Among nighttime soaps, Fox’s “Empire” may reign supreme, but E! offers a more literal version of palace intrigue — “The Royals,” a saga in which a fictitious British royal family, like its hip-hop counterpart, grapples with ambition, intrigue, power, sex and scandals, all living, mostly unhappily, under the same guilded roof, its trappings the responsibility of production designer Max Gottlieb.
At the start of this month’s second season of the show, produced by Lionsgate Television and NBCUniversal, and created by series showrunner Mark Schwahn, wicked Cyrus (played by Jake Maskall) seizes the crown following the murder of the saintly King Simon, and moves into new rooms at the palace. The decor reflects his personality.
He’s “like a peacock,” Gottlieb says, taking Variety on a tour of the set. The look of his room is Tudor Gothic — with wood paneling, stained-glass windows and Oriental overtones. “There’s a Chinese opium den feel to it,” he adds, with lots of texture, many draped textiles and ornate Lincrusta wallpaper. The predominant colors are maroon and black. “It’s really his lair, where he drags people in,” Gottlieb says.
Each character’s room reflects his or her outlook. For example, “party girl” Princess Eleanor (Alexandra Park) has a space that’s a riot of clashing styles, with a few empty liquor bottles thrown in. The quarters occupied by the palace’s head of security, Ted (Oliver Milburn), are more modern: “As tasteful as possible, and a bit more male,” Gottlieb quips.
The sets for the main rooms in the palace, constructed at London’s 3 Mills Studios, are based on the aristocratic 16th-century residence Wilton House, while the exteriors are of 18th-century Blenheim Palace. The decor and furniture are from a mixture of periods, although rococo rules. Secret doors abound, which enables the script to suddenly bring people into scenes at any time.
|“There’s a Chinese opium den feel to (Cyrus’ room). … It’s really his lair, where he drags people in.”|
|‘Royals’ production designer Max Gottlieb|
The carpets were printed to order in Belgium, and props mainly come from Old Times prop store in Northwest London, although some have been picked up at street markets. To add texture and detail, Gottlieb uses practicals — e.g., functioning props — wherever he can. Side lamps and open fires add depth.
Just as the sets are elaborate and reflect the characters’ natures, so do the costumes. For example, Queen Helena (Elizabeth Hurley) has a touch of Cruella de Vil, swathed in furs and adorned with diamonds.
The show’s costume designers, led by Rachel Walsh, use a mixture of high-end fashion and classic bespoke wear from British labels. For instance, Cyrus wears a lot of Vivienne Westwood and Paul Smith, as well as classic suits, like Harvie and Hudson, combined with vintage cravats, to create the look of a dandy or a fop. But once he ascends to the throne, his look becomes more streamlined.
The costume designers often match colors with those on the set. For example, at a party held to celebrate the birthday of Eleanor and her twin brother Liam (William Moseley), the hues of the clothes complement the festooning and flowers that decorate the scene.
As most of TV is these days, the series is shot at high resolution, which demands a high level of authenticity. “You have to make it even more filmic, with more detail and more texture, because it picks up on everything,” Gottlieb says. “You can never have enough quality.”