Getting Walford ready for HD - Behind the Scenes
Matt Conder gets an exclusive behind the scenes look at how Albert Square has been revamped for HD
There’s a brand spanking new Queen Vic, the laundrettes got bigger, and even Pat’s had a makeover. Everything from brick walls to beer mats has been given a facelift in time for the first ever Christmas Day episode of EastEnders to be broadcast in high definition.
The BBC has reportedly spent thousands of pounds upgrading the ageing sets of various TV shows for the brand new BBC One HD channel which launched earlier this month.
From Christmas Day EastEnders will join a host of other top BBC shows making the move to HD including; Holby City, Strictly Come Dancing, and The Graham Norton Show.
Bryan Kirkwood, EastEnders executive producer, said: “Christmas Day in Walford is traditionally turkey, tinsel and turmoil for the residents of Albert Square. This year will be even more spectacular with viewers having the opportunity to watch the festive drama unfold in HD for the first time.”
Albert Square was originally designed in the early 1980s by the late Keith Harris, the senior designer in the EastEnders production team. Consisting mainly of plywood and fake bricks, the set has had a lot thrown at it over the years and most of it has remained remarkably intact considering it was never intended as a permanent fixture. Over the last 25 years the crew have been able to use various ‘tricks’ to cover over and repair damage without the viewer noticing a thing. But the advent of HD television means using Blu-Tack, tape and glue is no longer an option. Now every knock, scratch, smear and chipboard flake will be clearly visible to viewers watching at home.
With close up shots revealing perhaps more than the actors and actresses would like, the EastEnders make-up department will also need to up their game to cover blemishes and hide imperfections that will show up in even greater detail than before. There will be no room for badly applied make-up, dodgy fake moustaches or wonky wigs.
In 2008 it was reported that due to spiralling scenery repair costs and cost cutting at the BBC that EastEnders was to move out of its 16-acre site at Elstree studios in Borehamwood and move to a purpose built set at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire.
However, this never materialised and instead it was announced that EastEnders would stay at Elstree for the foreseeable future and the set would be upgraded for the move to HD TV. Many industry experts still say it would have been far cheaper for the BBC in the long run to rebuild the set completely instead of just refurbishing it.
Clever Bricks, HD Trees and Pats Wallpaper…
During the recent revamp a massive 15,000 square metres of bricks have been replaced on exterior buildings across the EastEnders Lot. The technology to produce scenic brickwork has come on in leaps and bounds since the 1980’s and has enabled the design team to use a variety of materials for bricks. The majority of the Victorian brickwork is an improved plaster brick which is then coloured to make it look like the real thing. Another material called GRP (Glass Reinforced-Plastic) has been used for modern brickwork in small areas of Albert Square. There are of course some real bricks in the building exteriors. Fake bricks have been replaced with real ones wherever possible by a team of builders who have been on site every week.
The exterior set for EastEnders is in constant use for filming and so it becomes a difficult balancing act for the Production Team who try to avoid renovations disturbing filming. Some of the renovation work can be clearly seen continuing in the background of some episodes. Eagle-eyed viewers might have seen the work going on around the railway bridges during recent episodes and perhaps also spotted contractors operating cherry pickers outside the Argee Bhajee on the EastEnders webcams.
Some of the set revamp work has even been written into the script of recent episodes. For example, when Max’s new love interest Vanessa Gold (Zoe Lucker) arrived on The Square she decided that she wanted to erase any trace of Max’s ex wife Tanya. As well as being therapeutic for Vanessa, it also gave the designers the perfect excuse to update the house for HD!
Other changes to the set needed to be kept more discrete without viewers noticing. It may not look like it, but Pat’s house has been re-wallpapered throughout. It wasn’t all straight forward though, the wallpaper was so old that the BBC design team had to enlist the help of a specialist wallpaper expert because the original pattern had been discontinued. In the end they managed to find wallpaper with the closest possible stylistic match – can you spot the difference?
Dot will be disappointed because not much has changed decoration wise over at the laundrette. The designers decided its ‘industrial look’ worked perfectly for HD. Although one interesting addition has been the construction of an extra room at the back so viewers can listen in on any backroom gossip. And let’s face it with Dot around there’s never any shortage of that!
Changes have also been made at Walford East tube station. All of the wall tiles in the fictional tube stations’ interior are actually real. Unfortunately though they were apparently ‘too clean’ for HD - so they have been made to look dirtier! To add extra realism, some of the platform and train scenes for ‘Walford East’ are actually filmed at the real life East Finchley London Underground Station.
Even the leaves on the trees are causing problems for the design team. An EastEnders Spokesperson said: “Each year we have to put fake leaves on the trees as filming is done so far in advance we need to replicate spring. This year we may have to stop putting leaves on the trees as the fake ones are easier to spot in high definition.”
Continuing with the horticultural theme, over at the Beales house a Winter Jasmine has been planted in the back yard. It’s not to make things look pretty though - it cleverly conceals the large expanse of fake brickwork by the backdoor to make it look easier on the HD eye.
“A lager please - oh and put it in one of those HD glasses love”
It’s not long before we’ll be able to see the first Queen Vic pints, parties and punch-ups all in glorious high definition.
After the devastating fire consigned the ‘old Vic to history and the residents of Albert Square swept away the ashes of their once beloved boozer, teams of designers and construction workers set to work on the new exterior and interior in readiness for HD.
The new exterior has been painted in red, green and cream colours. The choice of colours are reminiscent of those used in past decades such as the green colour from the early 90’s and cream - used in the 80’s. The new interior has a retro feel to it but looks pretty much the same as the old one with a few subtle changes decoration wise. An EastEnders Spokesperson said: “The new look Queen Vic has a modern twist - whilst retaining the traditional look of an old Victorian pub.” Some personal touches to reflect the new owners Kat & Alfie have also been included such as zebra pattern covered stools in the bar and leopard print wallpaper upstairs. Another striking new addition is the enormous tropical beach scene mural that adorns the wall of the Moons cluttered living room. The mural has certainly divided opinion between Enders fans!
Downstairs on the bar, even the beer mats and beer pump labels have been redesigned to give them a ‘HD look’. And after the old one was burnt in the fire, the replacement Queen Victoria bust - which is actually the same one used in the 1980’s - now sits in its usual place on the bar. The burnt one - which was also a murder weapon - was presented to Barbara Windsor as a leaving present. Apparently it’s now on display in a recess off the stairs at her home.
Changes have also been made to the downstairs layout of the Queen Vic. A major new addition has been the large kitchen complete with gleaming modern appliances and a serving hatch into the bar. However, there are a couple of mysteries that remain regarding the new layout. Firstly where did Kat and Alfie find the extra room for the large new kitchen? And secondly - where are the bogs! The exact location of the new customer toilets seems to have puzzled some viewers. The smartly decorated interior of the new female toilets was shown recently, but there’s still no clue as to exactly where they are!
A new tech savvy era
Cameras and other technical equipment have also been upgraded for the move to HD. New high definition cameras including Sony HSC-300 HD cameras and Sony PDW-700 XDCAM HD 422 location cameras are now being used. Post-production and studio control rooms at Elstree have also had technology upgrades.
EastEnders is entering a new tech savvy era. As well as the transition to HD, this year we have also seen the introduction of impressive CGI (Computer-Generated Imagery) trains which can be seen passing over the bridge into Walford East tube station.
Of course we don’t all have massive TV’s that look like they’ve been nicked from the NASA control room. Some viewers who experience HD notice a huge difference in picture quality - while others can’t see what all the fuss is about. Despite this, it’s clear the BBC is committed to the development of HD television and with new HD channels launching almost every month on multi-channel platforms, HD looks set to become just as important as the launch of colour TV.
So while we all sit feeling bloated and reaching for the Rennies after gorging on our Christmas dinners, those of us who do have HD can look forward to watching a good old EastEnders festive argument in glorious HD. Still, even if you don’t have HD for Christmas Day you can almost guarantee you’ll probably end up having your own argument at home in ‘Super Real Life Definition’ instead!
BBC One HD Facts:
* BBC One HD is now available on Freesat channel 108, Freeview channel 50, Sky channel 143 and Virgin Media channel 108.
* The autumn launch is the first stage in delivering BBC One in HD. The majority of programmes in the BBC One network evening schedule will be available in HD at launch and, by 2012, it is expected that the vast majority of all BBC One titles across all hours will be in HD.
Will you be watching EastEnders in HD this Christmas? Are you wondering what all the fuss is about? Don’t forget to have your say in the forums or add a comment below.