Inspire Me – Interview with TV Production Designer Richard Drew

Tv Production Designer Richard Drew
Have you ever wondered how a TV set is designed – the though process behind it ? Why are certain colours used in a character’s home and who develops all of this and how ?
Well, I have some answers here for you courtesy of TV Production Designer Richard Drew who has worked on many shows in his extremely established career including The Inbetweeners, Smell of Reeves & Mortimer, Man Down, Alan Partridge, Ratburger, Walliams and Friends, Sick Note, Stath Lets Flats …the cv is wayyy too long to mention everything.

It seems like the perfect time to chat with Richard and discover some tricks of the trade as he is just about to celebrate his 30th year in the industry …

How did you train to become a Production Designer ?

I studied at Barking College of Technology as a 6th form student doing a Media Course in 84 / 85 – pretty progressive for the mid 80’s in East London. I did O’levels in film, television and theatre design. Then I got accepted onto a West Sussex College of Design course 85 / 86 doing a theatre design diploma, a 2 year course completed in 1. Then finally film school 86 / 88 in Newport South Wales, an HND course in film and tv practice.

I went from school right the way through without a year out and finished my education in June 1988. My first day at work for the BBC in Wales was the 8 / 8 / 88 – it’s my 30th Anniversary next month. 
But it goes further back than just the education, as a 12 year old I stood on a professional stage for the first time as an amateur performer and was totally transfixed. Not so much with the audience and lights but was intrigued and captivated by the mechanics of theatre and how it worked behind the scenes – and I loved the smell of backstage. – I still do. 

 It was my Drama Teacher at school who told my Father when I was maybe 14, that I should consider persuing a career backstage rather than trying to be an actor ( something I thought I wanted to do ) as I clearly loved the theatre and was ‘ good at art ’ but not ‘ good at acting ’ – the single best advice anyone ever gave me. I painted the boards rather than tread them.

Billionaire Boy TV Show

Is there a process when you start work on a new project and how do you decide what the characters’ homes will be like inside ?

It all starts with a script. Reading it over and over, followed by a meeting or two with a writer / director. Then finding a location which will dictate a hell of a lot. I love the back story to a character. Why are they here ? What they do for a living etc. I think about colour themes, age of the charcter… where they shop, I love giving my characters collections of things… maybe a bit of me there ?

If building a set interior I try and go for sets with depth; sexy transitions from room to room, sets wide enough that you don’t need to move walls or furniture to shoot in. It’s a lot easier to make a room feel smaller on camera than make a room look bigger. Lighting is vital, windows are useful and building a room means you can make an alcove just the right size to fit a particular piece of furniture. 

 

Comic Relief ImageDavid Walliams Lady image

Where do you go to find inspiration ?

The art world more than anything I’d say – for a designer of spaces and interiors maybe more than the architecture world, which I guess you’d expect – installation artists like Esther Stocker I really love. The Comic Relief set of 2016 was inspired by her work … a collage piece by Sharon Elphick inspired the Comic Relief set of 2013.

Street Art – I love the trend for doing art with fluorescent tape. Furniture design both good and bad. Shop window displays in general are great sources of ideas. Wallpaper patterns, shadows on the floor, the colour of the sea, fashion. Pretty much wherever you look if you’re switched on that way I think you find it.

 I think a Google image search is a thing of beauty as it opens up so many possibilities that endless library searches may never find. Graphic art is a huge influence – record covers. I’ve spent a lot of money on records in the past based soley on the cover art. I’m a bit of a culture sponge, a hoarder and have the capacity to remember and reference things not really knowing how or why it’s there other than certain things just stick. Something as varied as the typography and layout of a Live Aid poster, the colour of Tom Hanks bed in the film Big or a Tom Ford suit worn by Colin Firth at the Oscars. I don’t know whether that’s a designer thing – or a thing that I just possess – but I’ve always been very visually aware and a bit of a visual magpie ( sorry that’s a very lazy way of putting it )

Sick Note TV Programme

I’d love to know which colours you enjoy working with the most ?

I adore colour – certainly when designing the light entertainment shows I’ve done in the past ( Friday Night with Jonathan Ross – the BBC version , Your Face or Mine, Comic Relief – I’ve always gone for a set with colour – the truth is people in light entertainment particularly are quite scared of colour as there is no get out of jail card. If you have a green set, you’re stuck with a green set but if you paint the set grey and light it green, you can change it to any colour you want, which I think is a cop – out. In designing for scripted stuff I love using colour throughout –  limited colour palletes, certain colours for certain characters etc.

If you watch season one and two of Sick Note ( Sky One Season 2 starts this week ) there is no yellow on the set apart from one character who wears it and has yellow props and a yellow car. It was a decision based purely on the fact that we thought it would make that character stand out – although she’s not a main character she acts as a linchpin to a lot of the story. I once did a kids show years ago which was like a Japanese Anime and the only colours I used on the set were the colours of the Tokyo Subway lines. Just because. I love the meaning of colours and the way they make you feel. I love playing with colour tones also.

How would you describe your own home style ?

Ecclectric ( is that even a word ?) – colourful and spacious.

I’ve got the ubiquitous Tolix Chairs and the G plan Sideboard but its mixed with a bit of 70’s, 30’s ,50’s stuff.. a sprinkling of kitsch thrown in. A solid Ikea Bookcase and Lack Bed have been with me forever to address the balance. I’ve an Eames Lounger and Sofa that was in a famous film ( I really can’t tell you which one, no really I can’t ) and there is fair amount of film posters going on and random signage from various travels or film shoots. Christ it sounds like a hipster wet dream. Car boot finds and skip grabbed pieces fill the gaps  – a £12 1960’s coffee table sits happily on a moroccan rug.

I’ve avoided the trend for house plants as I know I’ll kill them but still have an empty Macrame basket hanging from my ceiling. I’ve got Airfix planes in my kitchen and a 1980’s ceramic Buddha in my hallway. But I love it. Of course it’s a little bit art directed. 

Billionaire Boy - Production Designer - Richard Drew

There must be some pros and cons of working as freelance designer in television ?

I’ll start with the negatives.

The hours can be brutally long Sometimes in the Art Dept it’s not uncommon to do a 14 hour day – it takes a certain person to want to commit to that. Plus as a freelancer even when back home the phone can ring at all hours – script changes at 10pm or schedule changes. I’ve often thought there should be an acceptable cut off time but when you’re knee deep on a project – it just all consumes you and you live and breathe it. It becomes normal and although we all know that it isn’t healthy we still do it.
I also don’t think that’s unique to the Art Dept. Make-Up, Costume, Lighting, Locations etc etc – we all do silly hours.
It’s often a more physically demanding job that you’d maybe expect, certainly the filming part of it.
I walked 9.5 miles in a studio fairly recenly – a studio maybe a bit bigger than a tennis court. how is that possible I didn’t go anywhere.
I was on my feet dressing a set, back and forth all day but going nowhere. 
Dressing sets / solving problems / construction managing a project takes it’s toll whether you think it does or otherwise – punch drunk in decision making. I don’t suffer fools I’m afraid so working with ‘ chancers ’ or new kids on the block who think they know everything can be very tiresome – I would say I don’t think that’s unique to television though.

Oh and you never know when the phone may ring, that can be both good and bad. I still havent got used to it either way.

The pros thankfully outweigh the cons. I’ve met a lot of truly wonderful people in my career so far. Film shoots on the whole are great environments to spend your day and although hard work, are also fun. A shoot allows you to work in amazing locations and world famous studios – my current project has me putting a set or two onto the stages at Pinewood Studios. I can’t tell you what a thrill that is to say, working at the BBC was also always a real thrill for me too.

I’ve travelled a little bit too – Rio, Tokyo, Warsaw and Beijing – to see those parts of the world from a work perspective rather than just a holiday perspective is authentic and how cities should be seen I think. I’ve worked with some immense talent and spent time with huge stars. I have to stress that this is not why I do the job but sometimes you do have to pinch yourself – ” yes that is Stevie Wonder and yes he is rehersing not 12 feet from me “.  ” Yes I’m standing on stage with David Bowie ” – ” yes I will catch Daniel Craig in my arms on this small stunt fall “…
More importantly in light of equal pay and the ‘ Me Too ‘ movement I’m incredibly proud to say that the Art Dept is a fantastic example of where male and female doesn’t matter. 

Buyers, Set Decorators, Art Directors, Prop Makers, SFX Designers, Prop Masters, Standby Props and Production Designers are just as likely to be female as male – and equally paid too. Its based on ability and nothing more.

Sick Note T V Show

Is there a particular project over the last 30 years that stands out the most as your favourite ? Why ?

That’s like trying to choose a favourite child !

I’m incredibly proud of the 5 comic reliefs and 4 Sport Reliefs I’ve designed for the BBC. I’m part of that wonderful tv family and the history of that show. Always honoured to be asked. It’s where I’ve got to flex my showbiz muscles and every once in a while it’s a good thing to brush off the glitter and mirrored floors.

The 11 O’Clock Show put me on the map as a Production Designer and was the point I stopped being an Art Director so I’ll always have a soft spot for that show. The Inbetweeners for seeing how a show nobody had heard of suddenly become a show that everyone knew  – and it’s always a nice revelation to tell younger members of a crew that I worked on it. Their eyes generally light up.

Stath Lets Flats TV Show Channel 4 designer Richard DrewCreatively. I’d say most of what I’ve done in the past 2 years on the whole has been some of the best stuff I’ve ever done. Ratburger the David Walliams book for Sky last Christmas was a dream job. I had total creative freedom thanks to trust from Production, Matt the Director and David himself – I was like a child in a candy shop on that one. A Ratburger machine that was part Heath Robinson and part Mousetrap board game. Recently Sick Note for Sky, Stath Lets Flats on Channel 4 , the new series of Alan Partridge due to air on the BBC in January and my current project ‘ After – Life ’ have all been immensly challenging but very rewarding. Building sets and dressing sets is the best for me. Creating something that doesn’t exist is still such a buzz. 

I’m fortunate to still enjoy the job as much as I do.

records vinyl collection

I couldn’t miss the opportunity to ask you about your huge vinyl collection. Where do you like to go record hunting and who are you loving listening to at the moment ?

I’ve been buying records almost as long as I can remember. Whats the Abba line ? ” Mamma said I was a dancer before I could walk, she said I began to sing long before I could talk ” well that’s me I think, I’m basically Agneta from abba.

 The collection is close to 4000 now and has no desire to stop growing… 
If designing is my love then music is my passion. I’m not someone who buys for value, I buy to complete a set or because I love a partiular track or I just like the cover. There can be a million reasons I buy but ‘ its resale value ’ isn’t one of them. Because of this, my taste is wildly eclectic.
For example last week at a charity shop in one swoop I bought a Hazel Dean hi – energy 12” , a UB40 12”, a Todd Rundgren album a Nat King Cole album and a 70’s album by a French band called Space. Magic Fly is the song you would know – trust me.
Sure I have genres I prefer – disco, dance, electronic, synthwave, soundtracks, brit funk, and indie but that doesn’t stop the Rouge Country Albums and Jazz albums creeping in or a bit of folk. Anything goes to be honest, I’m unashamedly first and foremaost a pop fan. I go to at least a dozen gigs a year, recenly Gary Numan, MGMT and Orbital so of course I’ve been out and bought some of those albums to join some dots. I’ve recenly being listening a lot of Imagination, Tiger and Woods, Roosevelt, Hall and Oates and Faithless.

Could you offer some advice to anyone wanting to get in to your industry ?

No matter what anyone tells you getting a foot in the door is all about timing. Yes you can study at some amazing courses – particular shout out to Lucy who runs the BA Hons in theatre at Wimbledon and David who runs the tv production course at the National Film School but those courses not so much arm you with the tools but put you in the right place to be noticed. Talent sometimes doesn’t come into it.

 I found out fairly recently that the criteria for me getting on my film school course ( over 1500 applicants for 14 places )  wasn’t whether I was any good but whether I was employable – I’ve often wondered what they saw in me and now I know it was simply that I was marketable.. 
So when I say timing I can only say that the last 3 incredibly brilliant Art Directors I have employed have called me just as I was looking for someone – it was only after they contacted me did I check a cv and get references – it was just down luck sometimes
Don’t be  disapointed if you send out 200 cv’s and nobody replies. Send 200 more. Do low budget jobs, do no – budget jobs – put yourself out there. The more people you meet the more opportunities you create. One day it will work in your favour.
 It happened to me – I did a low budget 2nd world war film at film school in my final year. I hired some costumes and got chatting to the Costume Assistant who got me a meeting with a Senior Costume Designer who got me an interview with the Senior Production Designer who got me a 4 month contract fresh out of Film School.

 The film school put me in the position to visit the costume store but the rest was just good timing and luck.

What are your upcoming projects for the rest of 2018 ?

The shortest answer I’m going to give.

I’m doing a big theatre stand-up show for Jimmy Carr in Dublin in September – a Netflix Special and October will always include work on the annual Halloween party for Mr Jonathan Ross. Which is where I get to flex my dark side. But in terms of scripted stuff nothing as yet. There are a few things bubbling away so for the time being I’m okay. I’ve done a small amount of lectures at Wimbledon Art College and been a mentor at the National Film School – maybe its time to get the mortar board and gown from the loft again ? It’s also a good time to do galleries and exhibitions.

 I try and make the theatre design degree show every year and also the film school degree show, I jokingly tell people I’m only there to steal ideas but I love talking to design students, you know when you’ve met a really good one.

A massive thank you to Richard Drew for such an insightful view in to his work background. Wishing him a very happy 30th year in television. 

Hope you’ve enjoyed reading about behind the scenes on TV sets ? Do stop by and leave me a comment if you’d like to. Always love to hear from you.

Lucy x

All images copyright Richard Drew 2018: 1. Richard Drew, 2. Billionaire Boy, 3 & 4. Sport Relief, 5. Sick Note, 6. Billionaire Boy, 7. Walliams and Friends, 8. Stath Lets Flats, 6. Richard Drew’s vinyl collection.

10 Comments

Antonia Ludden

What a fascinating, creative and varied job Richard has! So interesting. I often wonder about set design when I’m watching programmes, and costumes, the colour choices etc. I’m similarly drawn to shop windows displays and I definitely think visual merchandising or set design is an area of work I would have enjoyed going into myself!

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lucylovesya

Same here, Antonia! I’m so glad you enjoyed the interview. I’ve been itching to find out myself about the work behind set design. Richard has a good reputation in the business – great opportunity to find out about him x

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Kimberly Duran

This was so fascinating! Thanks so much for the post – it’s something I’ve been curious about for ages and Richard has so much experience. Clearly a wildly creative and passionate person. I really enjoyed this one! :) xx

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Stacey Sheppard

How interesting! I do love getting a behind the scenes glimpse into people’s jobs. Richard is obviously very acclaimed to have spent 30 years in the industry and to have worked on so many shows.

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