October 2020

Shaping The Crown: Leeds alum’s Emmy success

Alison Harvey with a British Film Designers Guild Award in 2017

Fans of film and television are likely to have enjoyed the work of set designer Alison Harvey (Fine Art 1988), though they might not even know it.

Atonement, Silent Witness, Hellboy, Gravity, Sherlock Holmes – Alison has helped to create scenes worth a thousand words in some of the biggest films and TV series of the last 20 years. Now, she has received an Emmy for Outstanding Production Design following her work on one of Netflix’s biggest shows, historical drama The Crown.

The University of Leeds and The Crown have history of their own, of course. It’s no secret that its creator is BAFTA-winning screenwriter Peter Morgan (History of Art 1985; DLitt 2016) – and now Alison’s work behind the scenes has also been recognised.

For fans of the show the award will come as no surprise. The drama, which recounts the story of the Monarch from 1947 to the present day, is noted for the exceptional detail in every scene, down to the positioning of a brooch, or a hairpiece worn on a wedding day – even though the viewers might not even be able to see it. Not only does Alison’s work help to tell a story, the accuracy lends credibility and is a significant draw for its 73 million viewers.

A scene from season 3, The Crown

“We research as much as possible,” Alison explains. “We have a whole research department and a Royal Advisor to help. We look at archival documents, read biographies, watch documentaries, YouTube clips – anything that will give extra clues. A good knowledge of period details really helps.

“It can be a bit 24/7. In film and TV the projects demand different knowledge each time. Eventually you realise you’ll never know everything, so it’s just like jumping into the deep end and hoping for the best.”

Of course, success at this level does not happen overnight. Alison's is a journey that began at Leeds with a blossoming love of film and art. “I loved going along to Hyde Park Picture House, seeing the films of Derek Jarman and witnessing the gender shifts of the 80s with films like My Beautiful Laundrette. On top of that, the Fine Art course was brilliant – Griselda Pollock was such an inspiration as an advocate of women in art. But I never had a career plan. I’ve always just accepted almost every job and learned from each.”

A spell as a History of Art teacher followed graduation, before Alison took a postgraduate course in Film and TV Design. “I went on to work on lots of different projects. It’s an industry that is hard to get into, and I would advise those trying should do any ‘runner’ job they can get. It's demanding on time and needs dedication and determination – it’s certainly not all glamourous. There’s a lot of time spent in industrial units, cold warehouses and rainy fields.”

The pay-off is that Alison has the opportunity to play a pivotal part in shaping productions: “It starts with a check of the locations and conversations with directors. Then, we discuss the look and feel of the project, and as a department, we put the life into the set. An empty room can be many things – a bedroom, a boardroom, a slum. We bring in all the elements that tell that story, enriching the characters. A set has the power to tell the story literally as well as emotionally – you can show whether a character is lonely, part of a family, part of the Mafia, anything.

The Crown brings its own unique challenges. We often have two filming units working at once – this can be in widespread locations. The pace of the script means we shoot different sets every day. We may shoot two sets on the same day in Lincolnshire while shooting two sets in Wiltshire – so we need to be very efficient.”

"An empty room can be many things." An example of Alison's work in season 3, The Crown

Over the years, Alison has built a portfolio of work alongside some of the finest directors and design teams in the world. But are there any that stand out over the others? “I think Atonement was really special,” Alison says. “It didn’t have a massive budget, and it was really challenging, but there was a fantastic team of people working towards the same goal.

“There are lots of logistical problems with film-making, but this was something else. We had to get a Thames barge from Essex to Newcastle by road, and we brought the Ferris wheel in from Wiltshire. Then there was the set itself. One of the team had to climb the rigging to shred the sails to match a barge on Dunkirk beach, we had to recruit local men as soldiers to sing, we had to get hold of tonnes of rubble. Training horses to fall when ’shot’ is always a challenge, and the props kept getting repeatedly washed away by the high tide. On top of all that, everything in the beach shot had to be choreographed and filmed in a maximum of three takes as the sun went down.”

The process of dressing the set for Atonement

The final shot of the beach scene in Atonement

It is these experiences that have helped Alison perfect her art. The eventual reward – alongside a British Film Designers Guild Award in 2017 – is a richly deserved Emmy, recognising excellence in the television industry. “It was all remote because of restrictions, and due to the time difference, the news came through at 5am.

“A friend once described awards nights as a 'series of humiliations’, because there are a lot of occasions when you don't win. But, I have to say, it’s fantastic when you do!”