On the production side, Richard Bates made use of in-house talent at the BBC. His chosen directors were Graham Theakston, for the first block of 8 episodes, and Christopher Barry for the remainder. Theakston was then relatively inexperienced but even so had been a BBC production manager and had directed for the BBC school-series Grange Hill, and thus had experience with handling young actors. His view was that The Tripods was:
...an exciting and challenging experience; the sort of opportunity one dreams about and which gave me ample scope to use my imagination to create a strong visual style within the framework of an exceptional adventure story.
His visual style is an alternation of broad panoramic landscapes, often beautifully composed, with tense, close scenes in shelters of different kinds: huts, overhangs, sheep-folds, ruins. He's done the same more recently in the snowy woods of Budapest for the medieval murder mysteries of Cadfael (1994-) and in The Mill on the Floss (1997).
[Theakston's-eye view: a landscape and a shelter]
Christopher Barry was a very old hand at TV directing, having begun in 1958 and since then directed or produced nearly 250 programmes. In particular he had extensive experience in 60s and 70s science-fiction, having directed ten Doctor Who serials (The Daleks, The Rescue, The Romans, The Savages, The Power of the Daleks, The Daemons, The Mutants, Robot, The Brain of Morbius, The Creature from the Pit) and half the six episodes of Moonbase 3 (1973). Optimistically, as it turned out, he said in 1983 that he thought the Tripods would be more popular than the Daleks.
Barry had also worked on costume-drama adaptations of H. G. Wells and Robert Louis Stevenson. Barry's particular talent as a director, in my view, is for filming complex studio-bound scenes: he makes maximum use of camera positioning to open up the Vichot farmhouse (1.9, 1.10). The farmhouse is an extensive and elaborate set, but with twelve actors in what is still a confined space it could all have seemed distant and theatrical and, without careful attention to detail, motives brought out only in gestures and looks could easily have been lost. Another case in point is the moment (in 1.12) when our heroes are locked into a tumbril before a crowd: the Capped and un-Capped look on silently but with evidently different feelings.
[Barry at his best: significant glances and crowd scenes]
In still frames, the landscape work often looks composed as if it were a painting -- take the seaside shot above, for instance. This was unique in Christopher Barry's television directing career, not least for the time and preparation it took:
Every single shot was storyboarded, both for the foreground and background, with input from me, the designer, the visual effects designer, model operators and the lighting designer.
The three designers who were to work on the programme had all worked, or would go on to work, on Doctor Who - as did almost all staff designers at the BBC sooner or later. Victor Meredith had also designed The Day of the Triffids (1981), an obvious qualification for working on The Tripods. Philip Lindley had designed The Android Invasion and Meglos for Doctor Who. Martin Collins had previously designed, for instance, some of Season One of Blake's Seven (1978; including the opening episode); after The Tripods, he went on to be one of the best Doctor Who designers, responsible for Paradise Towers, Remembrance of the Daleks and Battlefield.
The general design strategy was to construct plausibly old-world sets, such as country cottages or castle libraries, but to scatter them with odd reminders both of being outside England and of technological history having taken an odd course. In some ways, the Chateau Ricordeau designed itself: its tapestries, furniture and fine art are genuine. (Saltwood Castle, the location, used to be home to Sir Kenneth Clark, the art historian.) Modern metal chairs and a telescope have been worked into it, just the same.
Martin Collins, handling the second half of series 1, takes this kaleidoscopic approach to design much further. The Vichot farmhouse is piled high with strange objects, souvenirs of Madame Vichot's travelling days. A black and white photograph, briefly visible over somebody's shoulder, is a 1969 shot of the three Apollo 11 astronauts. Ornaments on the kitchen mantelpiece include a miniature portrait of Napoleon and a model Citroen 2CV. The Vagrants, in the wood, are almost as magpie-like: through the mist you can make out an old German sentry-post, for instance.
[A designer's idea of fun: English and French kitchens]
The costume designer, Phoebe de Gaye, was another established figure in the profession, working on national stage productions and in television: her recent BBC work included, of all things, costume design for the anarchic comedy The Young Ones.
With the participants duly lined up, filming for the first series finally took place between June and December 1983, with further two-week sessions in January and May 1984. There was an exhausting amount of cross-country travel between locations, since The Tripods makes very heavy use indeed of exterior filming, and it put surprising demands on the actors. John Shackley:
...you've got to be fit and agile. In the first episode where I ran away from Jack before being caught by Ozymandias there was about three solid minutes of running, most of which was cut from the final version.
Another problem is that the Tripods don't, of course, exist in front of your eyes: only their (enormous) legs.
...I imagined the leg was in front of me and then I started mentally drawing the rest of the Tripod from it, finally finishing with the "dome" on top. It is a bit like mime really... You can't feel embarrassed if people start looking at you pointing up at nothing.
Ceri Seel, playing Beanpole, had this to say about the experience:
It was a very tight schedule and we were always falling behind, especially as our directors were such perfectionists. We went on location all over the country: Devon, Wells, Folkestone, Snowdonia, Kent. It's hard to remember where we did what. And there were lots of rehearsals first in London, and also filming in the studio. On location we started at 6.30 in the morning and went on until 7.00 in the evening or maybe later. When we were filming in the studio we started really early, too (they send a taxi to fetch you) and went on until 10.30. It's very different from being in the school play. There's no way you can get into the swing of it, start feeling it. It's all start, stop: and it's quite difficult to act being really terrified of a Tripod five times in a row early in the morning, stop, have a cup of tea and be terrified again...
...The worst bits were when we'd just started. We were filming in a department store in London that had been closed down [Whiteley's] - it was half ruined and full of broken mirrors - weird. I was feeling a bit lost and we hadn't got going properly. Being shouted at for 8 or 9 hours really makes you want to cry. And the best bits in Kent by the sea in midsummer and filming on a boat with just the two of us and a cameraman, and no-one shouting.
[Saltwood Castle, as enhanced in post-production]
The most extensive location used in series 1 was Saltwood Castle. Alan Clark, who lives there, recorded the filming in his Diaries (Saturday 10 September 1983):
We are host to a company of actors, who are making a children's film for television... The team have been here for ages, it seems. But I like it. We charge a whopping location fee, and the gaiety, the costumes, the whirl of activity is all fun, and invigorates the place. They have put up a huge marquee in the car-park field where delicious meals (particularly breakfast) are served, and this pleases Eddie and William who have standing invitations to partake. Jane and I also stuff ourselves there, when the mood takes us.
The plot, insofar as one can follow it at all, is muddled. The story "hops" from the eighteenth century to the late 2000s and back again. But the heroine is a pretty little thing called Charlotte Long... She has a really sweet nature, not at all show-business or ego. And sometimes our eyes meet across the tent, and she smiles shyly. Now come to think of it, she must be the grand, great-grand-daughter of Walter Long [a Conservative politician during World War I]...
Charlotte's fictional father, the (needless to say) "Count" has a grey beard and wears satin breeches most of the time. He, and many others of the cast, have fallen in love with the place -- which in the script has become the "Chateau Ricordeau". Charlotte wanders dreamily along the battlements to pastiche Brideshead music, murmuring about "the loveliest place in the whole world".
But the one I would really like to be is the Duc de Sarlat, so young and handsome and villainous, and eager to challenge a duel, with sabres.
Other locations included a Somerset vineyard, considered the most French-looking of all the vineyards in England (Christopher Barry recalls an enjoyable time scouting these) and Portmerion, the mock-Italian Welsh coastal village.
Much more of series 2 was studio-bound, as the plot required, but even so, the disused White City stadium at Trafford, in Manchester, the Sharpness Ship Canal, on the Severn, and Haughmond Abbey, near Shrewsbury, were all employed. More dramatically location work began in continental Europe, with scenes from episode 2.1 shot in October 1984 in Grimentz, in Switzerland (in a village very close to the Jungfrau, the actual location used by the books) -- though which cunningly exclude the principal actors. (Ralph Wilton, one of the assistant producers, spoke German and ended up interpreting for the English crew.) Simply getting the model Tripod there was a formidable exercise.
[The Jungfrau and wharves on the Rhine]
A more typical day's work was less glamorous, though, as Paul Mount related in Starburst 89, and it gives some idea of what Ceri Seel meant by "perfectionist".
The sequence opens episode 2.11, but was one of the first scenes shot from series two, at Hole-in-the-Wall on the River Wye. This is all that happens: in the wake of two dead guards, Will's lifeless body floats down-river; Beanpole pulls him out and then resuscitates him. The action takes all of about fifteen seconds.
The area fell completely silent as two "bodies" -- pink, foam-based mannequins -- drifted lazily through the turbulent water... The camera crew solemnly recorded their unhurried progress until the shot was completed to everyone's satisfaction.
It was well after midday when veteran stuntman Stuart Fell... [put on John Shackley's] white cut-off shorts and tunic and donned a semi-opaque globe-helmet before stepping tentatively into waters that seemed too cold and unwelcoming even for the more suitably-attired frogmen who were always on hand... after what seemed like an eternity the scene was recorded and Stuart emerged from the water, very cold, very wet and very dirty. Quickly wrapped in blankets, he was heard to mutter: "It's better than working."
After a boisterous lunch-break at the BBC's canteen set up at the nearby Canoe Centre it was back to work... Despite his reservations John Shackley [playing Will] was required to wade into the water in preparation for his rescue scene, ending with Ceri [Beanpole] resuscitating him and uttering the day's only major line of dialogue: "You're very late. I was going to leave."
...After supervising the day's activities from his BBC control van, director Christopher Barry now took an active interest in setting up this key sequence... and the absolute determination for perfection came to the fore. Both actors stood knee-deep in the icy water for minutes on end as the camera was moved into position and John, his globe-helmet on, was required to continually smear himself liberally in mud and water before allowing himself to be dragged from the river and onto the rocks by a straining Ceri.
It was not an easy scene to record and John and Ceri were forced to re-enact the moment time and time again. On more than one occasion John was forced to emerge from the river for minor cosmetic or costume modifications whilst Ceri suffered the ignominy of a broken zip on his trousers moments before a take.
Eventually the scene was completed to the satisfaction of the meticulous director and it was a soaking wet and distinctly uncomfortable John Shackley who clambered out of the river in search of warm, dry clothing before filming recommenced in the environs of a disused farmhouse.
Outside broadcast filming invariably means improvisation under stress. Schedules are afflicted by the weather, the light level and even the tides (for the barge scenes shot on the Severn estuary). At one stage a huge outdoor set, the village of the free men in the White Mountains -- actually Snowdonia -- blew down in a gale the night before filming was due to start.
Christopher Barry's most desperate measure came after Jim Baker (the usual Henry) had fallen and badly injured his knee. (Ironically, in the 1990s Baker did a certain amount of work as a stunt-man.) As the crew sat, stumped, in a café at Bettwsy-Coed in Wales, Barry caught sight of a girl who looked oddly like Jim Baker in build. Audaciously he cast her in the part and she appears in some of the mountain terrain scenes of series 1, dressed in Henry's bulky cold-weather gear, with a curly wig and shot only from behind. Her moment of television glory is invisible. Even people who were there can't now tell which scenes she appears in.