A vast country house was used to re-create the sounds of Victorian London to give an extra edge to Radio 4's new dramatisation of Bleak House. Sue Gaisford reports.
Chiddingstone Castle sits on the brow of a hill deep in the heart of Kent. From its grand fašade, the countryside rolls gently away - rumour has it that the road level was lowered so that the squire's view could remain undisturbed by labourers returning from the fields. For three weeks in September, the castle, which is not as medieval as it looks, was hired by the BBC for a radio recording of Bleak House, Charles Dicken's enormous satirical novel about the wickedness of the legal system. On the surface it seems a strange choice of location. After all, the story of Bleak House is set largely in foggy London - in the court of chancery and in various low urban dives. Yet, when you remember that this is a sound recording, it begins to make sense, Chiddingstone offers some magnificent sound effects.
For a start, there are the floor and ground surfaces. There is a cobbled courtyard, over which carriages can rumble authentically; there are alleyways paved with stone; a gravel srive, creaky wooden staircases and polished mahogany parquet. Then there are the echoing attics, the heavy, clanking doors, the lofty Great Hall and the flagged kitchens. There are wide-open spaces - usually disturbed only by birdsong - for the exterior scenes and there are outhouses full of dusty clutter that can be banged and bashed to give the impression of life going on in Victorian interiors. There is even a cosy sitting room with a piano, where Michael Fenton Stevens, who clearly relishes playing the loathsome Skimpole, can seem to accompany himself as he sings sentimental songs.
On this particular day of recording, a small wedding is taking place, for Chiddingstone is also a licensed venue for marriages. As the bride and groom quaff champagne in the parlour, hard at work nearby are a group rehearsing a scene in a stable. This is the moment when the delightfully seedy Mr Guppy (played by Rob Jarvis), a lawyer's clerk, goes looking for Miss Flite at the rag-and-bottle shop owned by Krook (Michael Atwell). It's a tiny scene, but they have five shots at it. At first it sounds a little over-dramatic but, by the end, the acting has become intimate, subtle and convincing. Working with them are John Dryden - who dramatised the novel and is now directing it - and Nick Russel-Pavier, the production manager, who rises before dawn every day to get here from his home in north London.
Back in the kitchen, which is also serving as central office, Dryden explains their thinking behind their decision to use the castle. "You get a much better atmosphere here," he says, "In a studio, the actors do a take while somebody makes the noises for them and the director sits behind a glass screen talking about it. Here, we are all in the smae space and open with each other." Russel-Pavier agrees: "It grows, and becomes a much more organic thing; it leaves space for the imagination."
Michael Kitchen, playing the benevolent Jarndyce, is having a lovely time - it is his first experience of radio drama on location. Staying in a local hotel, he is spared the journey from town, and he relishes the fresh Kentish air. "The whole thing certainly feels as though it's a richer event," he says, "There's a lot more variety available which would not only be difficult, expensive and time-consuming to recreate in a studio, but which might not occur to anyone to include. Besides, being surrounded by something akin to the real thing generates a lot more energy." And if the castle still seems rather remote from the real thing, Dickens himself was born in Kent.
It has taken Dryden a year to dramatise the novel. He has been ruthless in cutting out long speeches, replacing them with short, snatched conversation in search of a documentary effect. "It's as if they had the recording equipment we have today, and we're just following them around as it all happens," he explains. Sometimes, he says, there is no conversation at all. "In one scene people talk about a box - what could possibly be in it? Then everybody leaves, while the actor opens the box, removes a pistol, primes it, cocks it and shoots himself. You don't need a conversation to get that effect."
Though he has scrapped much of the original dialogue, and many of the peripheral characters, Dryden is meticulous in other areas. He went to the British Library, for example, to find the very song that Dickens has Skimpole singing, about a poor peasant boy. Skimpole, who has just ordered Jo, the sickly little crossing-sweeper, out of the house, sobs as he sings. The irony is heavy, and very Dickensian.
Honeysuckle Weeks, who starred in Close Relations and Goggle Eyes, is playing Ada Clare. She loves the radio, because she can "eyebrow" it. She explains: "On camera, my face is very elastic and I have to tone my expressions down; radio is much freer." She had trouble with Ada at first. "She's tricky because she's so nice. I decided to play her as impulsive, 'hyper' and away with the fairies - and it seems to work."
Claire Price has a similar challenge, playing the extremely good orphan Esther Summerson. "She's idealised, fantastical and awfully twee, especially when she keeps calling Ada my pet and my darling," she says, "But in this version she's a little less daffy and wet - and she grows and becomes wiser. Eventually she's a rock for all the other characters." Price doesn't need a script - she has learned all her lines - and watching her, in her long rustling skirt, playing an emotional scene with Michael Kitchen, it's clear this has paid off.
Daisy Beaumont, playing the glamorous and mysterious Lady Dedlock, smiles as she hears Price talk. Her character has no problem with sweetness. Lady Dedlock is happy playing her power games and she nurses a dark secret, although the actress instructs me, "Don't you give it away!"
It's time for lunch. The caterers come every day - and generally as they roar up it interrupts a perfect, quiet moment of recording. But they aren't the only ones with a poor sense of timing. There are five cats in the castle and one of them sets of the raucous fire alarms during a take. On another occasion, a scene was set up and ready to go when somebody switched on an industrial polisher. And the castle is open to the public. Despite the "sound police" trying to keep them quiet - or preferably, away - they still manage to intrude: during a particularly intimate moment, some innocent visitor noisily flushed a loo. Such interruptions can, however, be turned to good effect. When the Great Hall was full of visitors, Dryden invited them all to join in and to behave like a raucous crowd in chancery. The visitors were delighted to oblige (only two asked for payment).
But the moment everyone remembers is when a horse and carriage were being recorded. There had been planes about that day and they waited for a lull. At last, when everything was quiet, and everybody ready, the director called "Action" and the horse obliged, noisily. "Everyone fell about," says Rob Jarvis, "and then the horse just looked around loftily, as if he was saying 'Hey, that's what I do'." And Mr Guppy flings back his head and chortles.