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An interview with the creative force behind Palace’s festive themes

The creative talent behind Blenheim Palace’s exquisite indoor Christmas experiences for almost a decade has lifted the lid on the process involved in piecing them together.

Clare Elliot, a senior designer for Culture Creative, has designed and produced themes including Cinderella (2018), Alice in the Palace (2019), The Snow Queen (2022) and this year’s trail, Sleeping Beauty.

Together with a small team of designers, Clare, whose studio is in Belford, Northumberland, transforms the interior of the beautiful Oxfordshire palace with a spectacular re-imagining of the late 17th century fairy tale.

Clare has worked as a costume and set designer on BAFTA-winning films and TV series, including BAFTA award winners Wind in the Willows (1983), The Reluctant Dragon (1987) and The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship (1991).

Other credits include feature film Mars Attacks!, TV series Noddy, Bill and Ben, Andy Pandy, Postman Pat and many more.

Here she answers ten questions about the creative process involved in creating Sleeping Beauty, which opens to the public on Friday, November 17 and runs until Monday, January 1.

1, When did you start work on Sleeping Beauty and what was the first part of the project?

We started work on Sleeping Beauty in January. We finalise the storyboard and decide which part of the story will go in each of the Palace Rooms.

2, How many people are involved in the initial process and what are the key elements you consider when devising it?

We are a team of three at the start of the creative process. There’s myself, Jane and Tash and when interpreting the story for each room we consider the themes, the colours and the mood, as this is what makes the experience for the visitor. Not every room is dark or scary and there is light and shade throughout.

3, When does the prop-making begin in earnest and which pieces require the most time?

Prop-making begins in May. The main pieces which have required the most time are the Evil Fairy because she is over 10 foot tall; making the sleeping people look like they are breathing rather than lying still because this has been quite a technical process; and also the banks of flowers that we have created to dress the rooms – we have used thousands of flowers to create these.

4. Sleeping Beauty has some outdated themes by 21st century standards – what changes have you made to modernise the story and to make it accessible to all?

In our version of the story the Lilac Fairy reverses the Evil Fairy’s spell which breaks after a hundred years and reawakens Sleeping Beauty, in other versions it is the Prince who kisses her awake. So, our version focuses on life’s magic saving the day. We also don’t use long story scripts that visitors need to read, the story is interpreted visually. And, to keep younger visitors engaged we include a mouse trail.

5, Your studio in Northumberland is a considerable distance from Blenheim Palace – talk us through the logistics and timings of the transportation process.

To transport all the props requires six articulated lorries, and it takes the team over a week to pack everything up. There is no storage at the Palace so we need to ensure everything arrives in the right order and can go straight inside, so the timing of the deliveries and packing of the trucks is crucial.

6, How long do you allow to install the trail inside the palace and approximately how many people will be working on the set-up?

We have three days, and a team of more than 30 people on hand including those with much needed technical and lighting expertise. Plus the staff at the Palace are always around to support us and help with any issues that can arise. During those three days we have some very late nights, but seeing it come together and go from being an idea on a storyboard to a real experience is hugely rewarding for all of us.

7, You’re also involved in the outdoor trail at Blenheim Palace this year – tell us what you’re doing.

We have been involved with creating a Santa experience which includes an electric charging station for Santa’s sleighs, turning the Boat House into a Post Office, and dressing Santa Land with hundreds of metres of garland.

8. You provide an unlikely link between Postman Pat and Blenheim Palace – how?!

The unlikely link is that I worked on the remake of Postman Pat the TV series – making the puppet costumes, and this year’s trail at the Palace is all themed around Santa’s postal deliveries at Christmas.

9, Do you work on any other of Sony Music’s trails around the UK?

Yes, my team has created a series of floral arches for Christmas at Kew, and each year we design the props for the Santa grottos on each site.

10, What is the most satisfying part of your job?

Seeing the excited and delighted faces of the first visitors coming up the steps and through the huge front doors into the Palace. I also really enjoy working with the team throughout the year, everyone is so enthusiastic and invested in making the Palace experience so fantastic, that it makes every working day really pleasurable.

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