How ‘Essex Serpent’ Crew Added Turmoil Through Designs

The Essex Serpent” production designer Alice Normington and costume designer Jane Petrie centered their work on the journey of the show’s protagonist Cora Seaborne, played by Claire Danes.

Based on the Sarah Perry novel, the six-part series, now stream- ing on Apple TV+, takes place in Victorian London and in a sea- side village plagued by rumors of a mythical beast. Newly widowed Cora has just moved to the Essex village, intrigued by the story of the serpent and ready to follow her passion to look for fossils.

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Normington’s designs touched on the idea of Heaven, Hell and Earth to portray Cora’s turmoil. When the character is at her London house, red tones are a reflection of her past as viewers learn about the abuse she suffered there. “That home is her hell, and the bedroom where she was abused is the mouth of hell,” explains the production designer. The red is meant to show “it was violent and passionate,” she explains.

When Cora leaves London for the seaside, she settles into a cottage that Normington painted with a touch of yellow in the whitewashed finish. “It’s the only color that symbolized sunshine, joy and happiness,” she says, reflecting the character’s state of mind.

The rectory, where Cora gets to know Tom Hiddleston’s Rev. William Ransome rather intimately, was decked in earthy and warm textures.

Cora’s turbulent past is also reflected in Petrie’s costume design. When audiences are first introduced to the character, in

London, her collars are high- necked and tight. For inspiration, Petrie turned to Britain’s aesthetic movement, which prioritized “art for art’s sake” amid the ugliness of the Industrial Age. “She’s incredibly fashionable, strong and elegant, but she’s controlled,” Petrie says.

Viewers learn that the tightness that Cora exhibits is a result of her abusive husband. Upon his death, when she moves to Essex, Petrie says a different Cora emerges, and the neckline soon changes: “As she discovers more about herself and the freedom of being inde- pendent from him, everything starts to loosen and open up.”

By the end, Cora’s newfound autonomy is reflected in the brighter colors and warmer tex- tures she wears, and she’s in an open-necked top. “Hopefully,” Petrie says, “there’s a clear visual journey through costume.”

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