Often voted the nation's favourite book, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is universally loved. Mammoth Screen joint managing director Damien Timmer and I (we are the joint MDs at Mammoth Screen) were keen to find a new way to bring the story to the screen for an ITV audience, and for that we needed a twist.
The pitch was simple: a modern day girl swaps places with Elizabeth Bennet, and her presence as a “fish out of water” corrupts the story. But who could write it? Luckily we'd worked with Guy Andrews (Agatha Christie: Poirot, Lewis, Absolute Power) before, and knew that he'd have the flair to take on Jane Austen's master work and turn it upside down with wit and affection.
We were given the green light by ITV in the spring of 2007 and pre-production started in earnest. But how could we compete with the celebrated 1995 BBC adaptation and the Joe Wright film on a contemporary drama budget?
Without Screen Yorkshire's investment and support, the project would not have been possible. This coupled with the stunning locations on offer meant Yorkshire was clearly the place to base the production. As we hunted for locations, we kept hearing about the spread of UK locations in the BBC's Pride and Prejudice. We were confined to a 40-minute radius of Leeds, within which we had to film all the major set pieces of the novel as well as recreate scenes from period and modern Hammersmith.
Finding the Bennet family home, Longbourn, was always going to be tricky. Certain areas around Leeds had to be crossed off because the stone buildings had been blackened by centuries of smoke from the local mines. We searched endlessly for a house with all the right period detail but very few owners liked the idea of inviting a film crew in for eight weeks.
Then we found Bramham Biggin. An empty, derelict house on the estate of Bramham Park, it had previously been a boys' prep school, which had been closed down because of a cholera scare. Since then it had been rented out to tenants who had let it fall to rack and ruin. But it was exactly the right period, untouched and sitting in its own grounds.
All the windows had been boarded up, so we went around with torches. The only room we could see properly was the central hallway, with its sweeping staircase and galleried landing. Our designer, Michael Pickwoad, was ecstatic. The house was just the right size and had charm and period detail by the bucketload. Before we got too excited, the house was assessed by a structural engineer and we got the water tested; it would be bad for the crew to get cholera.
The design team did an amazing job recreating the interior, building a porch over the front entrance and planting a new garden. The fact that we could return to the house at any point in the shoot was the only flexibility we had in a schedule that was incredibly tight.
Bramham Park was also the location for Netherfield Park, Mr Bingley's residence. Its grounds were perfect for our countryside exteriors, accessed by dirt tracks without a pylon in sight. Bramham also has the ornamental lake Mr Darcy emerges from in a key scene.
At script stage we had discussed if we dared nod to the famous Colin Firth scene of Darcy in the lake invented by Andrew Davies. Courageously Guy went for it. In our version Amanda (Jemima Rooper), our modern-day heroine, asks Darcy if he will recreate this iconic moment, and he obliges. But how to do it?
The first opportunity to schedule the scene was in late October and it was freezing. If Elliot Cowan, our superb Mr Darcy, caught a cold, how would we cope for the rest of the shoot?
The crew assembled, the water was tested and the bottom of the lake checked for anything unpleasant. Elliot was dressed in a wet suit from the waist down, with a long white shirt spritzed with water on his top half, to give the full wet Colin Firth look. The stuntmen were ready, and costume were standing by with foil blankets and a hot shower.
We had a few takes from different angles but only one go at total immersion. The trouble with period shooting is that all the cast are in expensive wigs, and we could only afford one each. Elliot could only submerge once; the sun came out and a little mist ran across the top of the water. Sometimes the gods smile on location shooting.
Lost in Austen is a Mammoth Screen production for ITV1. It airs in early September.
Michele Buck: My tricks of the trade
An Arctic featherdown North Face coat is a must, 52 weeks of the year, never mind the weather forecast.
Shoot horse and carriages in the morning. They go into overtime before the crew!
Be warned, sat nav doesn't always work in remote areas of Yorkshire.
Check for local air fields. In one location we had to do automated dialogue replacement on an entire scene because of a local flying club's acrobatic display.
Our one casualty was Lady Ambrosia, the Bennet family's pig, a creation of Guy's and an important part of the first scripted episode. But, with the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, we eventually admitted defeat and accepted that we'd never see her.