Interviews in Sherwood

Frances Tempest

Interview conducted and transcribed
by Allen W. Wright


Frances Tempest is the costume designer for the first two series of the 2006 Robin Hood TV show by Tiger Aspect and the BBC. She has over 30 years of experience in the industry. Her costume designs have appeared at the National Theatre and the English National Opera. She has received four Emmy nominations and three BAFTA nominations. Frances won a prestigious BAFTA award for A Respectable Trade. Her feature film credits include Greenfingers and Calendar Girls. In addition to Robin Hood, her television credits include Lillie, Mapp & Lucia, A Respectable Trade, The Cazalets and A Rather English Marriage. She can be seen in the "Dressing Hood" featurette on the Robin Hood Series One DVD and Blu-Ray boxed sets.

In 2009, Frances spoke at Robin Hood: Media Creature - the 2009 academic conference for Robin Hood studies at the University of Rochester. Her paper was titled "Robin Hood for the Playstation Generation, or Every Age Gets the Robin Hood It Deserves".

This interview was conducted in person in Rochester, NY at the October 2009 Robin Hood academic conference

The Playstation Generation

AWW:    I suppose we should start with your paper which is on making the medieval modern.

FT:      The actual title is "Robin Hood for the Playstation Generation which is a quote from Foz Allan [producer]. And when I went in to meet them to talk about the series, the whole concept of modernity was really well-established. So, I'm not taking any credit for that. They knew that's how they were going to do the whole thing.

         But it was commissioned at very short notice. Foz and Dominic [Dominic Minghella, executive producer and head writer of series 1 and 2] had been working on the idea for some time. They had pitched the idea of a Robin Hood series to the BBC, but they were initially not keen. Then a new head of BBC One was appointed and he announced at a press conference that the BBC would be commissioning good old-fashioned adventure series such as Robin Hood. Someone remembered Foz's pitch and suddenly it was all systems go. Foz and Dominic had to get together a 13-part series in a very short time.

         I went in to talk to them and Foz declared it was "Robin Hood for the Playstation Generation". And they really wanted to direct it at a young, masculine -- it was really directed at teenage boys. That's what their audience was. If they could pick up other people along the way, all well and good. But it was to be directed at teenage boys.

AWW:    How about the girl audience? It seems that a lot of women liked it.

FT:      Robin was supposed to be for the female audience. I don't think he ever achieved that because Guy of Gisborne came along and stole the show. It wasn't meant to be like that but just because of the casting, that's what actually happened.

Guy of Gisborne's costume

AWW:    I saw that with the "fanfic" discussions. [An earlier conference paper discussed how much of the stories written by fans centered around Gisborne instead of Robin Hood.]

FT:      Well, I had no idea because I had never seen North and South [BBC mini-series starring actor Richard Armitage]. I didn't realize that Richard Armitage carried such a big fan base, but he already came with all these thousands of adoring fans. I had no idea about that. And so I clothed him in black leather. Suddenly there were websites all over the place! [Laughs.] I had in my head the image of a racing driver or a motorbike driver - like Alain Delon -- the young Alain Delon. He was going to be a fantastic, sexy racing driver, that was my image for him.

AWW:    He also had the duster that was like a western hero, and almost like a regency cape.

FT:      It was a cross between a regency cape and Sherlock Holmes and How the West Was Won. I was trying to roll all of those sorts of things into it. Of course, it was tempered - like things always are - by practical considerations. He had to be able to get on and off his horse in it. He had to be able to fight in it. There were stuntmen, but a lot of the actors did an awful lot of their own stuntwork. So all of those practical considerations had to be uppermost.

AWW:    You also had the other outfit for Guy, with the piping along the sleeves.

FT:      Yes, which was fastened with these wolf's head clips. And then he had wolves on the knuckles -- like knuckle dusters -- on the gauntlets. All I can say is that I spent a lot of time hanging about in motorbike shops in Budapest.

On location in Hungary

AWW:    Really? So, you did design it on set in Hungary, not in England?

FT:      Before I got offered the job, it had been decided they were going to do it in Hungary. And the idea was that the heads of department, the production designer, the costume designer and the cinematographer would come from the UK. All the other crew would come from Hungary. Which was fine, but of course, there is an impenetrable language barrier. And the Hungarians pride themselves on the fact that nobody else can understand their language. So we had to work out this system of sketches and diagrams. We were fine, we got through all that. It became obvious that we had to do everything in Hungary and buy everything in Hungary. We couldn't spend money anywhere else. So we had to set up a little manufacturing studio to actually sit and churn the costumes out. And I had another little workshop set up doing all the painting and distressing and dyeing.

         And then the boys, Robin Hood and his gang, came out for a week before we started shooting for what we called Hood Camp. They took them to the forest for a week. It was like an SAS Army training camp. They were left out there to fend for themselves. They did horse riding and sword fighting and all the things they were required to do. Of course the boys loved it! Because it was "big adventure" -- they thought it was fantastic. As much as possible I gave them their costumes to wear for that because I thought we'd get real wear and distress on them. And of course, they came back in rags. [Mutual laughter.]

         I had to have another whole department -- well, three or four people -- on permanent renovation and repair duty. Although I wanted them to look worn, I didn't want them to look like scarecrows. So I had people constantly repairing and we had to have so many duplicates of every costume. I think we had something like ten outfits for Robin in the end.

         We had his green suede hoodie. We had a duplicate of that made for his stuntman. We had a version made in cotton for when he fell in the water or had oil poured over him. In the summer in Hungary, it gets incredibly hot, so we had to do a lightweight version for them. I think he ended up with about a dozen of them in the end. But they all had to look identical.

AWW:    Guy must have hated his black leather in the summer.

FT:      The summers were awful. I mean, it was very good. The boys loved their costumes. They were thrilled when they first put them on. They really got into them, emotionally inhabited them. It was terrific. But that was about March. And by the time August came, they were ... the temperature was over 30 degrees (Celsius). They could hardly move. And Little John in his big leather coat! But he was very good, he didn't try to take it off. Robin kept trying to ... I shouldn't tell you that ... Jonas [Armstrong] kept trying to take all his clothes off, just because he was so hot and to be firmly bundled back into them.

AWW:    But Richard Armitage didn't?

FT:      No, he loved black leather. He wasn't getting out of that, no matter what. [Laughs.]

On the subject of tights

AWW:    So, what was the design approach to the characters? With Guy, you said it was motorcycle influences.

FT:      The brief, as much as it existed -- this conversation with Foz -- was to create a mixture of modern and medieval that a young audience would find a point of reference with or respond to and wouldn't alienate them. The executive producer who I talked to later about the whole process said well, we couldn't have put them in tights because it would have looked ridiculous and I thought "why?". But the boys were terrified of wearing tights.

AWW:    But no Robin Hood really - the serious versions [wasn't counting Men in Tights] has worn tights for nearly 40 years.

FT:      But they had the same problem on Robin Hood - Prince of Thieves. A modern romantic hero cannot wear tights.

AWW:    Even Douglas Fairbanks - although he did wear tights - was concerned about that.

FT:      I am really puzzled by what his tights were made of. They must have had some element of nylon in them, because they are complete spray-on tights. I mean those are the tights that any superhero would give their eye teeth for. There was never a crinkle or a crease in them!

AWW:    I think Errol Flynn pulled off the tights the best.

FT:      Errol Flynn and because the Disney cartoon replicated the Flynn trope, he's become the benchmark. That is what people think of when they think of Robin Hood. Although, as you say, ever since Robin and Marian he hasn't been presented like that.

Hoodies and flak jackets

AWW:    Unless it's comedy versions and then they're spoofing on that. But with your Robin you went with a hoodie.

FT:      I did find, I researched some grave clothes from the 14th century, and there were some hooded tunics they found. And I thought okay, the hoodie is a modern identifiable garment of youth. So that's how he came to wear his hoodie.

AWW:    There were folds in the costume around the stomach area, weren't there? To replicate the pockets of a hoodie.

FT:      Yes, he had what I called his flak jacket when he first arrived back. It was a leather waistcoat and it had a big leather hood. Which the director of the first episode, John McKay, he'd watched a lot of Chinese and Japanese epic cinema and he wanted to replicate some of their design decisions. So what he wanted was to abandon the traditional quiver, the crossway diagonal quiver of Robin Hood and give him one that ran straight down the spine like a ninja warrior. So the art department were working on the quiver, but I had to work out how the costumes would have to accommodate this. In the end I worked out this way thonging together the back of Robin's hoods so you could undo them and the arrows could poke through or you could lace them up at the back and they would become an actual hood. It did mean that it was actually quite difficult for Jonas to get the arrows out quickly. That director did an excellent one or two of the first series and then he was gone. But the decision had been made and so all subsequent directors were working with that.

Costumes for the Merry Men and the Sheriff

AWW:    So, when you designed the costumes, did you know who was going to be playing the parts?

FT:      No, I didn't know at all. The casting was done very late because there was John McKay - director of episodes one and two, there was Foz Allan working for TigerAspect and then there was the BBC. An agreement had to be reached between all of these people about who was going to play the part. The production office and the whole production team had moved out to Budapest and we were working in the studios out there which is a cross between an old abandoned studio and a concentration camp. And snow was on the ground and there was no glass in the windows. It was pretty Spartan. I had to go ahead getting things designed and indeed partially made without knowing who they were going to be for, which is really difficult. If they suddenly cast someone 6'6", it's completely different than someone 5'2. You have to modify your work. But I had to go much further down the road than I would have liked to have done. Once the casting did come in, we had to act very quickly to get everything made. Jonas Armstrong was filming something in India. So he wasn't available until the week of Hood Camp when he came out to do the horse riding. Keith Allen wasn't available. We didn't really see any of them until a couple days before we started shooting.

AWW:    With Keith Allen as the Sheriff, I remember these silk pyjamas?

FT:      Silk pyjamas, yes. I don't know if you know who José Mourinho is? He was the Chelsea football [soccer to North Americans] manager. He's Italian and very, very handsome and suave and dashing. And he was the sort of role model. It's difficult to translate that onto Keith Allen. But the simplicity suited him. I just wanted to be a dark figure and keep him as simple and sophisticated in a funny sort of a way. I mean [Keith] wanted to look like a drug dealer. That was his version of what he was playing. So we met somewhere in the middle on that.

         Robin's band -- I wanted then to look like eco warriors, really. The modern equivalent of the outlaw. You probably haven't heard of them in the States but there is a British band called the Levellers who do sort of rock / folk music? Do you know who they are?

AWW:    I know who the historical ones were.

FT:      Right, that's who they've called themselves after. Anyway, they lived round the corner from me. And I used to see them walking up and down the street with their dreadlocks and their baggy jumpers [sweaters] and their dogs on bits of string. So they became the model for the band of boys.

         And I had to differentiate the characters of the boys very quickly. So the audience would literally know who was who. They had to have very firm identities but still work together as a group.

AWW:    With Much, the thing that comes to mind is his bandanna.

FT:      His little funny hat, yes. And he had a very nice knitted woolly jumper -- completely anachronistic. But again, it got too hot and he had to take that off. By the end of series one, they were all wearing far less clothes than they had been wearing at the beginning of the series.

AWW:    Djaq's costume changed very much between series one and series two.

FT:      That's right. When she first appeared, the whole point was to make her look like a boy. She's a very nice girl, Anjali [Anjali Jay who played Djaq]. When she turned up and had long hair and was quite definitely a woman. We had to strap her down and find clothes that would disguise her figure. She volunteered to have her hair cut off, which was very brave of her. And I think it came from the BBC - it wasn't Foz's decision - a directive came down for the next series that okay, we had established now that she was a girl. And she could - in fact, they wanted her to look much more feminine. In the second series, her hair was a bit elfin and you could see the shape of her body. That's because they knew they were working up to the romance with Will. So they didn't want any gender confusion to happen there.

AWW:    I can see that, because in the first season she had that patched jacket.

FT:      A military sort looking thing - again very straight and square. She was actually quite a curvy girl, and so we were try to hide all the curves.

Marian's costumes and working on set

AWW:    And Marian had that sort of cardigan look.

FT:      Well, Lucy Griffiths, Marian in real life, was very young. Foz's idea was that Marian should wear the kind of clothes that the teenage girl audience would want to go and buy. He wanted to do a fashion range and put it in Top Shop and call it the Maid Marian range. And I'm glad to say that never happened, but that was his thinking.

AWW:    You could have made some money off that.

FT:      Well in fact, I did get letters from girls saying "where did Marian get her green jumper? I want one like that." There was a big change with her between series one and two. In series one, she was quite demure, quite covered up. I wouldn't use the word authentic, but she was a tribute towards the medieval. But then Foz wanted a much more sexy Marian in series two. He wanted her to look older and more womanly and more shapely. And more seductive. There's only so much you can do with a costume, because she was only 18.

         So we established our central core of characters. There would obviously be new characters coming in. And we were shooting two episodes simultaneously all the time. So, on any one day, you could be doing scenes from two episodes which gave everybody a nervous breakdown. You had to make sure the right people were in the right clothes at the right time.

AWW:    So you also worked on set?

FT:      I'd go to the set at the beginning of every day and try to make sure everything's fine for that day. Because we were working on such a tight time frame, I would then go off and do fitting or get fabrics, go to the shops or whatever to prepare costumes in advance. Most of the actors in just one episode would literally fly out three or four days before shooting. So, the production shed where they were making the costumes, they got very adept at a quick turnaround. Getting an actor from the airport, fitting them and finishing them off.

         When we first started the whole series, only the scripts for the first two episodes were written. I told you it was commissioned at very short notice. And they were working on the further scripts. So my first object was just to design Robin and his gang, Guy, the sheriff and Marian and to do that core. Then we would worry about other people coming in as and when they happened. We never got scripts until the last minute. We'd get one version, work on that and it would all get changed. The scripts were really, really last minute. But that was not the fault of the production. It was the fault of being commissioned in a hurry, there was never enough preparation time for that.

AWW:    So, why didn't you return to the third series?

FT:      To do one series was a big adventure which is why I took it on. It was an adventure in terms of working in Hungary. It was an adventure as a design challenge, that's what interested me. When they asked me back to series two, I thought well that's a compliment, that's very nice. They liked me. They liked what I did. But I think three is just doing too far. I didn't want to do it again. I'd run out of steam with it.

AWW:    Did they keep any of your costumes?

FT:      I don't know I never saw series three. I would have thought economically, they'd have kept some of it because they were running out of money by that time, but I don't know.

Favourite costumes

AWW:    So, what was your favourite of all the costumes?

FT:      Well, I liked Guy obviously. I think Guy's very successful. And I can't think of the character he played, but he was the master of arms [DeFourtney played Kwame Kwei-Armah in series 1, episode 3 "Who Shot the Sheriff?"].

AWW:    I remember that one. He had a sort of beret ...

FT:      That's right, a sort of military outfit. He just wore it so well. And it was very interesting that some actors would come out, and obviously because of the time scale were presented with their costumes to put them on. And some of them really entered into the spirit of the modernity and enjoyed it and played with it in their performance and knew the style instantly. While other ones were expecting a traditional Robin Hood medieval look. And were a bit sort of thrown by this modern thing. But most of them embrace it and enjoyed it.

AWW:    Speaking of modern, how did the NightWatchman costume for Marian come about?

FT:      Again, they didn't want her to look like a boy. They wanted her to look like a woman. It was very fitted and the trousers were very fitted. She was quite definitely a woman, and she enjoyed wearing that. Because she had a lot more physical freedom in that, she could run, leap and jump and ride horses.

AWW:    And Lucy Griffiths did most of the stunts?

FT:      She did most of it, yes. They did a lot of their own stunt work.

Academia and other films

AWW:    And now you've entered academia.

FT:      It wasn't really Robin Hood that drove me to it. It was actually shooting a film in Africa, in the bush. And I thought "I just can't do this anymore." [Laughs.] I just thought I'm going to do something entirely for my own pleasure. And it doesn't mean I won't ever go back and design a film again. You know, if a wonderful script comes along, but at the moment I'm just enjoying being a student again.

AWW:    So, what was your favourite film you worked on .... excluding Robin Hood?

FT:      Well, the process of Robin Hood was pretty hard and stressful. I enjoyed it in many ways, but it's an interesting thing with films. When you have a lovely time and get along with everybody and think it's all gorgeous, it always turns out to be a dreadful film. And when you have a really hard time, and everybody's sort of panicking, then it usually turns out to be quite good. I don't know why. That's just one of those inverse rules of filmmaking.

         I did a lovely film called A Rather English Marriage with Tom Courtney and Albert Finney in it. That was a really lovely thing to work with. And I did Calendar Girls with a rather strong group of women. That was enjoyable too. This is a group of WI - Women's Institute - ladies who do a naked calendar in order to raise money for charity. And it's all based on real-life stories. The real Calendar Girls were there for the filming and watching what they were doing.

AWW:    How much of real-life designs did you use for that?

FT:      I sort of emphasized ... when you're designing even a modern production, you heighten it slightly. Unless you're doing something like reality. I'm not interested in reality. So the real Calendar Girls had worked out their persona which was to wear black with big sunflowers, which was the symbol for Leukemia charity they were raising money for. So, I just took that motif and heightened it up a bit. But it was exactly the same challenge as doing Robin and his boys in the forest. You had a large group of women, and you had to be able to identify each one of their characters almost immediately. So they all had to have very strong individual identities but still work together as a group. But it was just the same as the boys in the forest.

AWW:    Although with Robin Hood, I guess you had the pleasure of not just refining existing looks of genuine periods but creating a whole....

FT:      I think Mitchell Leisen did the same thing for the 1922 Douglas Fairbanks film. Because in the established theatrical tradition they did have much actual medieval stuff in stock. There was the Robin Hood operetta costumes, but it wasn't what he wanted. He set up a work crew to create all the costumes, and that was one of the main delights of doing the series. Actually not having to compromise and not having to say "well, I don't really like that set of costumes but they exist so I suppose we had better use them." You had total control. So, megalomania really.

I'd like to again thank Frances for a fantastic interview.

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