History's hardest prisons
Production company: Pulse Films
Executive producers: Simon Breen (Pulse Films), Alex Sutherland (National Geographic Channel)
The challeng: To use one location - an 18th-century house in Spitalfields, London - to recreate a tavern, a prison and a disease-ridden jail cell
The intent of History's Hardest Prisons was to delve into the darker side of history and shine a light on how crime was punished in the past. Driven by strong presentation from Piers Hernu and expert research from historian Ben Wilson, the film would bring an 18th-century jail to life. It would use pieces to camera, expert talking heads and, most challenging, dramatic reconstruction.
Production had to stretch the budget and shrink the schedule.
To make 14 minutes of drama across 47 minutes, we had to find a single multipurpose location.
After a concerted search, production manager Jenny Thompson pounced upon 4 Princelet Street, London E1 - commonly known as ‘the Pink House'. This 1724 terraced domicile retains most of its original interiors. Each room has its own individual attributes, so the camera can see a different composition on each storey.
The key was compromise. Seasoned director David Wilson noted that if you shoot everything in one location, you increase your filming time, canning the maximum possible scenes and increasing the viability of drama. All builds were kept lightweight, and using the minimum crew made one location much more feasible.
On the three long shoot days, we had no room for ‘jobsworths': everyone doubled up on roles. Pulse takes a unique and distinct integrated approach to content by relying on in-house skills to keep costs competitive. This applied to all aspects of the film, from titles to tapeless EX3 to a high standard of casting. Coronation Street's Martin Hancock took the central role as violent and sadistic prison warden Thomas Bambridge.
We never accepted that any aspect of the job ‘would do'; we put in maximum effort, particularly for securing the right location. Crucially, the script was locked and agreed with the broadcaster, National Geographic Channel general manager Simon Bohrsmann, and executive producer Alex Sutherland, prior to principle photography. So we were never shooting in the dark, and always knew scenes would make the final cut.
A well-ordered and pre-agreed script gives the best chance of a good film. A great location makes it sing. We ended up trimming back the drama footage to fit the film, cutting the doc down to fit all that we captured. We finished with close to 20 minutes of reconstruction in a 47-minute duration, on budget and on time. Phew!
History's Hardest Prisons airs on 17 May at 9pm on National Geographic Channel.