensions at the time and he had just a day or two to turn it around before he started shooting [Happy Valley].”

With little time to spare, Taylor invited the actor to her house, where she removed his hair extensions and bleached and cut his hair to create Tommy Lee.

“So I feel like Tommy was created over my kitchen table,” she says. “James turned up, this beautiful, tall, handsome man who was absolutely gorgeous; we hit it off straight away and had a lovely day of me taking his hair extensions out, which is a really tedious job, and he was great. He just put his faith in me. I said, ‘I want to bleach it, I want to do this, will you let me do it?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, you can do what you want.’ And then we created Tommy.”

Norton plays the show’s principal antagonist, Tommy Lee Royce

Taylor was also involved in “endless” discussions about how Catherine should look. “We wanted her to be raw and real and not polished at all, just so she looked like she’d scraped her hair into a ponytail and gone off to work that day, which is the reality of people.”

Meanwhile, Wainwright made full use of Taylor’s “love” of creating the bloodied wounds and other visual injuries characters suffer during the series, which features moments of shocking violence.

“Sally would ring and say, ‘Do you want him to get punched in the face? Can he get punched in the nose?’ I would say, ‘Well, I can give you this and he could be coughing up blood.’ There’s a lot of violence in that first season and we made quite a brave decision that Catherine gets kicked in the face, so we gave her a bloodshot eye for pretty much the whole of episodes one, two and three.”

Taylor describes make-up and costume as “massively important” to the design process, working together with actors and writers to create ‘real’ characters. Her role is also part psychiatrist, she notes, as “the actors love coming into make-up in the morning. It’s very much a safe space, a little haven for starting them off on the day, and it’s a department people don’t realise how much input you have into the whole of the filming day.”

It’s those actor relationships and an overarching view of the production process that have ensured Taylor has enjoyed a smooth transition into her new producer role – though filming her second project, Fool Me Once, couldn’t be more different.

Lancashire and Norton during a filming break on location in Yorkshire

The eight-part series, from Quay Street Productions, follows Maya Stern (Michelle Keegan) who is trying to come to terms with the brutal murder of her husband, Joe (Richard Armitage). But when Maya installs a nanny-cam to keep an eye on her young daughter, she is shocked to see a man she recognises in her house – her husband, who she thought was dead.

“The challenges on this are it’s a whole new concept, all new locations, all new cast, so the casting process was great and exciting, and developing a new series is brilliant because you’re establishing everything, the whole look, so that’s exciting and interesting,” says Taylor, who says she has had to become “tougher” after her experience on Happy Valley.

“You’ve got to keep driving the schedule on and you’ve got to hit your schedule every day,” she explains. “I have learned to be a bit tougher about things. Because I’m from a filming background, it makes a massive difference to the cast and crew because they know I’m with them and part of the team, and that I understand it from the side of the crew when you’re filming.

“But I feel more confident going into this second programme now because there are lots of elements I didn’t know about, mainly to do with post-production or budget stuff. But I would say to anyone who was thinking of changing direction, it’s possible.”

Taylor admits the transition she has made from make-up to producer is not something that happens in the industry very often, and says she faced some surprise that she landed the Happy Valley producer gig.

“But I feel I’ve proved myself. It’s almost like I had to earn the respect in the first one. It’s like you have to earn your stripes and now I feel like people maybe think, ‘She’s done that one so maybe she’s OK,’” she laughs. “But you’re still learning, you’re learning all the time, and you’re only as good as the team around you. As long as the ducks are in a row and everybody’s doing their job, it makes it easier for me to oversee everything.”

tagged in: , , , , , , , , ,