Esther Dean talks about filming in India for ‘Staying On’ and ‘The Jewel in the Crown’

The first big one and the one that was done as a test to see if one could film in India was Staying On, with Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson. We did it first but story-wise it’s about an old couple who have stayed on in India after partition, after independence. It was done really as a trial run to see if we could do it. And I must say it was like a step into the unknown. When I got to India I was bombarded. I’d never been there before. All these sights and sounds and smells. I think I went out two weeks before we started shooting. It was a learning curve like there’s no tomorrow! But it was rather wonderful. I could see all this stuff.

Obviously for background crowd one needed old clothes and I could see all these beggar types and poor people and I thought, how on earth am I going to reproduce this? The Cecil Hotel is now very posh but I think at that time it had been closed and they’d opened it up specially for us. There was a waiter, and this waiter and I went out and I bought some new clothes, sort of pyjama trousers and shirts and things, and I went round looking at beggars and I swapped; I said, “I’ll have your clothes. If I give you these new clothes, will you give me your old, raggedy bits?” And that gave me a great start. I also found an old clothes shop, which was very useful. A lot of the stuff I bought there I used on Jewel. There was the Nawab. I remember seeing this sort of Nehru coat, which was quite tattered and worn. And the Nawab was supposed to have this tattered rag. And the minute I saw it I thought, that is the Nawab! This was for Jewel but it was about two years before we were filming it. That is what he wore in the end. But I didn’t know who was going to play it at that point.

So tell me about the very detailed file (for Jewel in the Crown) that you’ve just shown me that everybody referred to.

Well that was the references. I broke down the script scene by scene. I think there were about thirteen episodes. I always liked to do my own breakdown. I didn’t like to use… the PA obviously had to do it, but I always liked to do my own because it got it into my head and I could see. It was a way of thinking as one was working it out. I’d read the books and I’d made a note when there was any costume reference. Then I tied up the costume reference in the book to the different scenes and it would often apply – as I said, there were thirteen episodes – it might apply two or three times. It might be episode one and in the last episode. And then I had to break down what each character was going to wear and where they were going to wear it, because I think we were filming in four different parts of India so we had to work out whereabouts in India those clothes were going to be, and so it was very complicated.

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