High-definition television forces BBC to fix its sets

Designers told to renovate amid fears that fake buildings and wear and tear will be exposed

Chris Green
Sunday 23 October 2011 05:38
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In Albert Square, the cornices of the Queen Vic pub are crumbling. The once-gleaming glass partitions in Lord Sugar's boardroom are scratched and tarnished.

The BBC is to spend thousands of pounds of licence fee payers' money upgrading the ageing sets of programmes so that they do not suddenly look shabby or fake when broadcast in high definition (HD).

The production designers of flagship BBC shows including The Apprentice, Dragons' Den and EastEnders told The Independent that the sets needed updating to stop fake facades or surface damage becoming visible to viewers.

Cath Pater-Lanucki, who worked on the notorious boardroom set - originally designed by Colin Pigott - where candidates on The Apprentice suffer the wrath of Alan Sugar, said the BBC had told her it would like to film the series after next in high definition, which was a "really scary" prospect.

"Those Perspex sheets that we use to make the glass walls are about eight years old now and they are quite scuffed and scratched. Any dust, fingerprints or smears on them are definitely going to show.

"If we go to HD, I think we'd have to replace all the Perspex on the set and we would literally have to have a props man on set the whole time polishing surfaces."

The set used about 60 Perspex sheets which cost £300 each, she said. Replacing them would cost the BBC £18,000. She estimated that the cost of shooting The Apprentice in HD could come to as much as £40,000 – equivalent to 287 licence fees.

"My worry is that they're not going to put the budgets up accordingly," she said. "I don't think the reality has really hit anyone."

The BBC has set aside a special fund to help productions make the switch to HD but this will still be funded by the licence fee, The Independent understands.

Nik Callan, a production designer at Eye-catching Design, has worked on numerous BBC programmes including EastEnders and Dragons' Den, which was broadcast in HD for the first time on Monday.

He said he and his team had been forced to repaint the Dragons' Den set for this series. The show is filmed at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire and the set is designed to make it look like an old industrial warehouse with pretend bricks painted on.

"We've had to upgrade all of the set because of HD," he said. "Every brick you see on the Den is painted – we had to have every single one done. Realistically, it costs thousands of pounds to upgrade a set for HD, and productions have got to allow for it."

He said the EastEnders set at Elstree studios in Hertfordshire dated to 1985 and was not in good health: "All of the brickwork that you'll see on any of the buildings really needs to be replaced."

HD creates even greater problems for make-up artists and costume departments, as their work is seen in close-up shots. Beads of sweat, badly glued false moustaches and uneven stitches are plainly visible in HD.

Last year, it emerged that the BBC was considering rebuilding the EastEnders set. Shaun Moore, a production designer who worked on the soap's original set, said this could prove more cost effective for the BBC in the long run, as the current fake building facades required constant maintenance. "Some parts of the set were built in real brickwork but other parts built with wood and plaster have degraded much quicker and don't look so good now," he said. "HD is a wonderful new development but it does mean that budgets have got to be increased."

A spokesman for the BBC said: "The move to HD for programmes is a key priority for the BBC and very much part of our long-term planning, including all cost implications. We have detailed advance discussions with productions that are due to make the move, to ensure that the transition is as smooth and as cost effective as possible.

"With 19 million HD-ready TVs sold so far, and as we move towards a time when all programmes will be made in HD, it's important that the BBC helps lead these changes to deliver the very best service for our audiences."

HDTV: How it works

* High-definition television broadcasts offer much sharper pictures than the standard service because five times as many pixels are used.

* Pictures on a television screen are broken down into thousands of tiny pixels which if looked at through a magnifier can be seen broken down into sub pixels – groups of blue, green and red dots. Digital broadcasts transmit the pixels as numerical data, translating them back into dots when received in the home.

* A standard definition digital television set has a picture made up of 414,720 (720 by 576) pixels. In contrast, a high-definition set has a picture filled by 2,073,600 (1920 by 1080) pixels.

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