Meet West Yorkshire's own film and TV set dresser

Duncan Windram-Wheeler was studying at Leeds University when he turned his back on a planned career in the oil industry to become a stage hand at Leeds Playhouse.

He has since gone on to work as a production buyer and set dresser on a number of hugely successful films and television shows including The Full Monty, Red Dwarf, A Touch of Frost, The 51st State and Four Lions.

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His work on Leeds-set drama Red Riding 1974 was recently nominated for a Bafta.

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The 60-year-old lives in Heptonstall near Hebden Bridge with his wife Nicola.

The couple have three children, Max, 29, Florence, 21, and Marcus, 15.


"In 1968 I was working in America as part of my degree in Fuel Science at Leeds when I realised that it just wasn't the career for me.

My father had been a scientist all his life and enjoyed it but I didn't, so a friend and I walked into Leeds Playhouse on Calverley Street and asked for a job.

"The stage manager looked at us, saw that we were quite big lads, and said: "Four and six an hour, you can start tonight."

If he had said 'no' I don't know what I would have done.

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"At home I have a database of 12,500 contacts who between them can supply just about anything.

"The trick is realising what the director wants to achieve and what they can actually afford.

"When I did the first series of Red Dwarf the total production design budget was 6,000. We pulled every trick in the book to make that work.

I was going round begging bread crates off bakers to do ceilings.

I still have Lister's guitar from the first two series in a cupboard at home.

"My proudest moment was when I did a BBC2 film called Stone, Scissors, Paper and we had to teach the actor Ken Stott how to do coarse fishing, stonemasonry and wood carving. A reviewer said it was the closest thing to a French film ever made in Britain.

"The one thing I couldn't live without is my wife Nicola.

We met at Crewe Rep in 1973 when I was stage manager and she was the wardrobe mistress.

She keeps me sane and I don't think I would get through a week without her.

"The last time I cried was when David Cameron became Prime Minister.

"As a set dresser you create an illusion and if people don't notice then you know you've succeeded.

Usually it's the small things that are the most difficult to pull off.

When we did 51st State there was a scene where Robert Carlyle grabs the steering wheel and the car goes off the motorway.

The police had said we could film on the M58 but then they said we couldn't. Instead we had to shoot it on the M60, but all the signs were wrong and my signmaker had no chance of getting new ones done in time.

The next morning I turned up at the council offices in Liverpool and asked the highways boss if he could help.

He ended up stopping all the work that day and everyone in the workshop started making our signs, then he drove them over himself and put them up.

"There was a lot of work and stress involved, but to anyone watching the film it was just a scene on a motorway.

"I like to get little things in scenes just to amuse myself.

In Red Riding 1974 there was a swan motif running right through it so I tried to get a swan into every set.

The most difficult scene was the one in the newspaper editor's office. In the end I settled on a vintage box of Swan Vestas.

"My childhood was a long time ago in black and white.

Growing up in Derby in the 1950s was provincial and boring. It didn't help that I had bad asthma.

"To relax I like watching old films and gardening.

I like film noir, there is a style about it that is quite remarkable. I enjoy watching the way a film is put together and often how simply they do it.

"One of my favourite films is Casablanca, which I have seen so many times. I love the way it is so subtly played.

"The thing that might surprise people about me is that I'm not a neurotic, egomaniac alcoholic. I think people expect that if you work in films.

"It was Dylan Thomas who came up with the best description of the film industry when he said: "There is nothing but glib, naive insincerity in this huge, tin roof bag of tricks."

That describes every producer I've ever met.

"I love Yorkshire because it's 200 miles from London. If I drive three minutes from my house I'm in the moors. It's a glorious place to live.

"I'm an ambassador for the Industry Trust, which promotes copyright and all the great stuff it does for the film and TV industry.

"The film industry in Britain employs 150,000 people but it's run on a shoestring and directors depend on money from sales to develop and finance their next projects.

Each time you illegally download a film you're taking work away from people. You wouldn't walk into WHSmith and steal a DVD, but if you download it that's exactly what you're doing.

"If we're not careful, we'll kill off the film industry in this country and just be left with wall-to-wall American movies."