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  M.   September 13, 2008

When the opening credits roll on the BBC’s new production of Thomas Hardy’s Tess Of The D’Urbervilles, they will herald one of the most incredible dramas of all time.

It is a story of passion, loss and the battle for survival against the odds. Not the script for Tess’s tragic life but the extraordinary real-life events that threatened to make Tess the first ever costume drama without any costumes.

A devastating fire four weeks into filming destroyed 750 period costumes, worth an eyewatering £320,000. Crucially, it left major actors with only the outfits they had worn in the previous day’s scenes.

With no time spare to delay filming, costume designer James Keast had just 24 hours to replace the costumes.

What followed was a series of remarkable makeshift measures, culminating in one major star wearing a shirt fashioned from James’s own duvet cover.

‘With all the costumes, accessories and our continuity polaroids destroyed by the fire,’ says James, ‘we were working from memory alone, trying to patch together replacement outfits. Fortunately, the whole cast just mucked in with really good humour. It was like the wartime spirit: we all knew we were facing a tremendous battle, but everyone helped.’

James, 51, was a sound choice for the four-month design project, having worked on such TV classics as The House Of Eliott, Our Friends In The North, The Long Firm, for which he won a Bafta, and The Queen’s Sister.

Designing and sourcing 750 period costumes for the cast of Tess, including 35 principal players, was no mean feat.

The cast includes Gemma Arterton as Tess, Hans Matheson as the brutal Alec D’Urberville, veteran actress Anna Massey as his daunting mother, and Gavin & Stacey star Ruth Jones as Tess’s mother, Joan.

‘After doing my own research into the story,’ says James, ‘and deciding to set the costumes in the late 1800s, I sat down with the director, lighting director, set designers and make-up artists to agree on colour schemes and moods for each scene.

‘When Tess’s life is going badly, I chose brown, grey or black clothes to darken the mood. We went for simple white and cream for happy scenes, and when Tess and her friends found back-breaking work on a turnip farm, I shortened their dresses to emphasise how mud-splattered, wet and dirty they were.’

Filming began in March 2008 and the mood on set was good.

‘I had carefully sourced and hired dozens of authentic Victorian outfits from a costumier in London,’ says James. ‘I then sourced some vintage material to make the remaining outfits.

‘The accessories were fantastic – original paisley shawls, which were worth £200 each, beautiful parasols, belt buckles, walking canes and hats from my own collection. I also brought along my special silver Victorian cufflinks for Hans to wear. They were given to me 20 years ago by a theatrical costume designer, upon her retirement. They had once been worn by Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson, and she wanted me to carry on the tradition. They were my pride and joy.

‘We were filming on location in Gloucestershire, and I hired a small cottage to stay in. All was going well until, one night, a month into filming, my phone rang at 2.30am. I picked it up in time to hear a message from an assistant, saying, “You might be interested to know that the costume truck is on fire.” I assumed it was a joke, and thought, “I’ll get him for this.” But when I rang him back and said, “This is a wind-up, isn’t it?” he told me a gang of youths had been chased away by security guards earlier that evening and had apparently returned to get their revenge.

‘I couldn’t believe that all our costumes could be gone, but as soon as I arrived on the set, I saw the fire crew hosing down what was left of the enormous costume trailer.

‘Absolutely everything inside was destroyed – my beloved cufflinks, the Victorian hatpins that I had collected for 30 years, and beautiful shawls and hats. The vintage costumes we had hired were worth a staggering £250,000. The outfits I had designed and made were worth another £30,000, then there was my own collection of Victorian accessories, which was worth £40,000. They were insured, but they were irreplaceable.

‘It wasn’t just the cost or the appalling loss of everything that I held so dear – it was the awful realisation that every single outfit had been destroyed. The only costumes that survived were the ones the cast had been wearing the day before. They had been steam-cleaned and hung in separate trailers, ready for filming the following morning.

‘I knew we couldn’t delay filming by even 24 hours – Gemma was working on another production as soon as Tess was completed – which meant I had one day to replace the 150 costumes needed.

‘Many of them had been used for scenes that had been almost completed, which was a huge problem because all the continuity polaroids, which I take throughout filming to ensure that every tiny detail of the outfits remain the same, had also gone up in smoke.

‘There wasn’t time to even sit and cry. Gemma, Hans and the others had nothing to wear. So I drove straight to the costumiers in London, and ran around like a madman trying to find outfits to put on the actors for filming the next day. An assistant went around choosing fabrics so that we could remake other costumes through the night.

‘My real nightmare was that many of the dresses and shirts that had been filmed for incomplete scenes were actually vintage Victorian, and so irreplaceable. The only option was to find similar material, dye it, then make up replacement outfits that would look the same.

‘That night, I filled my kitchen and bathroom with buckets of dye and spent the whole night dyeing replacement material, and then cutting and embroidering it.

‘One big scene in which Tess’s work friends invite her out to a fair had been shot with vintage Victorian dresses. To finish filming that one scene, six outfits had to be remade from scratch. Halfway through the scene, the actresses switch from vintage Victorian outfits to the material that I dyed on my kitchen floor – I just hope the change isn’t obvious.’

With James working a 16-hour day, seven days a week, the costumes for each major character were painstakingly replaced, sometimes with just hours to spare.

‘Everyone seemed to grow especially close,’ says James. ‘Gemma became friendly with the actresses who work beside her in the turnip farm. In one scene, which was due to last for just 20 seconds, the girls were supposed to sing a song together as they worked. It was freezing cold, but as they started to top and tail the turnips and sing, they were laughing and smiling. I turned and saw that the crew were watching, with huge smiles on their faces. It made everyone feel so good, and it was a moment of real screen magic.’

Conditions on location can be tough – and filming in the Gloucestershire countryside in spring was brutal, as James explains: ‘It was freezing, but, because the girls were wearing long skirts, I was able to give them thermal long johns to wear underneath.

‘We couldn’t afford for Gemma to catch a cold, because there was no extra filming time. One scene, where Tess flees the house of her in-laws and runs outside, proved a real nightmare. We had to film in the rain, and visual-effects rain has to be much heavier than normal rain in order for it to register on the camera. This meant poor Gemma was completely soaked for three hours. In the finished take she looks absolutely freezing.’

When filming finished in June, it marked the end of James’s extraordinary saga. He says, ‘I have never worked so hard in my life. I didn’t have a day off for five weeks as we scrabbled to find new costumes, but I hope that the results on screen will still look fantastic. I’ll always remember Tess Of The D’Urbervilles as the costume drama that rose from the ashes.’

Source: Mail Online