Funny business

Funny business

By Michael Pickard
September 25, 2023

Job Description

As production ramps up on season two of Sky’s Funny Woman, production designer Jacqueline Smith tells DQ about how she built 1960s London across North West England, her love of period dramas and balancing creativity with practicality.

With recent projects including the second season of prison drama Time, Cary Grant biopic Archie and 1960s comedy Funny Woman, it’s no surprise that production designer Jacqueline Smith likes to mix up her work.

But it’s period drama that has been her biggest passion during almost 30 years in the film and television business. She has also been part of the crew on All Creatures Great & Small, Filth: The Mary Whitehouse Story and the 1960s update of Les liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons).

“I just love immersing myself in the past,” she tells DQ. “I’d love to do something that’s a bit further back in time, and hopefully that’ll come soon. But doing all the research at the start, it’s one of my favourite parts of the job.”

Jacqueline Smith

Smith is now heading back to the 1960s as production gears up for the second season of Sky comedy Funny Woman, which is based on the Nick Hornby novel Funny Girl and debuted earlier this year.

Written by Morwenna Banks and directed by Oliver Parker, the story introduces Barbara Parker (Gemma Arterton), the newly crowned Miss Blackpool who ditches her job at a rock factory in the seaside town and heads to the bright lights of London at the height of the Swinging Sixties, where she hopes to pursue her ambition to become a star in the male-dominated world of television comedy.

After a series of setbacks, she lands a part in a new sitcom and completes her transformation into Sophie Straw, the nation’s new sweetheart.

In season two, which is produced by Potboiler and Rebel Park Productions in association with Sky Studios, Sophie finds out that fame is a fickle friend. Fed up with being the comic muse in old-school comedy shows, she tries her hand at arthouse cinema before deciding to create her own series, where no one can stop her using her voice.

“We hoped a second season would be on the cards, but it was by no means guaranteed,” Smith says. “Sky did store quite a lot of the props and the sets are flat-packed – goodness knows what they’ll be like when we take them out of storage. So there will be a lot of work to do to get them back looking like they did or better. It’ll be like uncovering a treasure trove of things that you’d perhaps slightly forgotten you had.”

With a background in architecture, Smith began work in production design at the BBC before moving into independent films, which gave her experience in the creative and practical challenges of the role, not least being able to adapt to whatever budget a project can offer.

“As I see it, how the whole show looks on camera is basically my job, in collaboration with the DOP who lights it, and costume as well,” she says. “I start prep very early in the process, so I work with the location manager and the directors on finding the right locations and deciding what’s going to be built as a set and what’s going to be shot on location. You’re always balancing up the money side of it.

Gemma Arterton as Barbara Parker alongside Rupert Everett as her agent Brian Debenham

“But then also I’m all about pushing for the creative. If I think one way is going to work better than another, I will push for that. Then you have your debates about it and come up with your decisions about how to move forwards.”

Within her team, Smith also collaborates with set decorators, art directors, the props department, construction teams and, depending on the project, special effects, stunts and visual effects supervisors.

In particular, her work with Funny Woman costume designer Pam Downe ensured the characters – especially Barbara – stood out against some of the show’s darker backdrops. One example is the “grubby” office belonging to Barbara’s agent Brian Debenham (Rupert Everett), which gave Downe the chance to dress Arterton in some bright, bold dresses that are juxtaposed with the muted background.

“One of the main aims was that wherever Barbara was, that she was quite literally the star,” Smith says. “That worked really well, with quite a few of our interiors working out with costume. We’re aiming to do that again.”

The set for Barbara’s TV show

Smith was also involved in early script discussions, where decisions are made about whether certain locations or sets are possible and, if not, what might be suitable substitutes.

“Originally, Barbara was going to be working in a biscuit factory in Blackpool, and I knew there was an amazing rock factory there, so I just suggested, ‘Well, why don’t we try and use the rock factory?’ That’s what everyone thinks of when they think of the seaside back then, and we ended up shooting there. We all learned how to make rock. Sometimes it’s not really my place to say those things, but it’s very much encouraged with this group of people. That’s why I didn’t hesitate when they asked me to come back.”

Distributed internationally by NBCUniversal Global Distribution, Funny Woman season one was filmed across North West England, principally in Liverpool but also in Manchester, St Helens and Wigan, where the show’s trendy Whiskey Cat Club was recreated. The BBC building in the show was staged at an old glass factory, while Blackpool’s iconic tower was added to seaside scenes in post-production.

The mood board for Marjorie’s flat

One key build from season one was the flat belonging to Marjorie (Alexa Davies), who works with Barbara in a department store and later invites her to stay in her spare room. That set in particular will be getting a makeover in season two, as “story-wise, they go on a bit of a journey, so the interior needs to reflect the story the characters are having,” Smith reveals.

Meanwhile, she faces the prospect of completely rebuilding the home belonging to Barbara’s father George (David Threlfall), because the location from season one won’t be available this time around.

“That will allow us to build it slightly larger than it really was, as it was such a small house and the shooting crew had a really hard time filming in there,” Smith says. “It would be great to give them more space to work and just put a few more little interesting angles and things like that into it.”

A new location will be Barbara’s penthouse apartment – a sign of the star’s rising fortunes – and its “groovy” décor is set to replicate way the whole show has leaned into the iconic colours, images and sounds of 1960s London.

“There will be an opportunity to do something a bit heightened stylistically in that flat as well, so that will be exciting,” the designer says. “My approach has been to try to create a heightened world, but certainly with the more down-at-heel interiors, we’ve tried to keep it reasonably real so it’s still grounded and you can empathise with the characters a bit more because it’s not gone completely style mad.

How Marjorie’s flat looks on screen

“Because Barbara’s in a more affluent world now, there’s the opportunity to put in more high-end 60s designs, and those interiors will be ones I’m looking forward to, and just really pumping the colour as well. With this season coming up, I’ll definitely be going for broke with the colour.”

Some of the items that help to create that period aesthetic come from surprising places. In one instance, an Ikea sofa was used repeatedly, thanks to its 50s design, “so we got away with it,” Smith jokes. Some wallpaper prints are actually contemporary designs that fit the look of the show, while Smith and her team also like to salvage old items such as doors or stained-glass windows that can then be mixed in with newer things.

For any show, Smith’s work starts with breaking down the scripts to determine which sets will appear on screen most often – and which ones might cost the most to create, such as Funny Woman’s London department store.

Contemporary retro furniture can be found on the Funny Woman set

“Marjorie’s flat was key because it was a built set and we did spend a lot of screen time there. We also spent a lot of time in the rehearsal room, which was a location, but we did quite a lot to it,” Smith says of the venue where Barbara begins work with fellow actor Clive Richardson (Tom Bateman), producer Dennis Mahindra (Arsher Ali) and writers Bill (Matthew Beard) and Tony (Leo Bill).

It’s that mix of creativity and practicality that Smith says is the key to the role of production designer – as well as the ability to be able to bring your vision to life. “You can’t just have an idea and that be it. You’ve got to then make it happen,” she says. “You’ve got to be able to work really fast to deadlines, you’ve got to collaborate really well with a big group of people and you’ve got to try not to let the stress of it show.

“A lot of it is problem solving,” Smith adds, “and just listening to directors and writers about what it is that they want. My job is delivering their vision as much as anything else. I obviously have a big input, but if they’ve got a very strong idea about what it is they want, then it’s my job to deliver that.”

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