From shopping for out-of-season fruits to making an airship prop, it’s all in a day’s work for Verity Scott.
She can be called upon to source absolutely anything in her role as a production buyer in the UK TV and film industry, as she told Sammy Jones.
As a youngster it was working on the stage, as opposed to dressing sets, that proved alluring for Verity: “I wanted to be a singer in the West End,” she admits, “But my father was head of art at Stowe School and was heavily involved in designing the school theatre productions, so from a very young age I was involved with the production of the shows.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, that led to her training as a theatre designer, and her time in university afforded Verity the opportunity to work in the art department on a few short films. Snapping up work experience in the industry allowed her to pull together a decent portfolio and she’s never really looked back.
Think of your favourite show. What makes it so compulsive isn’t just the performance of the cast; it’s the direction, the feel and the authenticity.
And that’s where Verity comes in. Taking care of the sets is down to the art department, and its designer and art directors who look after the set construction.
The set decorator acts as the interior designer for the show and they work with a team of buyers, “…and we make the sets come to life with the dressing and props,” Verity says.
The designer and their team will be handed show scripts early in the process, and prior to construction, the sets get mocked up on screen so everyone knows what the expectations are.
The team will be on site anywhere between six to 10 weeks before the clapperboard is used; researching and working out how to achieve the desired vision.
“Every job is different, but generally we have a mixture of constructed sets that are built from scratch, and locations that are away from the studio that all require dressing.
“We are given a budget, have lots of meetings, create lots of mood boards and then do lots of shopping from every corner of the country and beyond, which is the fun bit,” she admits, “We also hire props and dressing from the Prop Houses in West London, which is the equivalent of a Supermarket Sweep with antiques.”
Variety keeps the creative juices flowing, and Verity liaises with suppliers and deals with logistics. Her dream would be to work on a Bond movie, but currently she is working on the third series of the hugely successful BBC/HBO series, His Dark Materials, which is also pretty fantastic.
She has contributed to every season, and this is the work she is most proud of to date.
“It has been a labour of love, and three years of my life. Season One was very special, as I worked on the creation of all the moving vehicles; the airships, boats, sledges and Lee Scoresby’s fantastic flying balloon.
“A lot of my day is spent liaising with prop makers, scenic painters, upholsterers, seamstresses and general crafts people. It is wonderfully satisfying to be involved with a process from commission to completion.”
Verity is also rightly proud of the BBC drama Three Girls, which shone a light on the harrowing child sex abuse ring in Rochdale.
“…it was a very tough show to work on, mentally and physically, and it was headed up by all female heads of department, so it was very empowering.”
Verity, 41, is now based in Wales, but grew up on the outskirts of Milton Keynes. She is still a frequent visitor, and not just to visit her family who still live here; because she can source items from wherever she chooses, she makes regular trips to the new town for stock.
“We usually start with the big IAFC (International Antiques & Collectors Fair) flea markets like Newark and Ardingly, but we have been known to take trucks to France and Latvia to source dressing…”
Ebay is a friend that keeps on giving too, and then there’s Kiln Farm…
“I am an avid supporter of buying from charity shops and as I was born locally I often make trips to the large secondhand furniture shops like Age UK or the Reuse Centre. If I’m not filling up the car, I am usually sending over a Luton van to buy furniture for the sets.”
Verity gets what she needs, but it’s great for the charity coffers, too.
“I have spent literally thousands of pounds over the years, and it all goes back to them afterwards so they can resell it and make more money. It means there is very little waste or items being skipped at the end.”
Having a creative side and paying attention to detail is an inherited trait; she comes from a family of artists, and as a keen photographer she has a passion for the power of the lens.
Lockdown also afforded her the chance to spend quality time out and about exploring with Star, her Serbian rescue dog, and she relaxes on the water; Verity is a qualified day skipper with a share in a sailing yacht called Tonto.
During the enforced ‘down time’ last year, she put pencil to paper for the first time in ages. And the commissions started coming.
“It was very flattering,” she admitted.
But her eye for detail is never more in demand than on set, and it can be fraught as much as fun: “A lot of my job is highly pressured, but despite the madness and the stressful days I still have to pinch myself – I have the extraordinary pleasure to be surrounded by very talented people and to be part of that team is an incredible privilege. I am often blown away at being able to walk around the incredible sets and be immersed in their creation.”
What happens if you just can’t find that essential prop?
“If you can’t find it, you make it, and if you can’t make it, come up with something else…that’s the general rule of thumb,” she told me, “My favourite nightmare is out of season fruit and vegetables. “It always comes up on period dramas and is a drama to source!
“We are very lucky on His Dark Materials as we have an amazing fabrications department that can literally make anything.
“Thank God for 3D printers and laser cutting machines, that’s all I’m going to say!”
After her industry was temporarily silenced by the pandemic, things are thankfully bubbling again – recovery has been significant and work is plentiful. She has spent a large chunk of 2020/21 set decorating for the forthcoming Netflix delivery Anatomy of a Scandal (starring Sienna Miller and Rupert Friend), and her diary is full for the foreseeable.
But at the end of a long day, is it even possible for this set designer to reach for the tv remote and plonk herself down in front of a good drama to unwind, as you and I might?
“I used to be able to, but I find I am more analytical these days,” she says, “…although I’m not as critical as some of my peers and I can enjoy a drama for the entertainment value.”
As a member of the crew, Verity doesn’t spend much time associating with the cast (“My job is to get in before them, make it look beautiful and then let them play with it”), but she has had a couple of well-known faces visit her flat.
When the team behind the BBC smash hit Sherlock wanted to make use of her abode, Verity obliged, even though she was away filming for another BBC show when Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman made themselves at home in her property.
“My only caveat was that they returned the flat as they found it, and put up some shelves for me – as I knew there would be handy people around with ladders!”
> The third and final series of the BBCs His Dark Materials is set to air in 2022
> Anatomy of a Scandal will be on Netflix later in 2021