Sheena Napier: Costume Design Talk at the V&A

The last costume talk I attended was last September with Deborah Nadoolman Landis and the last V&A talk was with Jenny Beavan back in January 2012 – so this talk was well overdue.


Sheena Napier may not be a “household” name like Beavan and Landis but she has worked steadily in the industry (mostly designing for TV) for years and has been nominated for an Oscar (for Enchanted April), an Emmy and won a BAFTA (both for Parade’s End).

'Enchanted April' 1991

‘Enchanted April’ 1991

The talk started with Napier talking through how she got started in the costume industry. She went to art college to study theatre design but discovered that her poor maths skills (her words not mine!) caused problems with set design but, more importantly, she was much more interested in costume as social comment and social history. At the time costume was a vocational course rather than a degree so Napier left. She went on to work in the theatre and despite initial intentions to return to college she never made it back.

'Enchanted April' (1991)

‘Enchanted April’ (1991)

She started ironing for the opera and then worked for the wardrobe master at the Festival Theatre (I want to say Chichester Festival Theatre but I didn’t catch it – I’m sorry!). Napier said that John Bartlett was the greatest teacher she ever had and he taught her everything about costume. He was a perfectionist and wanted everything to be made properly – no shortcuts. He taught her tailoring, costume making and the importance of attention to detail.

'Backbeat' (1994)

‘Backbeat’ (1994)

Napier told us horror stories relating to time shortages and occasions of working for three straight days and nights to get costumes finished (we’ve all been there) but said that this camaraderie in the environment strengthened her love of costume and the industry.

'Ravenous' (1999)

‘Ravenous’ (1999)

She took over from Bartlett as wardrobe mistress for five years (making good use of the costume cutting books he bought her) and relied on his advice:

Tell them you can do the job, then you have to do the job and you’ll find that you can do it.

'The Heart of Me' (2002)

‘The Heart of Me’ (2002)

After working in the theatre Napier took some time out and had a knitwear craftshop in the country until opportunity came knocking. A friend of hers at the costume department at the BBC told her how desperate they were for design assistants. Napier’s knowledge of costume houses and fabric sourcing locations gained from her work in the theatre meant that she was able to become a design assistant and completely jump the traditional previous step of dresser – with a little bit of tension from some members of the department. She signed a three-month contract and left three years later.

'The Heart of Me' (2002) [Going against Napier's wishes see if you can spot Olivia Williams' dress later on in this post...]

‘The Heart of Me’ (2002)
[Going against Napier’s wishes see if you can spot Olivia Williams’ dress later on in this post…]

She knew that the BBC costume department was on its last legs so after some success working for the BBC (particularly her work on ‘Allo ‘Allo) she was able to leave to design Enchanted April. The film was made by the BBC in partnership with Greenpoint Films but when it was bought by Miramax it was widely distributed and became (in Napier’s words) a “proper” films. (This was the film that marks Napier’s Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design.)

'Poirot' Five Little Pigs (2003) [Notice a younger Little Finger from Game of Thrones?]

‘Poirot’ Five Little Pigs (2003)
[Notice a younger Little Finger from Game of Thrones?]

The success of Enchanted April led to designing Backbeat but then a critically unsuccessful film left Napier out of work for a while. Napier learnt the importance of saving money and to spend the time off in a positive way. The next film she mentioned was Ravenous which has gained a cult following but she’s not personally a huge fan of.

'Poirot' Five Little Pigs (2003)

‘Poirot’ Five Little Pigs (2003)

Ravenous was then followed by The Heart of Me and then Poirot (the show Napier is most famous for). She told us that she wasn’t particularly keen on taking the job because the show had already been on the air for 15 years and she felt like it would be taking over someone else’s work. She was one hour late for the interview (and she’s never late) but she loved David Suchet and the director and their work process. They talked through every character’s life and story and she felt that this was something she would enjoy doing. Her first Poirot episode was Five Little Pigs and she thinks it is still her favourite (and mine).

I want you to be able to know something about [the character].

'Poirot' Death on the Nile (2004)

‘Poirot’ Death on the Nile (2004)

This was specifically important with the Poirot adaptations where a story must be condensed to such a degree that character details are inevitably lost but costume can be used to create the depth and understanding of the character for the audience.

'Wah-Wah' (2005), designed by Sheena Napier.

‘Wah-Wah’ (2005), designed by Sheena Napier.

Napier told us of the trials of late casting that she first became aware of when filming Death on the Nile. Besides Suchet the first actor was cast five days before shooting – frantic costume fittings became standard for most of the shoot. She also told us that she turned on a tv and found an old episode of Poirot playing and realised that they were using the same cardigan! Due to late casting, limited budgets and time constraints costume making was impossible (apart from for Suchet) and there was (and is) a limited costume pool for the 1930s. Napier made the decision to start buying and storing pieces and she has a 150 sq ft storage space that is filled. She loved working with Suchet and was able to focus on attention to detail (as taught by Bartlett) but also try to make each episode look different. She was particularly fond of The Labours of Hercules which she thought was the most stylish episode. [Napier thinks that is a little unfair.]

'Ballet Shoes' (2007), designed by Sheena Napier.

‘Ballet Shoes’ (2007), designed by Sheena Napier.

[One fun note was a photo of a pair of cufflinks that were nicknamed the “murdered man” cufflinks and appeared on every murdered man. They were never seen but were a fun in-joke.]

'Wild Target' (2009), designed by Sheena Napier.

‘Wild Target’ (2009), designed by Sheena Napier.

Then we looked at Napier’s work on Parade’s End. She brought one of Rebecca Hall’s (Sylvia Tietjan) dresses with her that had been made based on an original dress. The dress combined some original very delicate pieces of beading (one of the few times when Napier allowed her maker to cut up an old dress) with modern fabrics. There was an original dress that she wanted to copy but all the modern fabric she found was too heavy to replicate the tiny pleats in the dress.

'Parade's End' (2012) [This is the pink dress Napier brought with her.]

‘Parade’s End’ (2012) [This is the pink dress Napier brought with her.]

We then moved onto The Village; the second series filming now. The budgets have gone down but expectations have gone up! There was another story of late casting – this time the day before shooting and the producers didn’t seem to be too interested in arranging a fitting.

'Parade's End' (2012)

‘Parade’s End’ (2012)

The last completed work Napier has designed is The Great Fire and this lead to discussions of costume authenticity. Although she appreciates the attention to detail that Bartlett taught her she also understands that the story is the most important factor.

We’re not curators, we’re storytellers.

'Poirot' The Labours of Hercules (2013)

‘Poirot’ The Labours of Hercules (2013)

If an actor isn’t comfortable in something or the shape isn’t as flattering as it could be things will be changed. It isn’t about Napier, but about the actor on screen. They need to be able to sell the character and can’t do that if they’re uncomfortable.

'Poirot' Dead Man's Folly (2013). The final episode of 'Poirot' filmed but not the final aired.

‘Poirot’ Dead Man’s Folly (2013). The final episode of ‘Poirot’ filmed but not the final aired.

There followed some questions:

It is possible to identify when period films were made (for example a 1930s film made in the ’70s). How important is it to be timeless?

The Heart of Me was made in the Merchant Ivory mindset where everything was meant to be perfect. This is no longer true. Everything is seen from a modern perspective and the director is the boss – what they say goes. For example, directors tend to hate hats (actors generally like them) but the directors are likely to get the final word. No matter how inaccurate.

'Marple' A Caribbean Mystery, designed by Sheena Napier

‘Marple’ A Caribbean Mystery (2013), designed by Sheena Napier

Favourite time period?

She was excited to do The Great Fire because it’s a period not commonly done but she loves all periods and contemporary. Her main interest is in characters. But if she could “wear” a period it would be the 1910s shown in Parade’s End.

'The Village' Series One

‘The Village’ Series One (2013)

So there we have a great talk by Sheena Napier. There are a number of films and tv shows that I haven’t seen but I would be seriously tempted now!

S x


My 5 Favourite Episodes of ‘Poirot’

I mentioned my love for Agatha Christie months ago and that I would write more about that. And didn’t. Well this isn’t a big detailed post. In fact, it’s very specifically about my favourite Poirot adaptations. These are only the ones starring David Suchet on ITV and by favourite I mean just that. Not the best. Not the most faithful adaptations. Just the ones that I enjoy the most and can re-watch most easily. (That’s right, I re-watch them. All of them. If anyone thinks a #PoirotWatch would be as much fun as #ColumboWatch let me know and maybe we can set one up. Or do a Blog-A-Long? Sidetracking…) This list was intended to be in ascending order but I’m not sure if that’s still true… 5. The Mystery of the Blue Train (2005) 'The Mystery of the Blue Train' I think that this was one of the first Poirot episodes that I watched. Or, at least, the first one that I actively remember watching. Three things sell me on Poirot episodes: the inclusion of Poirot, the plot and the production values (cast, costumes and set). This is why I tend to prefer the later Poirot episodes. They are also the first ones I saw and I tend to prefer two-hour (one and a half minus adverts) episodes over the shorter ones. There’s more…tension. Or at least red herrings and, usually, murders. ‘The Mystery of the Blue Train’ is regarded as one of Christie’s weakest novels – she would include it in that list too. She rushed to finish the novel because she needed the money. It has a lots of similar plot points to a short story (actually fairly common among Christie’s works) ‘The Plymouth Express’, part of the short story collection ‘Poirot’s Early Cases’. The short story was also dramatised early on in the Poirot “series”. The plot isn’t great, I grant you. But…it’s all so beautiful. The characters are all pretty eccentric. And Elliott Gould is there! The sets are incredible. It is just a visually stunning adaptation. I’m shallow that way. 4. After the Funeral (2006) 'After the Funeral' This is an adaptation of the first Christie novel I read. So this episode is included partly for nostalgic reasons but also because I really enjoy the adaptation. I showed this episode to some friends a few years ago, none of them being big into period dramas or murder mysteries but they were all intrigued and none of them guessed the culprit! There are a few changes to the plot by way of modernising it – read “sexing it up”. With all of the best Christie stories, there is a disparate group of characters. And this is shown through a range of actors. Including Michael Fassbender before he was off being a Hollywood moviestar. (That was one way I got my friend to watch – she was a Fass convert from back in the Hex days.) It isn’t quite as overtly glamorous as The Mystery of the Blue Train but everything is perfectly designed for the characters and the plot. 3. Mrs McGinty’s Dead (2007) 'Mrs McGinty's Dead' This is the first (and only) of my favourite episodes to include Ariadne Oliver – one of my favourite literary characters. This is just because the other Poirot adaptations that she has been in so far (Cards on the Table before this and Third Girl and Hallowe’en Party after this don’t quite live up to the other episodes – I have a soft spot for Hallowe’en Party though). I’m looking forward to her next appearances in the series – Elephants Can Remember and Dead Man’s Folly. In this episode, Zoe Wanamaker just plays Oliver perfectly. There is so much comedy to be had in that character but it is never overplayed. And I just love Poirot and Oliver together. Brilliant. The story is also another winner – lots of possibilities, red herrings, suspects. It’s a winner. 2. Death on the Nile (2004)

'Death on the Nile'

(Am I the only one who does a double-take when I see JJ Field to check it isn’t Tom Hiddleston? It’s really annoying. Especially in ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’)

I have to include this episode if only for the fact that it was behind my final project when I was at university – I constructed the dress Emily Blunt wore in her second appearance (but there’s a longer story around that) and the suit JJ Field wore when accompanying her in that scene. I have watched this episode multiple times and if I could wear everything there, I would. No question. I went through a variety of dress options and may one day make the red velvet one for myself. Maybe. The plot here is incredible if not more far fetched than usual! When you see the outcome you’ll understand what I mean. You get completely involved though and isn’t escapism more fun? 1. Five Little Pigs (2003) 'Five Little Pigs' This is an adaptation of one of my favourite Christie books. It is a great adaptation. It keeps the spirit of the book and also is fairly accurate. Considering the nature of the story it can be a little confusing but it also sums up the best loved aspect of a Poirot story. The crimes are solved through psychology. Not forensics. The crime is fourteen years old, carried out in the 1920s. No new forensic evidence could be found – especially not in the 1930s. Poriot can only solve the crime by listening and understanding five people. This adaptation was also voted as the best television adaptation at the BFI’s Agatha Christie weekend back in November 2010. So there’s my list of favourite episodes. I might move onto Marple episodes next…who know? One thing remains though. David Suchet is the best Poirot and I am excited beyond belief about the new Poirot episodes being filmed. Also, thoroughly disheartened that I am not involved in some way. Anyone else love Poirot like me? Some favourite episodes? Should I have included some of the classics like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or Murder on the Orient Express? S x

Why I Love… Agatha Christie

I’ve previously stated that my memory is ridiculously poor. I can barely describe how poor it is. This makes talking about my ‘loves’ very difficult as I can’t remember when I first I saw/read/experienced/loved them. Honestly. And yet, here I try again. I am a huge Agatha Christie fan. This fandom didn’t officially strike until…three years ago? No. I’m gonna go with four. But this is just the fandom. I first read an Agatha Christie novel…ten years ago? Maybe more. (After the Funeral if you were interested.) I didn’t read another novel for two/three years. But I solved it! (I read it pretty much non-stop and had a notebook to write things down so it feels a little like a cheat.) That was Hallowe’en Party. (Which was dedicated to P.G. Wodehouse. Connections everywhere!) I wish I could point out a specific moment that ignited (or reignited) my enjoyment but if I were to guess, it would be due to the ITV adaptations of Poirot and Marple. I have a strong memory (shocking, I know) of discussing the adaptation of The Body in the Library with my history teacher the day after it aired. This was shown in 2004 when I was doing my GCSEs. Our main discussion was about the *spoiler alert* lesbian plotting and questioning its inclusion in Christie’s novel. I checked in the library. It wasn’t there. So, sidestepping this “problem” with accuracy I just wanted to watch the series. I’ve been a fan of a good murder mystery since I can remember. Thank you BBC for daytime Diagnosis Murder, The Father Dowling Mysteries, Murder, She Wrote and even Bergerac. You raised me well. But, getting back to Christie, the shows kept coming and I’d started reading various books and then started collecting them (this would’ve been about three/four years ago). I currently have 135 but still don’t have every novel (I have doubles/different editions, she didn’t write THAT many); I’ve been to see The Mousetrap; I visited her house for my birthday; I have all the Poirot DVDs, some Marples, her autobiography, biographies, two mugs, reference books, audiobooks (see – hoarder/collector)…

Being a collector of Agatha Christie works isn’t really that unusual. (Or maybe a little unusual due to my age/the age I started collecting.) The Mousetrap is the longest running West End show (and a statue is planned – we hope – to be unveiled in November this year to celebrate its 60 year run), she is the biggest selling novelist in the world (book sales are third behind Shakespeare and the Bible) and her work is still being performed/adapted. Neil LaBute is directing an adaptation of Crooked House, scripted by Julian Fellowes and is set to start shooting in London in a few months (although this has been said for months). The book is one of my favourites (and one of Christie’s personal favourites), despite having no ‘known’ characters, and it one of Christie’s best. I’m not JUST saying that because the lead female character is called Sophia. I’m not. I promise. (It doesn’t hurt though.)

As collectors go, I’m pretty low-key. Mostly for monetary reasons. Every September there is the Agatha Christie Festival in Devon to coincide with Christie’s birthday on the 15th September. (9th – 16th this year.) They have performances of one of Christie’s work (this year will be Cards on the Table), dinners (fancy dress encouraged), panel discussions (with Christie’s grandson Mathew Pritchard and Christie expert John Curran among others), tours around Greenway (Christie’s home recently restored by the National Trust), quizes, murder mystery events, pretty much anything you want and one year I NEED to go. I also need people to go with (anyone?) and money for the activities, food, accommodation. So you see, it’s not cheap being a fan. Picking up books from charity shops and second-hand bookshops is one thing, this is another.

Christie, as an author, has received criticism from other authors. Her harshest critic will probably always be herself though. She never understood why people bought her books and never claimed to be a great writer. What Christie is great at is characters and dialogue. To have an absorbing murder mystery plot you need to have interesting and credible characters – and I don’t just mean the detectives. Characters within each book, with a few exceptions, are always involving. And then there are the recurring, detective characters: Hercule Poirot, Miss Jane Marple, Ariadne Oliver (my personal favourite and I want to name my future child Ariadne – seriously), Tommy and Tuppence, Captain Arthur Hastings, Detective Chief Inspector James Japp (both of whom appear less frequently in Christie’s novels than the TV series would have you believe). Christie is the only novelist to have created two equally famous detectives.

I am “wise” enough to know that Christie’s writings will never be described as classic literature and her crimes never make the hard-boiled nature of Raymond Chandler but, I think that’s what I like about them. They are easy reads. You can challenge yourself to find the murderer. You can fall back into a different era with different language and a wealthier lifestyle than (definitely for me) you live. I’m so glad that I can enjoy her work and I am so happy that David Suchet will ahve the opportunity to finish the final five Poirot stories – but more on Poirot at a later date.

This is the bust of Agatha Christie that is in Torquay. I’m saddened that I haven’t seen it yet.

Now, please, if you’ve never seen or read an Agatha Christie book give it a go. Pick one up from a charity shop or the library or your kindle – they are perfect holiday reading. And if not, watch the TV series’. They’re ALWAYS on ITV3 (and stay for Jeeves and Wooster).

S x

[Agatha Christie’s favourite novels in no particular order (according to her website…):

  1. And Then There Were None
  2. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (Poirot)
  3. A Murder is Announced (Marple)
  4. Murder on the Orient Express (Poirot)
  5. The Thirteen Problems (Marple)
  6. Towards Zero
  7. Endless Night
  8. Crooked House
  9. Ordeal by Innocence
  10. The Moving Finger (Marple)

John Curran (author of Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks and Agatha Christie: Murder in the Making):

  1. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (Poirot)
  2. Peril at End House (Poirot)
  3. Murder on the Orient Express (Poirot)
  4. The ABC Murders (Poirot)
  5. And Then There Were None
  6. Five Little Pigs (Poirot)
  7. Crooked House
  8. A Murder is Announced (Marple)
  9. Endless Night
  10. Curtain (Poirot)

Now, fan as I am, I would need to re-read all of the novels again to be able to list my favourites but I would say that Five Little Pigs, Crooked House, The Moving Finger and A Murder is Announced would definitely be in there, probably with a Poirot/Ariadne Oliver novel as well. Just because I love her. ]