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A Wessex tale of Auld Reekie

Jude the Obscure ... set in Edinburgh? `Eccentric academic' Kevin Jackson joined the set of the latest costume drama to hear producer Andrew Eaton's excuse
Back in February, Andrew Eaton took a big gamble and quit his staff job as a BBC drama producer, with no more solid guarantees for his professional future than a commission for a one-off Screen Two drama, Go Now, a working friendship with its slated director, Michael Winterbottom, and a long-standing ambition to produce movies - one movie in particular. The gamble paid off on a bigger scale than anyone, least of all Eaton, could have expected.

Nine months later, Eaton and Winterbottom are standing in the murky dawn light on Edinburgh's Royal Mile - closed to traffic for the first time, it seems, since a visit by the queen a decade ago - shepherding a crowd of some 500 extras togged up in 19th-century costumes, from plush academic gowns to muddy rags and toe-gaping hobnailed boots. They are filming a climactic scene for Jude, a theatrical feature based on Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, budgeted at just over pounds 4.5 million.

The social composition of this crowd of extras is interestingly mixed, from one Dr Klein, a courteous young marine biologist from Israel (who took the gig because "I'm very interested in movies, and wanted to see how it was done"), to a number of, shall we say, less academically established natural philosophers and regional poets, who are mainly there for the money (about 30 quid a day), but are no less happy to while away the hours with erudite disquisitions on the hallucinogenic properties of a common Scottish hedgerow plant (after treatment in a vacuum flask), the significance of magic mushrooms in the evolution of human consciousness and the cosmological wisdoms encoded in the dimensions of the Great Pyramid.

There is also one unpaid fake in the company: your reporter, originally typecast in the dialogue-free role of "village idiot", but recast at the last minute in the possibly less apt part of "eccentric academic", for which he sports a stiff collar, tweed jacket, natty moleskin weskit and his own, fortunately rather retro-looking brogues (the wardrobe department has no size 12 boots). At first, being an extra had seemed like the best way of covering the shoot, but as any fool knows, the job of an extra is largely made up of that unrewarding activity known as Hanging Around, and as the early winter winds are cruel up here in Auld Reekie, grave second thoughts do not take more than half an hour to set in. Only the miracle of thermal underwear stands between us and chilblains.

The earliest glimmerings of this production began a couple of years ago, when the producer-director team of Winterbottom and Eaton were editing Family, the Roddy Doyle drama for the BBC about brutality and mercy in Dublin: "We had a production assistant called Judy," Eaton recalls, "and we asked her if she was ever called `Jude' for short, and the conversation rambled on to the book, which Michael said was his favourite novel. I have to confess that I hadn't read it at the time, though I like Hardy a lot and had been trying to sell the BBC the idea of redoing some of the Wessex stories. So then Michael and I started to talk more seriously about doing it, and when Mark Shivas (head of theatric films at the BBC) took us out to dinner after a festival screening of Family and asked us what we wanted to do next, we both said that we wanted to do Jude the Obscure as a feature."

Shivas agreed to put up money for script development, but the project was simply too pricey for the BBC to fund alone, so the newly independent Eaton set out on the usual producer's run, armed with a script that had been commissioned from Hossein Amini (who wrote the Bafta-nominated drama The Dying of the Light). By start of the Cannes Festival in May, he had set up meetings with three possible backers. "Michael and I went to see Fox Searchlight in the morning, UGC at lunchtime, and Polygram in the afternoon. Fox told us they loved the script but couldn't do it because it's far too depressing (they particularly objected to the hanging of Jude's children), and you can't have dead kids in America, particularly after the Oklahoma bombings. UGC liked it, but they wanted big stars attached and didn't have the kind of money available that would make that possible. And then we went to see Polygram and they said, `OK, fine, let's do it.' "

Two weeks later, Jude was in pre-production. Shooting started at the beginning of October, with a cast including Christopher Eccleston (Shallow Grave) as Jude Fawley, Kate Winslet (Heavenly Creatures and Emma Thompson's forthcoming Sense and Sensibility) as his cousin and inamorata Sue Bridehead, and June Whitfield as his Aunt Drusilla. On the production side, Jude boasts the distinguished Portuguese cinematographer Eduardo Serra, who shot Vincent Ward's Map of the Human Heart and, more recently, Peter Chelsom's Funny Bones.

All well and good, the Hardy enthusiast might reply, but what on earth are the crew and cast doing in Edinburgh? Haven't they noticed that the book is set in "Wessex", and that the "Christminster" to which Jude hopelessly aspires is plainly meant to be Oxford? Eaton has at least some of the answers. "It was clear from the outset that we weren't going to shoot it in `Wessex', because we wanted it to be wide screen - Eduardo is filming it in a sort of CinemaScope, anamorphic process - with a big story feel, and you can't get that kind of landscape in Dorset any more because of the powerlines, the motorway and the television aerials. So we came further north, first to Yorkshire, and then on to Durham and Edinburgh, which is standing in for `Christminster'. We did have a look at the possibility of filming in Oxford, or of combining Oxford with Bristol, but it just would have been much too expensive - closing down Broad Street, dressing all the shop fronts..."

Edinburgh, moreover, fitted in well with Winterbottom's idea of making the stone buildings seen in each new location of the story appear darker and darker, culminating in the near-black buildings which flank the Remembrance Day parade. Which is why we, the huddled masses, are shivering and shuffling around in front of the Edinburgh Law Courts, discussing Pyramidology and turning fetching shades of bright pink and blue beneath our goose pimples.

From time to time we are spurred by the assistant director into a fair replica of holiday jollity as the dons and undergraduates file past us for their parade, while Jude watches hungrily and thinks of what might have been. Between shots, as no one is allowed to leave his or her position even for a call of nature, there is absolutely nothing to do except jiggle uncomfortably from foot to foot, chat to one's immediate neighbours or daydream.

Dimly recalling Stanislavsky's Method, I try to pass the time by thinking of a suitable real-life eccentric academic on whom to model my performance, and come up with William Buckland, Oxford's first Professor of Geology, who was noted for his willingness to consume anything from moles to bluebottles in the interests of science. Once, when he was visiting a foreign cathedral, the priests showed Buckland a miraculously self-renewing puddle of martyrs blood. Buckland promptly leant over, stuck his finger in the puddle, tasted it and declared, with unimpeachable authority, "Bat's urine." This anecdote goes down gratifyingly well with the regional poets.

After about seven hours of this near-zero malarkey, it is early afternoon and we are finally allowed to break for lunch. Deciding that the novelty of being an extra has worn gossamer-thin, I break ranks like an abject coward and go to hang out with the crew for the rest of the day's shooting. This is a decided improvement: not only do you get to ease and warm your cramped limbs by walking up and down, you also have the chance to talk to professionals like Mr Serra.

The final sequence of the day is for a process known as crowd replication, whereby the 500 extras are going to be made to look like a throng of thousands through digital technology. Eaton explains: "We take 200 actors, put them in one corner of the square, shoot the procession coming through, move the actors to another section, shoot the procession coming through... we do the whole thing four or five times, and then you use a computer to match the different takes into a single shot."

It is a technique that requires fairly constant light, and as daylight fades away rapidly around four o'clock in these latitudes, this is quite a tense process. But Serra gets his shots, and we can all head off, shed our tweeds and rags and thermals and defrost in a hot bath. Before catching the last train back south, I manage a final quick word with Eaton. "You know," he says, "we walked along La Croisette in May, Michael and I, and we were saying, `Ha ha ha, wouldn't it be funny if we were back here next May with Jude?' And now it's looking quite likely that we will be. It's really a bit of a fairytale." Don't speak too soon, Eaton. If I don't see that "academic eccentric" credit up on screen, your career is toast.