Tales of Bacon, a new web series shot in York, is a medieval comedy centred on a runaway noblewoman named Elfrida Deverwyck (Gemma Shelton) and a pardoner named Thaddeus Bacon (Adam Elms). Any comedy set in medieval England is going to invoke the spectre of Monty Python and Blackadder but Tales of Bacon goes its own way.
Writer/producer/director Natalie Roe, who co-created and co-wrote series with Max Gee, gives the material a dry sense of humour. There’s a modern attitude to the characters — including a strong feminist streak in Elfrida — but dialogue doesn’t go for complete anachronism.
The first episode, set on a Tuesday in 1380, does a fine job of setting up its likable characters and the tone of the material as well as, thanks to intrigue involving a mysterious knight, building interest in subsequent episodes.
There is a terrific throwaway gag about breaking fingers that shows a willingness to be silly and absurdist in a way that plays splendidly against the deadpan delivery of the characters. The first episode also benefits from a cameo appearance by a Robin Hood (Jimmy Johnson) who has a “flexible policy on wealth.”
Roe took the time to answer some questions about the origins and production of Tales of Bacon.
What was the initial spark behind Tales of Bacon?
I was driving between London and York late one night and was thinking about Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales and pardoners. I thought it was such an interesting profession, pardoning someone’s sins for a price and also selling “holy” relics which they knew were fraudulent. It made me think that our idea of medieval times, when everyone was supposedly devoutly religious and superstitious, was probably wrong and there was a story in it.
How did you start formulating the characters?
I had my pardoner and called him Thaddeus after the patron saint of Lost Causes, next I thought he needed a sidekick. My instinct was to have a male servant but then I realised that was just Baldrick and Blackadder. To create the opposite of that, I knew the other lead needed to be female and a higher class than Thaddeus.
After reading some books on medieval women, I discovered that girls who were lower class didn’t marry until their 20s, instead they worked and brought in money for their families. They would also travel around working at different farms so they didn’t just stay in one village. I thought for an upper class and romantic girl like Elfrida, she would rather run away than be married off and might actually get some freedom on the road. Elfrida is an Anglicised version of the name of a Saxon princess, I found while rooting around in old family trees and Deverwyck means “Of Jorvik” or “Of York,” so that was a nice reference.
What has it been like making a web series in York?
York is great because it’s beautiful, full of creative people and has a council that’s sympathetic to community arts. We were allowed to film in some very old buildings and be supported by many talented people. The old architecture has inspired us a lot and makes our production values soar much higher than our budget.
What have been some of the challenges of making a medieval show on a low-budget?
Our biggest challenge is always scheduling when you have a large team who are self-employed or have other work. This becomes harder as the series progresses and has crowd scenes. We spent more money on food for everyone than anything else. Costumes we borrow off re-enactor friends, community theatres, living history museums, make from scratch or hire as a last resort. Often we pay people in cake or bottles of beer. We also pick our locations carefully so power cables, drainpipes and the 21st century can’t creep into shoot.
What has the writing process been like?
Max Gee and I co-wrote the series. First of all, we went on holiday together to Brackenborough Hall in Lincolnshire, which actually has the ruins of a medieval village on site. The plot was outlined there and then we slowly worked through the episodes in lots of coffee shops. We took a day trip to Lindisfarne Island and decided that Elfrida’s storyline was the stronger so then we flipped the protagonist and everything slotted into place. We also got feedback from the York Screenwriter’s Guild and the Raindance Writer’s Room so to create a really refined screenplay.
What is your approach as a director?
A lot of the actors in the series come from a theatre background, so I think I collaborate with them more than a lot of filmmakers. I tend to think that if you surround yourself with talented people and listen to them, you’ll get a stronger end result than bombarding people with your own ideas. That said, I like to prepare a lot so I send actors little biographies of their character with links to historical resources. I storyboard and write up my own rushes notes so I know what I want visually throughout the process then work with our director of photography and editor to wrestle it all into life.
Has Natalie the Director come into conflict with Natalie the Writer?
Natalie the Writer becomes mysteriously passive on set. Max the Writer however is not. We are pretty good at sticking to the script, perhaps it’s because we make sure what we write is filmable to begin with. We have been so careful with the scripting that it’s rare an actor wants a line to be different or we have to change a location or a prop. Natalie the Director knows that the bottom line is that there’s only so much time to film and money to spend so you have to choose to compromise or not film at all. It’s always the former.
Tell me about your Indiegogo? What is your goal?
Our goal is £1,500 which is currently. Due to the relative cheapness of the series, we have made three episodes without spending a lot, but our last three episodes have larger scenes in grander locations so we will need to spend money to complete the series.
What will the money go towards? What are some of your perks?
The money will go toward costume hire, insurance, location fees, and most importantly, food! We have a lot of crowd scenes in the last three episodes and need to make sure everyone is fed and comfortable since they’re all volunteers. We want to enter the series into festivals too and get as many people as possible to see the work we’ve done.
The perks for supporting us are all quite fun. We have handwritten pardons and handmade relics, also merchandise like badges, postcards, DVDs and a making of book. They’re across a range of donation amounts too so even a small donation has our thanks and a mention in the series credits. We are appreciative of any help and can’t wait to get started on our next episodes.