Historic buildings have had a long relationship with screens big and small. Many films and TV series wouldn’t have worked without that castle, church or stately home adding authenticity. As Iain Boyd writes, inviting the film crews in can be a vital source of income – and sometimes, as revealed on page ??, a fictional drama can point to a real hidden one
At the movies, there are not many moments of self-satisfaction for the historic building lover. Some may be found in impossible jumps of continuity where, for example in The Remains of The Day (1993), Anthony Hopkins closes the front door of Powderham Castle (Devon), nips through the corridors and scullery of Corsham Court (Wiltshire) and emerges on the lawns of Dyrham Park (Gloucestershire), in less than a minute.
More recently, in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood (2010) there is a graveyard scene where the gravedigger is liberally sprinkling quicklime from a ton bag on to the bodies below. Being a graveyard scene in a movie it is, quite naturally, pouring with rain, but their bag of lime is not frothing explosively, as one might expect. Perhaps it’s just another example of people using the wrong kind of lime. Needless to say, you may lose all your friends with this kind of insight.
But, generally, we are accustomed to the use, and tolerant of the misuse, of historic buildings in screen entertainment. So used to the idea, in fact, that Richard Curtis could happily write a “shooting on period location” scene into Notting Hill (1999) and know that viewers would understand exactly what was going on. In the scene, Hugh Grant bumbles about a film set in North London, in which there are people in both 20th- and 19th-century clothing, period coaches and horses next to modern trucks, machinery and film equipment, while nearby, lamb-chopwhiskered gentlemen clutch plastic coffee cups and cigarettes. And, in the the middle of the action, Kenwood House, Hampstead, stands simultaneously as its 18th-century self, but also pretending to be a 19th-century fictional building while also existing as a 20th-century film location for hire.
Using grand and historic buildings as film locations has a long pedigree. The National Trust when Cary Grant filmed scenes for The Grass is Greener at Osterley Park,West London. At a time when country estates were looking for news ideas for revenue, other owners and groups quickly saw the attraction. The Historic Houses Association set many of the standards when Norman Hudson worked with Castle Howard, North Yorkshire, to provide the setting for Brideshead Revisited (1981 and again in 2008). English Heritage properties and the Landmark Trust’s buildings are all available for hire, as are many of the MoD’s 45,000 buildings, Historic Royal Palaces including Kensington Palace and Hampton Court, fire-stations, cottages, most court houses, and, it seems, almost any other building in England through a network of location agencies, film agencies and specialist location finders.
NOW, imagine Michael Caine delivering this line: “Two unusual windmills on the South Downs. They must be buildings of historical interest! They might even be protected by the National Trust!” In the 1974 film The Black Windmill the SPAB itself plays a crucial role, as Caine and his wife track down the hiding place of their son’s kidnappers. His wife, the more astute Janet Suzman, ignores the NT idea and wisely heads straight for the “Wind and Watermills Section of the SPAB” which was at the time housed at Number 55 Great Ormond Street, Bloomsbury, in central London, along with the main SPAB. Legendary SPAB Secretary Monica Dance herself appears in the next scene, as Suzman briefly searches through the SPAB’s records and photos. Happily, it turns out that the windmills are indeed unusual, and protected, and the end sequence is quite an exciting shoot-out on location at the Jack and Jill Windmills on the Sussex Downs.
So, why does this need to shoot in period locations exist? For the film producer the answer is simple: a location offers direct access to an immediately available, authentic setting when the only alternatives are to build large sets or to create backgrounds digitally in a computer (though in reality all three techniques are often used and edited seamlessly together; see any Harry Potter film.) But other crew members also have their reasons for liking locations; some actors find it easier to get into character in a period setting, and directors of photography get rare opportunities to incorporate architecture on a scale and richness that could never be encountered at Pinewood studios.
Occasionally, filming calls for a specific building for historic reasons, for example St Paul’s Cathedral for the memorial service that opens Lawrence of Arabia (1962), but a historic location principally serves as an agent to invoke the moods and textures of particular periods. While architectural and period accuracy are desirable, these often take a back seat to matters of accessibility and geography which drive the logistics of a large shoot. Hammer Films, based at Bray, Berkshire, often needed gothic detail for atmosphere, but were so limited on budget they rarely went further than Oakley Court, a Victorian house within walking distance of the studio.
The UK Film Council estimates the total spend on filming and location tourism to be more than £1bn a year, some of which trickles down to contribute to a building’s conservation. Many historic buildings need to pursue new ways of generating income, and renting out as a film location is a good option. Many owners and managers freely admit to enjoying the experience (including the usually fine catering).
The day rate for hiring a property as a location ranges from a few hundred pounds for small-scale TV to a few thousand for television drama and up to £10,000-£12,000 a day for a feature film. Preparation and clearout days are paid at half this rate, and filming will usually take days and, occasionally, weeks. This can rapidly add up to very attractive sums for a property, but it is not an income stream that can be relied on in any one year, especially if the property is a long way from London and the studios clustered in the Thames Valley.
A large production can bring benefits not just to the property itself but to the surrounding community as well. A production that spent one week filming in Cornwall in 2009 is estimated to have brought in more than half a million pounds to the immediate area.
The question for the owners and managers of historic buildings is whether the attendant risks are worth it. Alan Bennett painted an apprehensive but accurate picture during the filming of The Madness of King George (1994) at Arundel Castle, West Sussex.
“Onto this rural paradise the film unit descended like an invading army. Twenty or so vans have ploughed up one of the meadows, thirty cars are parked under the trees; there are half a dozen caravans, two marquees and the sodden ground is turning into a quagmire. Churning up the edges of the perfect lawns, company cars ferry the actors to the location. In the house the ‘sparks’ lug their lights and tripods down the superbly vaulted corridors”
While a TV drama shoot may only involve a few dozen people, and TV documentaries perhaps only one or two, the complete “unit” for a feature film will comprise well over 100 technicians, actors, drivers and all those other filmon location unrecognised functions that roll by in the end credits of movies. But, it should be remembered, the film business is staffed almost entirely by freelancers in a very competitive environment and by and large their conduct is extremely considered and professional.
A survey in 2008 showed that the number of cases where there was damage of any kind was less than 10 per cent of all shoots. Of these, the most serious was to a gate pier at Montacute House, Somerset, costing £5,000 in repairs. Interior damage was usually described as “minor wear and tear”, often to carpets. Clive Martin, who formerly handled filming in HM Courts, reported only two, very minor instances in more than 60 shoots in 2007. Most reported damage was exterior, usually vehicle damage to grass verges and driveways, rather as described by Alan Bennett. There were no fires, no incidents of theft and no family portraits melted by lights.
But it is still a concern that is echoed by the curators of historic buildings, and rightly so. It might reasonably be argued that it is the very quality of the care taken by staff that reduces the risk and incident of damage. The National Trust standard contract for filming contains no fewer than 116 clauses which detail everything from the use of artificial snow to the use of hairspray inside a house, and many of those provisions have been formulated as a result of direct, hopefully not too bitter, experience.
During filming at Syon Park, West London, in 1995, more than 500 candles were lit to lend atmosphere to a ballroom scene in Pride and Prejudice. Concealed among the extras were 12 NT conservation staff, in costume, working undercover, and on the lookout for fire accidents.
There is another kind of risk posed by too close a link with a film if it is very popular and results in the phenomenon of “film-induced tourism”. This might translate into unmanageable numbers of visitors with associated footfall and parking problems. Or it might mean that the very perception of a building changes when the largest proportion of visitors is not coming for traditional architectural or historic reasons. Alnwick Castle in Northumberland has fought hard in recent years to be associated more with Harry Hotspur than Harry Potter.
AT other places radical change has come about as the result of a film association. In Midlothian, the Rosslyn Chapel’s visitor numbers swelled from 30,000 to nearly 200,000 a year thanks to the chapel’s role in The Da Vinci Code (2006) and this in turn has led to more than £7m in grants from Historic Scotland and the Heritage Lottery Fund, a new visitor centre, toilets and car park. This might be all regarded as beneficial, but as Stuart Beattie, director of the chapel, said in 2007: “I think the image of the building can be distorted away from its true purpose. It becomes a ‘set’ and the real history and the value for a site becomes diminished.”
One might assume this is a short-term problem but, a generation on from the making of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), more than half the visitors to Doune Castle in Scotland are on a Python pilgrimage (think coconut shells – which you can rent at the gift shop if you’ve forgotten your own).
On balance, however, the movie location business is good for historic buildings. Filming brings in relatively easy extra income. The owners of the buildings generally report very favourably on the whole business, with the BBC being rated as the best all-round client for efficiency, speed of payment and courtesy.
Films and television play an important role, perhaps the leading one, in keeping the built heritage in contemporary culture. The National Trust reckons that its participation in television alone is worth more than £100m in advertising and PR each year, which they couldn’t get any other way. It is extraordinary that all this benefit occurs as a spin-off from the film and TV industry
WHILE there are thousands of buildings that have appeared on screen, there are probably 50 or 60 historic buildings in the UK that are used frequently. The top ten would include Knebworth, Luton Hoo, Somerset House, Eton College, Wilton House, The Royal Naval College Chapel at Greenwich, Blenheim Palace, Alnwick Castle, Hatfield House and St Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield. The last, for example, has appeared in Four Weddings and a Funeral, Shakespeare in Love, The End of the Affair, Amazing Grace, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, The Other Boleyn Girl, and on TV in Madame Bovary, The Real Sherlock Holmes, Spooks and The League of Gentlemen.
There is some concern that the current round of government cuts will adversely affect the regional locations business with the closure of the UK Film Council and the probable loss of regional film development agencies. At present, £30m of Lottery money is channelled into the UK film industry, but this flow has been temporarily stopped. Harvey Edginton, Broadcast & Media Liaison Manager at the NT, calls it “unnecessary, given the amount the films funded have returned to the regions”. While this will undoubtedly be a hiccup, it will only be temporary; the locations business has always been at the mercy of externalities whether it be UK tax incentives, the US dollar exchange rate or the Hollywood writers’ strike.
But it is an industry where the two sides are very eager to do business with each other and location finders will always invest time to discover the perfect historic building.