Peter Phillips: Set designer celebrated for his work on Granada TV's classic drama 'Brideshead Revisited'

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The Independent Online

In a distinguished 25-year career as a leading designer for Granada Television, Peter Phillips added greatly to the lustre of Granada's drama output.

But undoubtedly his crowning achievement was his design concept for Brideshead Revisited, transmitted in 1981, for which he won a Bafta and which did much, along with Jane Robinson's costume designs, to create what became known as "the Brideshead look".

Featured in such fashionable places as the windows of Bloomingdale's in New York, that look was one of opulence and luxury, but always, in Phillips's hands, calculated to enhance rather than overpower the nostalgic mood of Evelyn Waugh's elegiac novel. Phillips was initially reluctant to work on film design, believing that creating sets for the studio gave him greater artistic opportunity. But after overseeing the designs for "Craven Arms" by AE Coppard in Granada's Country Matters series of 1972 he became an enthusiastic convert and undertook his Brideshead assignment as an exciting if testing challenge. Brideshead, which was to be shot on film and on location, was eventually to take almost two and a half sometimes turbulent years in the making. For Phillips, as for all the crew, it became a pioneering adventure unlike anything previously attempted in British television.

In 1978 Phillips and I began the search for the many required locations. In Venice we selected the Palazzo Barbaro for Lord Marchmain's Italian hideaway. In Malta and Gozo, chosen to represent Morocco, Phillips made plans to simulate the look of North Africa by inserting within the walls of local alleyways indigenous Arabic archways. His passion for detail and keen aesthetic eye were invaluable in effecting these many transformations. In Charles Ryder's rooms at Hertford College (the same which Waugh himself had occupied) each one of the pictures and objects described in the novel was in its rightful place. A classroom in a Manchester language school was converted, with the addition of wood panelling and an array of exotic bric-a-brac, into Sebastian's rooms at Christ Church and included a specially constructed platform outside the window from which Anthony Blanche could declaim TS Eliot's The Waste Land.

To recreate the foyer of a smart Manhattan hotel he transformed the lobby of a disused Trafford Park asbestos factory; for the Atlantic liner sequence for which the deck scenes were shot on the QE2, he found eight different locations, including the Adelphi Hotel, Liverpool, which provided the ship's dining room; the show room of a Kensington fashion store, which supplied the ship's main lounge; the foyer of a Mayfair hotel, which stood in as the ship's cocktail bar; and two specially constructed state rooms, built on rockers, designed in the art deco style that exemplified the streamlined marine architecture of the 1930s.

The crucial choice of Castle Howard for the baroque country seat of the Flyte family, a choice endorsed by the architectural historian James Lees-Milne, was taken after much deliberation. Because the grand state dining room had been destroyed by fire, Phillips set about creating a substitute in a disused basement. But perhaps his most important contribution was in persuading the enthusiastic owner, George Howard, to rebuild (with a little help from Granada's budget) the burnt-out shell of the garden room. This ensured that the magnificent vista across the Great Hall through to the south front and to the Atlas Fountain and parkland beyond could once more be revealed not merely for the TV audience, but as a gloriously restored feature of the house itself.

Tenacious as his artistic supervision of Brideshead proved, it should not overshadow the notable contribution he made to Granada's drama during its great heyday between the 1960s and 1980s. His work included an eight-part adaptation of Kipps, HG Wells's study of an aspiring draper's assistant, dramatisations of the satirical tales of Saki and a group of Edwardian domestic dramas including The Walls of Jericho and Olive Latimer's Husband. He also worked on Galsworthy's Strife, Paris 1900 (based on a series of French farces by Georges Feydeau) and a quartet of Noël Coward comedies, Design for Living, Present Laughter, The Vortex and Blithe Spirit.

He also designed Bernard Shaw's The Apple Cart, Chekhov's Ivanov, The Rose Tattoo and Camino Real by Tennessee Williams, an adaptation of Elizabeth Bowen's novel The Death of the Heart and a five-part adaptation of Jane Austin's Persuasion. His later work included an imposing setting for Harold Pinter's No Man's Land (based on John Bury's original stage set) and a magnificent antebellum southern mansion for Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof starring Laurence Olivier, Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner.

The latter was part of Laurence Olivier Presents, a series of TV adaptations of great 20th-century drama; in the same strand, he also designed the evocative sets for James Bridie's Daphne Laureola, which this time starred Olivier with his wife, Joan Plowright. After Brideshead, Olivier, who greatly admired him, again chose Phillips to design Granada's film adaptation of The Ebony Tower by John Fowles, shot entirely on location in the Dordogne and in which Olivier took the role of the lecherous old painter.

But of all the Granada plays he designed his personal favourite remained Tolstoy's War and Peace, adapted from a stage version by the German theatre director Erwin Piscator and with a cast which included Nicol Williamson as Pierre, Morag Hood as Natasha and Kenneth Griffith as Napoleon. Broadcast live over four hours, it required many changes of set, all of which had to be achieved silently, as well as the complex use of multiple trompe l'oeil projections. The play won the first international Emmy to be awarded to a programme from outside America.

Phillips, whose family came originally from Pembrokeshire and who was proud of his Welsh roots, was born in Whitstable, where his grandfather, a marine engineer, had been posted to the Chatham dockyards. After the remarriage of his father, Sidney, following the death of Phillips's mother when he was two years old, it was his stepmother, Gwen, with artistic leanings of her own, who encouraged her stepson's interest in art and theatre. At the age of 15 he was enrolled at the Canterbury School of Art, where he received a grounding in drawing and painting.

After briefly working as a draughtsman in an architect's office, he enlisted in 1944 to train as a flight navigator, but while undergoing his officer training he contracted rheumatic fever and remained convalescent for nearly a year until being demobbed on his discharge from hospital. Through an introduction by his stepmother to Laurence Irving, the theatre and film designer and the only son of the actor Sir Henry Irving, Phillips got his first job as an assistant designer at the studios of J Arthur Rank, working on the sets of a production of Sheridan Le Fanu's gothic thriller Uncle Silas.

In a lean post-war period in the British film industry, Phillips lost his job and went to work temporarily as a technical illustrator in a Wolverhampton aircraft factory. Soon after, however, he discovered an opening in Canada to work in the fast-growing new medium of television – and with his entire savings of £90 set sail from Liverpool to join the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto.

The new medium offered a stimulating opportunity to experiment in an atmosphere of creative freedom and after quickly learning his trade in light entertainment he was given the opportunity to design the world TV premiere of Peter Grimes, Benjamin Britten's opera based on George Crabbe's dark poem about the travails of an Aldeburgh fisherman, the first assignment which gave Phillips the chance to use his own artistry on a masterpiece.

After returning to England in 1961, Phillips, now married, secured a job at Granada, where he was to spend the remainder of his working life.

At six foot and usually neatly bearded, Phillips cut an elegant figure, and his gentle affability, together with his insight into the work at hand, made him a sought-after colleague by producers and directors. But he was also an essentially private man, happiest and most relaxed with his family in Shropshire, where he lavished his characteristic care and attention on a fine house and garden in the village of Stanton Long, which became for him the perfect refuge from the alarms and pressures of a strenuous working life.

Peter Edward Sidney Canton Phillips, set designer: born Whitstable, Kent 25 October 1925; married 1957 Daphne Wilson (one daughter); died Ludlow, Shropshire 10 January 2011.

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