Job Description: Costume designer
Laura Smith speaks to DQ about working with writer and director Hugh Laurie to create the 1930s costumes for the characters in BritBox’s adaptation of Agatha Christie mystery Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?.
As an assistant to Oscar-winning costume designer Alexandra Byrne, Laura Smith has worked on a host of blockbuster movies, from Marvel titles Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Doctor Strange to Mary Queen of Scots, Emma, and Agatha Christie adaptation Murder on the Orient Express.
Having subsequently worked as costume designer herself on Paul Morrison film 23 Walks, which was released in 2020, she recently completed work on her biggest project to date, leading costume design on another Christie adaptation, Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?.
The three-part BritBox UK series, which is written and directed by Hugh Laurie, opens as a man lies at the foot of a cliff in the fictional Welsh seaside village of Marchbolt, apparently the victim of an accidental fall. With his final breath, he utters the question of the title. Bobby Jones and his childhood friend, Lady Frances ‘Frankie’ Derwent, then resolve to honour the dead man by deciphering his last words, hitting upon a dark conspiracy of deceit, betrayal and murder.
Will Poulter and Lucy Boynton star as Bobby and Frankie respectively, alongside a stellar cast that also boasts Conleth Hill, Daniel Ings, Maeve Dermody, Jonathan Jules, Miles Jupp, Amy Nuttall, Alistair Petrie, Paul Whitehouse, Morwenna Banks, Ricard Dixon and Joshua James. Emma Thompson, Jim Broadbent and Laurie himself also make cameo appearances in the drama, which is produced by Mammoth Screen and Agatha Christie Productions and distributed by Endeavor Content.
Here, Smith tells DQ about joining the series, working alongside Laurie and the challenges of filming the series during the Covid-19 pandemic.
What has it been like to build you career by working on so many epic movies?
I don’t really think of them like that because it’s only after you’ve done them that you think, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s what they are.’ When you’re in the middle of it, it’s always like, ‘How am I going to get hold of that thing?’ or ‘We’ve got all these people to fit.’ In a way, every project is like that.
It was like that with Evans as well, because you have to look at the bigger picture and the arc of the story you want to tell. Hugh had written this really glittering script and I remember when I first read it, I thought, ‘Wow.’ You could really hear Hugh’s voice through it, and the way he drew Frankie and Bobby was really charming. It just feels really, really dynamic.
We talked a lot about things that were culturally important in the year he wanted it to be set in – about the music, the cars and the place of women in Hollywood and in the UK, and how he took that into the world of Frankie and Bobby and bringing that through in their clothes. They are kind of outsiders in a way, and the arcs of their stories are really sweet.
In any television series, how do costumes play a role in telling the story?
Working with Paul Whitehouse was really fascinating because I always thought that with [his sketch show] The Fast Show, the moment the audience sees the character, some of the work is done in the clothes they’re wearing. It’s a setup for the gag. Being able to do a visual shorthand in a way that’s subtle and not a caricature is brilliant, and that’s what amazing about some of those comedy shows from the 90s. Contemporary shows are one of the hardest things to do because it’s inside people’s living memory. Unless they can buy what they can see, you can’t necessarily take them with you in the story.
One of the things about period shows is we’re talking about clothes that are 80 or 90 years old, and most of the people who would experience them day-to-day won’t necessarily be around anymore or remember them as well. There’s a little bit of licence so you can push things a bit further.
With Frankie, I took her forward a little bit [in time], while the people in the village of Marchbolt were a little bit more dated to heighten the ‘outsiderness’ of her look. I gave her more of a transatlantic look so she stood out among the people of the village she called her home.
It’s noticeable now how shows set in the 1980s and 1990s are now increasingly referred to as period dramas…
It slips into ‘period’ when you just can’t get those clothes in the shops anymore. If you go, ‘OK, I need a pair of bootcut jeans,’ well, you can find them for women, but it’s a bit harder for men. You’re always trying to find what the jeans are for the period you’re working in. For the 30s, a pair of flannel trousers are the jeans for the period for men, and for women it’s generally a skirt.
With Evans, it’s also the beginning of sportswear being part of everyday wear. Bobby has a T-shirt he wears a lot of the time that works as a golf top and in his day-to-day wear. I gave him a physical training top he wears a lot, which is a hangover from his time in the navy. It’s things that were comfortable and practical, because people did that; they didn’t wear suits all the time. Knitwear was another thing I wanted to bring into the show.
How did you join the show?
I was working on Pinocchio [an upcoming remake of the 1940 Disney classic] at the time at Pinewood Studios and I had a Zoom meeting with Hugh and Claire [Jones, producer]. It was really an interview process. We were on the lot where they were also preparing for Indiana Jones [the forthcoming fifth instalment in the adventure franchise], so I was in the back of the Indiana Jones workshop balancing the laptop on top of a shipping barrel and having a conversation with Hugh. I couldn’t quite believe it was him when the call came through.
I always try to read the script before the meeting and think of images the script suggests to me and bring them to the meeting. With this particular script, paintings by Dame Laura Knight were the first that came to me. Amelia Earhart and women who were flying and taking part in dangerous sports in the late 30s were also inspirations to Frankie.
[1934 movie] The Thin Man was also an inspiration in terms of the dynamic between Frankie and Bobby because I love those movies, so I was talking to Hugh about that world of filmmaking, the whip-smart dialogue and the really charming interaction between those people. When I first read the script, that seemed to be woven through it. Myrna Loy and William Powell’s characters in The Thin Man have a really great quality to them.
How did you work with Hugh Laurie on a shared vision for the costume design?
As a writer and director, he had a very clear idea in the writing process of where he wanted to go. The idea was that Frankie cycles through a series of different identities. That’s one of the things that’s really key in a lot of Agatha Christie’s writing. It’s a really fluid period for identity through the late 1920s and early 1930s because, during that time, lots of people were finding or re-establishing themselves in new places and taking on different names. You could really reinvent yourself.
Frankie was a bit of a social chameleon. She changes her look and knows how to dress to be appropriate to each situation she finds herself in. That was the key. I also worked with Lucy to bring out things she was interested in, and it was the same with Will. It’s like that with every actor. I try to do mood boards before I meet them and we begin the dialogue that way – and it’s the case with all the principal characters. It’s very much a collaborative process.
Aside from Frankie and Bobby, which other characters did you enjoy designing for?
Knocker [Bobby’s former shipmate, played by Jules] was a lovely character. I was building the relationship between Bobby and Knocker as much as I could with costume and helping to create their world. Then, equally, Roger Bassington-ffrench [Ings], Moira Nicholson [Dermody], the Caymans [Banks and Dixon] and Ivy [Carly Enoch], who’s very important in creating this ‘other world’ that Bobby inhabits.
A lot of what Christie does in her books is talk about the way people present themselves and the way they want to pass in society, because that’s how that world was then. Now there’s Instagram and social media, which has a very long memory, whereas in the 30s, you’re not dealing with that in the same way. You’re dealing with people who are immediately one thing and then they may be another thing in another scene. They’re much more fluid.
Once you were on board the project, how did you go about your work?
Well, in Covid times it was really difficult. It is hard to really articulate just how difficult. When we started the production process, I had six weeks to prep, which is not long because it’s a very stunt-heavy show. It’s difficult with the 1930s because it doesn’t really exist in quantity [of clothes] anymore, so you have to find clever ways of managing that.
We didn’t have a very big team; it was extremely busy in the film industry at the time we were shooting. I was lucky because I brought people with me who I’ve worked with for a long time. Your team is like your most important thing. If you can make sure you can have a good shorthand with them, that’s worth its weight in gold. It’s invaluable, especially when you’re under really severe time pressures and especially with Covid potentially taking people from you for periods of 10 days when you have a 12-week shoot.
What other challenges did you face?
In prep, we had a little bit of difficulty because the shops weren’t properly open initially. We started on April 26, 2021, so we were just into the first couple of weeks of shops totally reopening [after the previous lockdown]. That was pretty testing because we were walking into quite a shell-shocked retail landscape. We would try to buy really basic things and people didn’t have it, so you found you couldn’t find some stuff you take for granted. There wouldn’t be a particular shade of cotton – I’ve never had that before, so it was challenging in unexpected ways.
Things you thought would be very easy were a little bit more complicated, and then the more complicated things that you could give yourself a really good lead time on were kind of fine. We did quite a bit of sourcing in Italy and France, and that was really good for Frankie’s costumes and some of the other leads’ clothing.
There’s a lot to pack into a very short space of time but, because I’ve worked in commercials, where you have to pull together 50 outfits in 24 hours, it’s something I’ve been used to. Covid is like throwing all the paper up in the air and going, ‘Make a script out of that.’ It takes all the rules and mixes them all up.