Crowning Achievement

In Season 3 of The Crown, Emmy-nominated production designer Martin Childs and set decorator Alison Harvey recreate history in vivid detail.

Sketches by Martin Childs
14 August 20205 min read

Peter Morgan’s acclaimed drama The Crown follows the reign of Queen Elizabeth II (Oscar winner Olivia Colman) across decades and continents. It’s a vast historical expanse, and it has to be populated with detail — every setting meticulously reconstructed, every object carefully considered. Leading that endeavor are production designer Martin Childs and set decorator Alison Harvey, who, with help from a devoted team of 24 behind-the-scenes experts, bring a visceral immediacy to the series.

Their work on the Season 3 episode “Aberfan,” about the infamous Welsh mining disaster, has earned them an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Production Design. “Aberfan was a challenging scenario all over. It’s a living memory,” Harvey says of the episode. Adds Childs: “I’ve never felt more the responsibility of being true.”

The production team is well equipped for a challenge. Each season of the drama requires around 400 sets. “That’s 40 per episode, or one for every minute and a quarter of screen time, which is a massive undertaking for the set decoration team,” notes Childs, who won an Academy Award for his contributions to Shakespeare in Love. “Working on a season of The Crown is like working on half a dozen feature films at once.”

A glimpse of Athens in Episode 4, “Bubbikins’”

Before filming begins, Childs and Harvey devote weeks to studying the time period during which the upcoming episodes are set. “You have to research a decade, distill the style of that decade in your head, and look at millions of photos of the period to get the lessons in your soul,” Harvey explains. After that, the two devise clever ways to create all those palaces, estates, and gardens on soundstages — or to transform existing locations into far-flung settings. “I’m always proud of the fact that we can go somewhere relatively nearby and convince the audience that we’re somewhere else,” Childs says.

In Season 3, for example, Athens is recreated in Spain. So are Princess Margaret’s (Helena Bonham Carter) home in the Caribbean and her travels through America, though the interiors of the White House are shot at Hylands House in Chelmsford, Essex. “The pace of the drama requires a quick cut between different sets, so we are dressing a set one day, shooting it the second, and undressing it the third,” Harvey explains of the process. “The Crown is unusual because they run two filming units simultaneously. We can be filming in two different parts of England or Spain, hundreds of miles apart, and the geographical stress can be quite high.”

Princess Margaret lands at the San Francisco airport in Episode 2, “Margaretology”

To help the stars of the drama feel as though they’ve stepped into another place and time, Harvey tends to every detail on every set — even the lampshades (American lampshades of the 1960s were “very *Mad Men,*” she quips, while their English counterparts were “not very stylish.”) The objects in Buckingham Palace are exhaustively monogrammed, down to the dressing table sets on the queen’s vanity. Harvey’s team even recreated a pillow adorned with the phrase “It’s not easy being a princess,” after Bonham Carter discovered an archival photo of the real Margaret carrying an identical cushion. (Eagle-eyed viewers might spot it on her bed in the first episode of the season.)

Because the environment in which a character exists can convey so much about that person, and because the series depicts real-world historical figures, accuracy is paramount. When designing an office for Prime Minister Harold Wilson (Jason Watkins) — a man Harvey describes as “a super brain, a super intellect” — the team filled the space with books he might have read, and his desk drawers were stacked with postcards and other souvenirs from his international travels, including a tin box from the Kremlin. Elizabeth’s and Margaret’s perfumes were also considered, adding another level of immersion for Colman and Bonham Carter. The queen prefers a Creed designed for Grace Kelly, while Margaret has an Oscar de la Renta in a fashionable 60s bottle.

I’ve never felt more the responsibility of being true.

Martin Childs, on “Aberfan”

By now, designing and dressing the corridors of power have become de rigueur for Childs and Harvey. Depicting the relentless political and social upheaval of the 1960s brought fresh challenges, and staging the 1966 Aberfan disaster felt singular to the art department veterans. The coal-waste landslide devastated a small Welsh mining town one October morning, killing 116 children and 28 adults. “The challenge was how to tell this ghastly story in a true way, honoring the dignity of its victims and the feelings of its survivors, as a devastated community would be part of our audience,” Childs recounts.

Recreating the site of a historic disaster in Episode 3, “Aberfan”

Everything leading up to the actual moment of the slide was shot on location in Cwmaman, a nearby village in south Wales that resembles Aberfan. The team oversaw the construction of the hill of coal waste that loomed large over the Pantglas Junior School before extensive rains caused it to collapse. “Forensic research was essential for the recreation of the village and its school, which was replicated down to the books, the satchels, the drawings, and the calendar on the wall,” Childs says.

Out of respect for the community, the aftermath of the disaster — remains of the buried school, ravaged streets and family homes — was staged 180 miles away, on a backlot at Elstree Studios just outside of London. “The big irony was that the episode is partly about the queen putting off visiting Aberfan, but we built it on the same backlot as Buckingham Palace, so technically she could’ve seen it from her window,” says Childs.

“If you can pull the wool over the audience’s eyes and pull the wool over your own a bit, then it’s swimming,” he admits. “I can watch The Crown now without being reminded of my own tricks. I can just enjoy it. When I can do that, it’s a wonderful thing.”