INSIDE military technical advising on Peterloo and Vanity Fair with Paul Biddiss

Paul Biddiss is a military technical advisor for film and TV who has worked on a string of world class productions including Mission: Impossible, Jason Bourne, Black Mirror, Taboo, The Death of Stalin and The Crown. Here he tells Mandy News how he got started in the entertainment industry and about his process on recent projects Vanity Fair and Mike Leigh's Peterloo.

1st October 2018
/ By James Collins

vanity fair tv series peterloo film paul biddiss PAULBIDDISS

Please introduce yourself and tell us how you came to work in the TV and Film industry.
I am a Military Technical Advisor to the film and television industry and I fell into this line of work, by chance, after being asked to be an extra on a film that required ex-servicemen. I had not long left the Armed Forces after serving 24 years and was between private security jobs. I was given the opportunity to provide some off-the-cuff advice to the director as the military advisor was setting up another scene. 

On most productions, the military advisor is a one man department and you are fought after by main, second and splinter units, and all the other departments who normally have a team. So you can only be in one place at a time. My advice was taken in the advisor's absence and used for the scene and, from that point on, I decided that that was what I was going to do. The advisor on the production was impressed with me and helped me on my way.

***** Read out interview with Peterloo production designer Suzie Davies *****

You worked on the brilliant Vanity Fair. How did you get involved?
I was approached by the producer, Julia Stannard, who I had worked with previously on War and Peace. She wanted me to “work my magic”, so I did!

What was the process on the series like? As it is set in Napoleonic times what are the specific challenges this throws up for you, to keep things historically correct, etc..?
As with all period dramas, I am just one of a set of cogs which make the machine turn. There are historical advisors, costume, art, props and armoury departments who are all required to research their part for the period. 

My job in the operation is to provide the training and historical tactical situational understanding to the cast, stunts and SAs from a soldier’s perspective. Additionally I will offer suggestions to the writer, and director to enhance a scene in order to get as close to reality as the camera and story will allow. For example, I researched the elements of the Battle of Waterloo to see where our heroes would be best placed and would fall in line with the story. The final stage of the battle is where our heroes are hiding along a ridge on the reverse slope, protected by cannon fire and the eyes of the enemy – waiting for the order to stand up and fire point blank at the unsuspecting French. The director James Strong loved the idea and ran with it.

One of the main challenges is training people in a short space of time who have never touched a rifle in their life (let alone a period musket) and act the part with it. I first use a well-practiced method used on today’s British Army recruits to train our period army in a short space of time. I make sure the right age and look is placed in the company, platoon and section formations. I teach them about the equipment, what it is for and how it's worn. This way the SAs know how to correctly reset their own equipment during takes and work within the buddy system to help look after each other within their platoons.

Once musket drill and weapon training is over, I move on to tactical formations and, at the same time, create team spirit within the SAs, pitting them against each platoon in the company to keep them engaged and wanting to come back for more. 

It's long hours and repetitive, and in all weathers. Some of the SAs liked it so much they went and joined the armed forces. I should get a bonus in the my forces pension for that!

How much research goes into working on a production like Vanity Fair and how does this differ from working on a feature film like Peterloo?
I researched the drill manual used by the British army of that period and by cross-referencing with the script, picking the relevant drill and tactical formations the story is going to use. There is no point training people to perform a drill movement that is never going to be seen. It is counterproductive.

I worked on Peterloo back-to-back with Vanity Fair, moving from one set to another…For example, I was at Tilbury fort on Peterloo in the morning running a boot camp for 25 SAs and cast, then attended a Vanity Fair production meeting in central London for their boot camp in the afternoon.

As the events of Peterloo took place a few years after the Battle of Waterloo it was fairly easy. There were no requirements for large boot camps as with Vanity Fair and the drills were the same.

What are you currently working on, and what is coming next for you?
I’m currently in Malaysia training and advising on the new series of Strike Back for SKY One and HBO. Very different from the Napoleonic war! I was out there from April to September and return in October to work on another period show a few days after my return, along with a WW2 project, and another WW1 film which is in the pipeline.

You have worked on a lot of big film productions, in different genres. Does your approach change depending on the production? If so, how?
No it does not. My approach always stays the same, from teaching principle cast to SAs. I treat everyone the same. 

My job is 60% research and 40% of my service experience articulated into the project to achieve the desired results in the shortest period of time. This saves production time and money when wanting to get a scene as close to reality as possible. 

Sometimes I get a few weeks or days to train actors and help the scenes. Sometimes I get just an hour to 15 minutes after arriving on set for the first time to "work my magic"…

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Vanity Fair is now available on ITV Hub. Peterloo premiers at the 2018 BFI London Film Festival. Paul Biddiss is represented by Casarotto Ramsay & Associates.