Eddie Redmayne was, he’ll admit, daunted by the job at hand. On the set of Birdsong, 15 minutes from Budapest, the actor would spend many hours bunkered in a tunnel deep under bomb-shattered no man’s land, his character’s soldier uniform caked in blood and mud, his heart and soul numbed by the horror of the Western Front.
Then, a scant few hours later, the filming schedule might require Redmayne to shape up, ship out, shave, wash and slip into a nice cream suit. Now he’d be acting out scenes of sedate gentility set six years prior to the Somme.
“It was an insane shoot in terms of scale and rigour,” concedes the exhausted but exhilarated Londoner, “and the jumping between war and love. I didn’t really have time to think.”
In Amiens in 1910, Redmayne’s young Englishman, Stephen Wraysford, drifts through a posh French home, enduring a different kind of suffocation: a burning love for his host’s wife, Isabelle Azaire.
“This is a man living in another family’s house with a secret, a passion, that he’s having to repress,” says the 30-year-old actor.
Re-creating the trenches
While he was shooting the war scenes in BBC1’s two-part, three-hour drama, the trauma of enclosed spaces was obviously an issue for the actor stuck in a two-foot-high crawl space – even when the subterranean hole carved out by British Army tunnellers was actually just a cleverly designed set built in a Hungarian studio.
In any case, the trenches created by the crew were real enough. They were dug in a sunflower field then bombarded by all sorts of explosive sound effects. For the film-makers in charge of the eight-week shoot, keen to replicate as far as possible the French battlefields, the rigours of reality took precedence over the ease of computer-generated images.
“I’ll be honest, Birdsong did give me the heebie-jeebies beforehand,” says the charismatic Redmayne. Most recently seen in the film My Week with Marilyn, but also known for Tess of the D’Urbervilles and The Other Boleyn Girl, the actor has had some preparation.
Dramatising the novel
“I’m clear from having done various literary adaptations before, you always don’t live up to people’s expectations in some ways. It’d be impossible. I’m a reader. When I see versions of books I’ve loved, I feel the same.”
But the cast of Birdsong were no lions led by donkeys, going futilely into an adaptation that has stymied a handful of writers and directors since Faulks’s epic was published 19 years ago.
Prior to starting on the project in autumn 2010, Horsford worked on Channel 4’s four-part rendering of William Boyd’s Any Human Heart (starring Matthew Macfadyen and Jim Broadbent). Director Philip Martin helped shepherd Henning Mankell’s Wallander novels to the screen.
Scriptwriter Abi Morgan (The Hour), meanwhile, knows all about reimagining iconic figures: she wrote Margaret Thatcher biopic, The Iron Lady.
The heart of the story
All concerned wanted to honour both Faulks’s book and the enthusiasm of the fans, for whom the central love story is one of the great pairings in modern literary fiction.
“Of course,” says Philip Martin, “we had battle scenes where there’s tonnes of people and you have explosions and blood and barbed wire. But what we were trying to do was tell an individual, personal story within that.
“So the scale is big but you’re still trying to focus on Eddie’s story. It’s about getting the emotional intensity right.”
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 17 January 2012.
Birdsong starts tonight at 9pm on BBC1/BBC1 HD