Blood, sweat and fears on the set of Penny Dreadful

Behind the scenes of this ‘big, gaudy, lurid sort of show’, the prosthetics, wardrobe and props departments are the real stars. The squeamish need not apply

 

Behind every vampire is a great prosthetics department. And props. And wardrobe. The first series of Penny Dreadful, Sky Atlantic’s slick gothic-horror period drama, was successful enough that another series was commissioned. It will air early in the summer.

On the day we visit the set at Ardmore Studios in Co Wicklow, there is less than a fortnight’s filming to go, although the cast and crew have been based here for more than six months. John Logan, who wrote the James Bond film Skyfall, is the creator of Penny Dreadful and has written the scripts for both series. He says he has been thinking about the story and characters for more than 13 years.

“Season one was introducing the audience to the characters,” he says. “In season two, I get to play with them. It’s like moving chess pieces around the board.” Among the cast are Josh Hartnett, Eva Green, Timothy Dalton, Billie Piper and Rory Kinnear. Spoiler alert: if you thought Billie Piper’s character, Brona, had died in season one, well, she’s on set today.

Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray is a character in Penny Dreadful. The first set we visit is his house. It’s a chilly morning, with a brisk wind, as we tour the warehouses where the sets are located. It is bloody freezing in Dorian Gray’s sternly grand house, which we enter by the hall, where a stairway goes halfway up to nowhere.

 

Dorian Gray’s gaff

Dorian Gray’s ballroom/gallery, the scene of various large gatherings in the show, is very impressive. There are copies of some 147 paintings from galleries around the world; the show paid some €250,000 for the rights to reproduce them. These high-resolution images are printed on canvas and set in frames bought all over Europe, which are painted gold. Collectively, they give an impression of great wealth and power, and the whole room is pretty intimidating.

But the next set we’re shown is far more intimidating. It’s Frankenstein’s lab, and it looks properly scary. There is, apparently, a mile of rope in this set. There are anatomical drawings, a copper bath and a slab where it looks as if very nasty things happen. This is the slab where one of the characters was brought back to life.

There are abacuses, glass jars filled with what looks like formaldehyde, pipettes, and all manner of sharp, shiver-inducing medieval-looking implementsg. The detail everywhere is astounding. Everything looks authentic and complete; even the dust is not there by accident.

In the prosthetics department there are boxes stacked high on shelves, marked variously “Back bristle hair”, “vampire paints”, “goat fur”, “rat fur” and “boar rugs”. Coyote and rabbit too. I really don’t want to find out if the rat fur is real. A man is carefully sculpting and painting what looks like a human eyeball.

Looking away squeamishly, I see a woman bent over what looks like a flayed scalp. She is sewing real human hair into it. It looks like a cross between surgery and embroidery. It’s beautiful and skilled and grotesque all at the same time. I have to remind myself that the scalp is only a prop, as are the bits of limbs and eviscerated torsos lying around. They’re not real, but they look very convincing.

 

Keeping it real

Nick Dudman is the producer in the prosthetics department. He worked on what he refers to as “the Potter movies”. In Penny Dreadful, lots of unpleasant things happen to people. There’s a lot of blood and gore, and eviscerations, and his job is to make it look real. “If a small child is eviscerated on screen, it has to affect you mentally,” he says briskly. “It has to look convincing.”

On one level, it seems a pretty disturbing work environment, surrounded by bits of bodies and entrails. But as Dudman points out, although it looks utterly convincing, none of it is real. To him and his team, it is simply art.

It takes 15-18 days to shoot one hour of the show. Given the amount of time needed in make-up for characters such as the Creature, played by Rory Kinnear, days have to start well before 4am. He appears to be missing half his skull, an illusion that takes between three and four hours a day to create.

“My four-year-old son got a bit of a fright when I skyped him for the first time,” he says. Kinnear is between takes, standing in a long wax jacket in a corridor, holding a styrofoam cup, half his skull absent. All the cast and crew have been living in Ireland while they are shooting. Has he ever been tempted to go out on the town for a night with half his head peeled back off his face? Sadly not. Something is muttered about “insurance”.

Timothy Dalton is also between scenes. He plays Sir Malcolm Murray in the show, a man who is seeking his kidnapped daughter. It’s fair to say Dalton is looking forward to going home to sunny Los Angeles.

“What’s it been like?” he repeats languidly when asked by another hack about his months spent working on the show and living in Dalkey. “It’s been wet, dank, miserable and depressing. I go to bed in the dark and get up in the dark, and I’m concentrating on an imaginary world. After five months, it’s like a stimulus depriver. Like Chinese torture. Does that answer your question?” he says to the British journalist, who looks both shaken and stirred.

Then coffee arrives and he cheers up a bit. “What I liked about the script is that it wasn’t superficial,” he says. “It’s a big, gaudy, lurid sort of show, in which questions of evil and love and what it means to be a human being are addressed.”

“I sleep like I’m dead every night,” Billie Piper quips. Her character, Brona, was dead but now she lives again, as Bride of Frankenstein. She is wearing a long tweed skirt with a tiny waist. “There’s a lot more blood in season two.”

 

Four sets of clothes

All that blood means that most characters have at least four sets of the same costume for continuity. The costume department is overseen by Italian designer Gabriella Pescucci, won an Oscar for her costumes on The Age of Innocence and who we’re told worked with Fellini.

There are at least 20 dressmakers beavering away, and I’m chuffed to see they favour the same Ikea spotlight as I do. We might not all have an Oscar at home, but I have the same Ikea lamp as the one Pescucci uses in her workshop.

We’re shown racks and racks of the most beautiful cloaks, dresses, coats, skirts, wraps and blouses. Many of them belong to Vanessa, played by Eva Green. Most are made from scratch, with a combination of new and vintage fabric, bolts of which are piled up everywhere and look like rainbows that have been through a blender. Some incorporate genuine pieces of Victorian garments, such as jet-fringed black lace.

As for the props department, it’s like one giant warehouse crammed with antiques. There are dozens of chandeliers, chairs, sets of crystal and china, rugs, picture frames, chests of drawers, piles of books – and that’s only one small part of it all.

More than 300 crew members work on Penny Dreadful, and it shows. Behind these vast sets, with their meticulous and consistent detail, is an enormous amount of work, which “keeps everyone in the moment, and in character”, explains Simon Russell, who plays the eccentric Egyptologist Sir Ferdinand Lyle.

 

The second series of Penny Dreadful starts on Sky Atlantic on May 5th

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