Last Update: 02 October 2004
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You might say that British author Samuel Richardson went all out when he wrote Clarissa in the mid-18th century. At more than one million words, it's the longest novel in English literature. And the BBC also went far out to produce Clarissa. The three-part TV series sported 1,500 separate costumes, elaborate and authentic sets including a made-from-scratch street requiring four tons of cobblestones, special make-up to match 18th-century styles and, because eating played a large part in the action, specially catered food that might have been served at the time.

Clarissa is the story of a virtuous, virginal heiress who runs away from her nasty family when they insist she marry a loathsome individual for his money, falls into the hands of a handsome rake who wants only to get her into bed and finally rapes her.

BBC costume designer Ken Trew rented, adapted or had made the 1,500 costumes. Both men and women of the era over-dressed, he said, with women favoring long skirts, petticoats, corsets and enough ribbon "to gift-wrap a small cabin cruiser." Men wore square-cut coats, breeches, shirts and waistcoats.

Sean Bean wore one coat, heavily embroidered with silver and gold, that weighed almost as much as a suit of armor. Some of the corsets the actresses wore were so stiff the women couldn't sit down in them. "Our movements were dictated a lot by the costumes," Saskia Wickham said. "You couldn't slouch, and you certainly couldn't run around."

Period drama is always expensive, especially when outside locations are used, said Gerry Scott, Clarissa production designer. "You must change doors, paint out traffic lines in the street, move cars out of sight and remove signs." Even when a designer finds the right building, she added, "by the time you've redecorated it and put its furniture into storage, it works out cheaper to build it from scratch."

Period pieces she had built for Clarissa included a three-storey Georgian house, a wayside inn and a London street market. "It would have been impossible to find a street like that anywhere, especially in London," Ms. Scott said, "so we had to build one." A construction crew used four tons of cobblestones and pebbles set in concrete. The more complicated details were recreated from polystyrene for the street, which took the crew five days to complete.

Hair and makeup people checked portraits of the time to learn what passed for physical beauty. Fashionable young dandies wore wigs - white, pink or lilac - whenever they ventured outside their homes and women fancied double chins, pink eye shadow and white faces. Saskia Wickham escaped that makeup because her Clarissa character was a country girl and was supposed to look natural.

For the production's elaborate sit-down meals, the BBC employed freelance chef Colin Capon, who'd worked on several previous British TV plays.

He discovered Londoners' mid-18th century diet overflowed with meat and dairy dishes, with hardly a vegetable in sight.

Fish was just becoming a diet staple at the time, with fish heads considered a delicacy and served separately from the rest of the catch. Rabbits and game were cooked with their heads intact so that those eating would know they weren't being served something else - a dog or a cat.

Saskia Wickham was lucky again - through the entire program, Clarissa was usually too upset to eat.

The Mobil-funded Masterpiece Theatre presentation of Clarissa, produced by BBC Television, was presented by PBS / WGBH Boston. Rebecca Eaton was series executive producer. Alistair Cooke was the host.

- info from PBS Press Release


 Image from Sky (The Magazine), Sept 2004

Clarissa was originally shown on BBC2 in the UK, in three parts, on November 27, December 4 and December 11, 1991. Each episode was 60 minutes long.

A three-part edited version was aired on PBS' Masterpiece Theatre in the US on April 5, 12 and 19, 1992. The Masterpiece Theatre version carried additional commentaries by Alistair Cooke.

Saskia Wickham starred as Clarissa, with Sean Bean playing the dissolute rogue, Lovelace.

With a budget of over £3 million, filming on Clarissa began 29 Apr 1991 and continued for 16 weeks until 19 July 1991. Locations included several large country houses (one in the north of England, another near Stratford, and a third in Hampstead). Some exteriors were shot outside The Inns of Court in London but much of the filming was done at London's Ealing Studios, where a three-storey Georgian house was specially constructed for the series.

Please click here for a synopsis of Clarissa.

Jen Riddler's Clarissa fact of the day:
Number of letters written by Robert Lovelace: 170

BBC trivia:
A computerised tracking system allows the BBC to follow the progress of every hairpiece in their costume department. The wig made for Sean Bean in Clarissa, for example, was used on Live and Kicking before the teams on Rob Roy, Treasure Island and televisions Royal Scandal snapped it up.

Transmission trivia:
The original BBC version of Clarissa is three episodes long, and the version that was shown in the US on PBS was also three episodes long. However the PBS version was edited for time to allow additional commentary by host Alistair Cooke.

Click here to read Alistair Cooke's introductions to the series.

Visit the Clarissa Press Archive.

Click here to read the list of extras on the Clarissa DVD (Region 2).


Click on the picture to see a larger version.


Sean Bean
Saskia Wickham
Lynsey Baxter
Cathryn Harrison
Sean Pertwee
Jonathan Phillips
Diana Quick
Michael Feast
Shirley Henderson
Hermione Norris
Ralph Riach
Lucy Robinson
Frances Viner
Jeffry Wickham

Mrs. Sinclair
Lady Betty
Anna Howe
Uncle Anthony
Mrs. Harlowe
Mr. Harlowe


From the novel by
Original Music.
Original Transmission

US Broadcast

DVD/Video release

David Nokes & Janet Barron
Samuel Richardson
Colin Towns
Bill Wright
Gerry Scott
John McGlashan
Kevin Loader
Robert Bierman
27 Nov, 04 Dec, 11 Dec 1991
(3 episodes) (BBC2)
April 5, 12 and 19, 1992
(3 episodes) (PBS)
Region 2 (DVD) / PAL (VHS)
May 12, 2003



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