It’s not often the planets align. Recently my neighbour, Edna – ‘the other Mrs. Thomas’ – as she never fails to remind me, kindly allowed me to film in the home she’s occupied since the early 1970s, a home that over the years she has shared with her husband, Dr. Richard Thomas and their three children, long grown and flown. Now in her 80s, Edna has devoted the last few years to the care of her husband who sadly died recently, having been long afflicted with Alzheimer’s. With Edna visiting her daughter in Norway, the chance to film in her unique home is a generous gift.
Occupying three floors, the house is perfect for the purpose I have in mind – to create a version of Erica’s house, not in the scale or number of rooms or the decor but rather, to conjure a mood, a tone that reflects Erica’s state of mind and helps to tell the story. To achieve this is a stretch, but fortunately I have an advantage. In a previous life, in the Scenic Design department of BBC Television in London, I learned my trade as a production designer so I know more than most about faking ‘authenticity’ be it on a set or on location. In this instance there was less than a week to prep for a 10 day shoot and dress seven rooms – two bedrooms, a bathroom, a kitchen, a study, a ‘living room’, a hall, plus glimpses of a grand room at the front of the house. And a garden.
Even with a budget – a luxury I don’t have – making any space work on camera is a hard task. The sheer amount of stuff required to make a house convincing is daunting but Edna’s house solved the problem. Built in the 1860s, the building is approximately of the right period, as are the fittings and furniture – in fact, uncannily similar to the kind Erica bought when she married and set up home in 1960. These she acquired by visiting salerooms in Edinburgh and snapping up old brown pieces – sideboards, chests of drawers, wardrobes – as well as overstuffed Victorian armchairs and dining chairs that at the time were considered passé but today would be classed as antiques.
Less tangibly and impossible to imitate, Edna’s house carries a veneer found in most elderly person’s homes; of the wear-and-tear that comes from the passing decades. The kitchen, probably fitted in the 1970s, is beige, its drawers and cupboard doors askew, the table and chairs old and mismatched. On every wall there are pictures, family snaps and scribbled notes, just as on every surface there are groups of timeworn objects arranged like so many still lifes; pots and pans, cooking utensils – even the wooden spoons have the patina of age. In each of the bedrooms I found dressing tables with bevelled mirrors and a lifetime’s worth of clutter that I carefully photographed before replacing it with Erica’s belongings, items that I hope will tell the story.
Even so, shooting in late November is a challenge when darkness falls by mid-afternoon. My original plan was to use my own camera and shoot the interiors myself until my husband persuaded me to bring a DoP on board. So it was another stroke of luck when George Cameron Geddes not only agreed to light and shoot alongside me, but also accepted the abstract nature of the project. As well he might, since George has long experience working with several noted artists so he’s happy to embrace the unusual. Even better, he brings along several lights, a 4K camera and a case of prime lenses.
As shoots go, what we lacked in cast and crew we made up for in speed, working to a soundtrack of BBC Radio 4 longwave – the Home Service – on my old radio that also doubled as a prop on the kitchen table. After 10 days, I’m pleased to say the shots are great, even ungraded. Knowing these ‘scenes’ will form the spine of the film, I’m excited, if a little unsure how to do justice to them in the edit. During the clear-up, I removed Erica’s belongings and, using the photographs, reinstated Edna’s – a kind of reverse continuity. By way of a thank you, I’ve promised to record an interview with her in her beloved home as a keepsake for her children and grandchildren. More than anything, I’m pleased to have documented such a special house for posterity. It’s the very least I can do.
The photograph is of my transistor radio that I used as a prop during my recent shoot.