This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
Surrounding your workspace with more clutter than a mid-noughties Myspace page is one way to assert individualism inside a bland corporate identity. It tells the world, ‘I’m not a number, I’m a free man! A free man overly fond of Pikachu!’ It can also be an act of mild rebellion, akin to leaving out the short and skinny bit of your school tie instead of the long, fat bit of your school tie that the man wants to see.
And then there’s sentimental desk décor, the talismans from loved ones from which you draw daily strength, reminding you why you shackled yourself to the capitalist cart horse in the first place. These are the photos, drawings and poorly made pottery items that prove you exist outside of work, and more importantly, that once that lanyard’s off, you Sir or Madam, are loved.
TV show cast, crew and creators are no different to you and me. They need their favourite objects around them at work. Knick-knacks that cheer them on, show the world what kind of person they are, reference things they like, and sometimes, just sometimes, gently take the mick out of Robson Green.
Here are a few items of special significance to cast and crew tucked away in the background of familiar TV sets…
Creator and star Tina Fey gives a set tour in the 30 Rock season seven DVD extras in which she points out a few nerdy details nesting in the back of shot in Liz Lemon’s office. Look closely at Lemon’s bulletin board and you’ll see photographs of Tina Fey’s daughter aged one, as well as a picture that “makes the world collapse a bit” in Fey’s words. It’s a framed Bust magazine cover starring Saturday Night Live and Parks And Recreation’s Amy Poehler. “If that’s Amy Poehler, then who am I?” says Fey, “Turns into The Step Father, Terry O’Quinn. Look it up.”
(Incidentally, that’s not the only non-Parks And Recreation NBC sitcom in which a photo of Amy Poehler appears. In Community episode Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking, Troy rants next to a stock image of a young Poehler dressed as a candy-striper.)
A few sites have taken credit for this discovery over the years, but the earliest we can find is this 2010 Furious Fan Boys post which references multiple appearances of a Hans Solo-in-Carbonite model in the background of Firefly episodes.
The story goes that the prop was snuck in to the background of several scenes by the production design team to reflect lead Nathan Fillion’s personal love of Solo, and no doubt as a nod towards the inspiration for the character of Mal Reynolds. See more screengrabs from other Firefly episodes in this blog post.
A BBC Three extra in which Sinead Keenan gave a tour of Being Human‘s new Honolulu Heights series three set revealed that the set dressers were having a bit of fun at the expense of Robson Green, who played recurring character McNair on the show.
According to Keenan, behind the house bar, amid a stack of cassette tapes is an album recorded by Robson Green “when he used to be a singer.” Would that be solo album Moment In Time, or one of the fruits of his team-up with Game Of Thrones and Ripper Street’s Jerome Flynn?
One of the many gems in GQ’s Oral History Of Cheers is Ted Danson’s account of a paint-job that almost caused a cast revolt.
Actor Nicholas Colasanto’s diminishing health during the filming of his final season as “Coach” Ernie Pantuso made it difficult to remember his lines. One solution was to scribble them on and around the set as required.
“There wasn’t a surface on set that didn’t have his lines written down,” remembers Danson. “There was one episode where a friend of Coach dies, and he says, “It’s as if he’s still with us now.” Nick had written the line on the wood slats by the stairs the actors would use to enter the studio. Nicky dies, and the next year, we’re all devastated, and the first night we come down the stairs, right there was his line: “It’s as if he’s still with us now.” And so every episode, we’d go by it and pat it as we’d come down to be introduced to the audience. And then, one year, they repainted the sets and they painted over the line. People almost quit. Seriously. They were so emotionally infuriated that that had been taken away from them.”
Another prop, the photograph of Native American leader Geronimo that hangs in the alcove behind the bar from season four onwards, belonged to Colasanto and used to hang as a good luck charm in his dressing room. Cheers’ final scene showed Sam straighten up the picture before closing up the bar for the last time.
Doctor Who production designer, Michael Pickwoad, explains in this behind-the-scenes tour of the series eight TARDIS that the round lamps decorating the walls of Capaldi’s Doctor’s TARDIS console room are made from the same moulds as used to make a part of the Doctor’s long-time foe, the Daleks.
“These lamps are the middle of the three Dalek head rings,” says Pickwoad. “We were after something when designing it that would be a suitable round shape and we realised we had the mould for these, so we thought this was a very good shape to have and also, of course, Dalek technology and TARDIS technology are not too dissimilar…”
Da Vinci’s Demons
Speaking of the TARDIS, former Doctor Who Production Designer Ed Thomas took some poetic licence when dressing Leonardo da Vinci’s workshop for Starz series Da Vinci’s Demons, by including a few anachronistic sketches. “On his desk in the workshop set there is a drawing of the TARDIS that he designed! Leonardo definitely designed the TARDIS.”
Additionally, had you looked upwards from the same workshop set, you’d have seen that the roof structure references the shape of the famous Bat symbol, as a nod to Da Vinci’s Demons creator’s DC Comics work on The Dark Knight and more. “When you stand from up there looking down, it takes on the shape of the Bat symbol,” Ed Thomas told us, “that was just a nod to David Goyer.”
The Big Bang Theory
The clutter in the background of Leonard and Sheldon’s apartment The Big Bang Theory is home to numerous nerdy knick-knacks, but one recently added item is there in loving tribute.
As spotted by Jessica Radloff of Glamour Magazine during a set visit, a small photograph on the side of Leonard and Sheldon’s fridge of is actor Carol Ann Susi, who provided the voice of Howard Walowitz’s unseen mother on the show until her sadly premature death from cancer in 2014.
This one commemorates a real-life friendship. Look closely at the photographs decorating Amber Holt’s apartment in Parenthood season six and seven, and you’ll see a picture of Amber, aka actor Mae Whitman, with her real-life pal Alia Shawkat, as children. The pair starred together in Arrested Development as Maeby Funke and Anne Her? Veal. That one comes thanks to this mini set-tour by the show’s Miles Heizer.
The Flash production designer Tylor Harron shows us around the season one police precinct and S.T.A.R. Labs in this brief video, noting as he does that Barry Allen’s evidence wall, when it doesn’t feature pictures of the cast, is filled up with mugshots kindly provided by (unidentified) members of The Flash crew.
This one’s more a practical storage issue than anything particularly nerdy or sentimental, but it tickled us. Among the mystical and historical artefacts that filled the shelves of Warehouse 13 in its time are some personal items belonging to the crew and studio. According to this behind-the-scenes cast interview, Director of Photography Michael McMerry dressed the warehouse set with some golf clubs that were cluttering up his home, at his wife’s behest. “My wife said get ‘em out of here, so I brought them to the Warehouse 13 set and threw them on the shelves.”
Also filling up space in the warehouse was a 60-inch TV screen wrapped in plastic which had been pulled off a bureau by the young son of Warehouse 13 actor Eddie McClintock during the show’s first year. “We didn’t know what to do with it, so we put it in the warehouse.”
The IT Crowd
Less sentimental significance, more referencing fun, now. The best-dressed nerdy TV office of them all is that belonging to the Reynholm Industries IT department in The IT Crowd.
According to this series three behind-the-scenes feature, creator Graham Linehan asked for suggestions for set-dressing items on his website and was duly sent a bunch of merchandise from comics artists and companies. There are copies of Mustard Magazine, comics by the Hernandez Brothers, Alan Moore character figurines, a copy of Bill Gates’ famous mugshot, items from Fantagraphics including an Eightball figurine, an Oric computer sent in from a museum and more. According to Linehan, specific permission was personally granted by Joss Whedon for an image from Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog to be shown in the back of shots.
The references made by one particular item is less obvious at first glance, but no less nerdy: the office stapler. “We have a stapler in the series at one point and it had to be this stapler,” explains Linehan, “it had to look like the stapler from [Mike Judge’s] Office Space, basically.”
Come back next time to read “The nerdy details of TV show costumes”.