Smashed antiques, ripped oil paintings and the perils of letting a film crew into your stately home

·6-min read
Chavenage House stars alongside Aidan Turner in Poldark - Robert Viglasky Photography
Chavenage House stars alongside Aidan Turner in Poldark - Robert Viglasky Photography

When a fleet of white lorries made its way to Highclere Castle in Hampshire early last year, bearing the crew for the new Downton Abbey film, Fiona, Countess of Carnarvon, breathed a sigh of relief. “It was life-affirming; it felt as if a bit of normality was returning,” she says. “Everyone was nervous, as we were still in a pandemic, but we loved having them here, and so did the dogs.”

The Countess, who has overseen the filming of Downton’s six series and two films at her family’s 5,000-acre estate is not the only stately home owner to be pleased to see the cameras. Eleanor, Duchess of Argyll, was delighted when the film company behind A Very British Scandal arrived at Inveraray Castle, her husband’s family seat in Scotland, last year – even though the story, which tells of the toxic divorce of the 11th Duke from his wife, Margaret Campbell, wasn’t going to be a positive one.

“If you’re lucky enough to own a stately home, you do anything you can to boost the roof fund,” she says. “We figured that there’s no one left to be really upset by the story, so if someone wants to pay to film at the house, and publicise it, then great.”

Since the start of the pandemic, Mark Ellis, a location manager who has worked on TV costume dramas such as Downton, another Julian Fellowes series Belgravia and Emily Mortimer’s adaptation of The Pursuit of Love, has regularly received calls from aristocrats looking to capitalise on Britain’s booming film industry, which was worth £3.6 billion in the first half of 2021. “They all seem to know each other – and a lot of them are really skint,” Ellis says. “One day you’ll be with the Duke of Northumberland, and the next day a countess will be calling to say she’s interested in having a film crew at her house.”

No wonder, given that visitor numbers halved during the pandemic, and Netflix, Amazon and Disney offer stately home owners between £3,000 and £20,000 per day (or up to £60,000 for a royal palace such as Hampton Court) to use their homes as locations.

Of course, not every duke or duchess can tolerate a 150-strong crew invading their home. According to Caroline Lowsley-Williams, whose family home, Chavenage House in Gloucestershire, starred as Trenwith in the BBC’s Poldark and is now regularly used as a location, some are too rich or too precious. “You have to be the right character to accept it,” she says. Given that Chavenage is also available as a wedding venue, Lowsley-Williams says she is used to “people wandering through our house and being sick on the lawn”.

While filming doesn’t involve life-changing sums of money – a stately home can cost more than £1 million to run each year – it still makes a difference. Poldark paid for nine sets of curtains, endless repainting and a new lawnmower, while visitor numbers duly increased.

Dominic West and equine co-star on set at Badminton House for The Pursuit of Love - Robert Viglasky Photography
Dominic West and equine co-star on set at Badminton House for The Pursuit of Love - Robert Viglasky Photography

Such is her experience of handling film crews that Lowsley-Williams is now invited to talk on the subject to other stately home owners, but when the Poldark crew first turned up she had to get used to a whole new way of working: 13-hour days, the demand for silence when the camera is rolling (not easy when you have free-range chickens) and a maddening amount of waste from the props department, who will call in five bouquets of flowers when they’re only filming one.

For filming to be a positive experience, you as the owner need to be clear about what the crew can and cannot do and where they have access, warns the Countess of Carnarvon. The rule at Highclere is that the crew never touches anything; if a piece of furniture or a painting needs to be moved it must be done by the Countess’s staff – Ellis suspects this is because of an incident on the inaugural day of filming Downton, when a turquoise chest belonging to the Countess was knocked onto the floor and broken. “It turned out to be one of her prize possessions and had to be sent to Sotheby’s for repair,” he recalls.

There was another disaster at Highclere some years later when hundreds of gallons of diesel leaked from a generator, contaminating the surrounding ground. “We had to get a specialist company to come in and dig it up,” Ellis says. “And we had to do it really quickly as there was a wedding taking place at the weekend.”

All breakages and damage are, of course, covered by the film crew’s insurance but Ellis dreads owning up. “It’s a tense, high-pressure situation... but we talk it through, I never bluff, I apologise and we get it sorted out.” He remembers a crew member at a different stately location enthusiastically stapling blackout curtains to 15th-century beams, costing the film crew £15 per staple in repair bills, and another occasion where a crew security guard knocked a piece of timber through an oil painting. “Would I let a film crew in my house? Never,” he laughs.

Maggie Smith filming Downton Abbey at Highclere Castle - ITV
Maggie Smith filming Downton Abbey at Highclere Castle - ITV

Karin, Lady Mander of Owlpen Manor, a Tudor manor house in Gloucestershire, which was the location for the 2017 historical drama Phantom Thread, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, is inclined to agree. “It was terrible,” she says. “The film crew was utterly charming but they mission-crept over the whole house, taking one room after the next until the only room I had to myself was the back hall.”

She grew fed up with the house being covered in scaffolding and the windows blacked out, and people and equipment everywhere from dawn until twilight. It was still worth it, though, Lady Mander concedes, not just for the money that they reinvested in the house but for the friends they made among the cast and crew. “My husband still exchanges letters with Daniel Day-Lewis,” she says.

According to Lowsley-Williams, it’s essential to swot up on the subject matter before signing a contract – you don’t want to be the scene of something sordid. But when the cameras are rolling, you have to let go, she adds. “It’s like giving a present; you can’t take it back.”

This often means putting up with some crazy antics: during the filming of Poldark the crew paid someone to pluck all the leaves off one of her trees to make it look as if it were dead. “I couldn’t understand the logic when there were other dead trees around, but apparently this was the tree they wanted,” she says.

While Poppy Gordon Clark, location manager on Poldark and Sanditon, has found a lot of historic home owners to be “completely insane”, they also tend to be endlessly accommodating, she says. “I couldn’t believe it when the Duke of Beaufort allowed a horse to be ridden into the house during the filming of The Pursuit of Love,” agrees Ellis. “People assume it’s CGI but it isn’t; he simply wasn’t precious about it.”

Perhaps, Gordon Clark muses, the two worlds rub along so well because the owners know it’s not forever. “The great thing is that the circus arrives, and then it disappears.”

Downton Abbey: A New Era is released on March 18

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