Heritage Is The New Hollywood
Historic houses have seen a surge in popularity due to series such as Bridgerton and The Crown, but what does it take to bring these majestic homes to the big screen?
APRIL 3rd, 2021
here has long been a fascination with historic houses. From the majestic opulence of Chatsworth House, to the grandeur of Castle Howard; these timestamps of bygone eras have captivated the imagination of the world for centuries. And yet, in recent years that appeal has grown much more potent than ever before through the influx of investment by film and TV production companies.
Throughout lockdown these stately homes have been shut to the public, and yet their popularity has skyrocketed as stay-at-home audiences resort to streaming services to keep themselves entertained. With juggernaut hits like The Crown and Bridgerton dominating the public consensus for programming, the locations and historic houses used to bring these dramas to life have themselves been injected with renewed interest. The result has seen these lavish homes become the essential tourist destination request once lockdown is lifted and travelling both nationally and internationally can resume.
But what is it about our British heritage and historic homes that continue to garner the attention of Hollywood? According to Julie Ann Robinson, Golden Globe and Bafta nominated director and producer of Bridgerton, who recently took part in a World Monuments Fund Britain seminar, they add a sense of authenticity. “There’s nothing like shooting in an historic house,” she says. “You could never build these houses, it’s not practical to build them even in CGI terms; to build them if you want to go back and use them frequently. There’s an atmosphere that’s captured and it invigorates the actors.”
This is a sentiment shared by actor Nell Hudson who has starred in acclaimed series such as ITV’s Victoria, Outlander and most recently, Netflix’s The Irregulars. “There’s just nothing like the real thing for us actors, having to make-believe that you are wherever you are and whatever time the period drama is set in,” she explains. “When you’ve got a lighting guy, sound crews and cameras in your face the bonus of actually being in a real historic place helps to transport you there, for sure. With a real location there’s no artifice, it’s the real deal, there’s that specific smell that you get in old houses, of the stone floors, and the polished wood; it’s so evocative and useful for transitioning into that time period.”
If Hollywood and production companies see an advantage to using historic homes to sell authenticity, then there must also be a benefit for the locations they choose to shoot at too?
For one such place, Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, the gains from exposure in period films and dramas, such as 2005’s Pride and Prejudice and 2008’s The Duchess, both starring Keira Knightley, have been astronomical. Sally Ambrose, Head of Marketing and Visitor Experience at Chatsworth has seen for herself the surge in popularity of the historic home of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. “We absolutely love period dramas, they really help to bring the house and the gardens to life in such a magical and splendid way.
“In 2005 with Pride and Prejudice there were alot of people who came [to Chatsworth] on the back of the film,” says Sally. “And of course film tourism is so popular and people still visit Chatsworth today, some of them dressed as Lizzy Bennet; some of them just wanting to be in the spot where she stood. It’s fantastic that it still continues today, but it’s because it’s such a classic, in terms of Jane Austin’s book, that it will continue, I think, just forever.”
Similarly with Pride and Prejudice, Chatsworth was also used for the film retelling of one of the house’s former residents - Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire. The 2008 film The Duchess partnered Keira Knightley once again with the historic house, though this time, due to her heightened star power since 2005’s interpretation of the Jane Austin classic, the level of interest in the production hit new heights. “People wanted to have the first photograph of Keira in her dress as Georgiana with the wig and the hat looking amazing,” Sally explains, “and we basically ended up placing ‘spotters’ on the roof trying to stop journalists and others with cameras from taking photos and selling them. The security was intense.”
At the time, a photograph of Keira Knightley dressed as Georgiana was expected to sell for around $100,000, which provides an idea of the frenzy faced by Chatsworth’s staff.
Whilst the crew enjoyed the locations and the benefits of these productions, using these historic sites in place of CGI and sets, the financial advantages have also helped to keep these sites open to the public. With Chatsworth, all of the inadvertent profits which result from the productions that have taken place there go back into investing in the upkeep and maintenance of the house and gardens. The same can be said for Castle Howard too. These types of investments enable these historic buildings to look their best and attract future projects.
With the success of Bridgerton in particular, the popularity of the UK’s heritage sites as filming locations have exploded to unprecedented levels. Netflix (once again) used parts of the Lake District and Yorkshire to film the second series of The Witcher. The new series All Creatures Great and Small, which has become a surprise hit in the U.S., showcased the Yorkshire Dales to an American audience who had never even heard of “Yorkshire” before. The UK has quickly become the centrepiece of the film industry with our valuable heritage sites becoming our crown jewels.
Sally Joynson, Chief Executive of Screen Yorkshire explained how the North of England, particularly Yorkshire, has become an increasingly popular location for film shoots. “Yorkshire has had the fastest rate of screen industry growth of anywhere in the UK. This is over a five, six year period; fastest rate of growth, faster than London and the Southeast, so it gives you an idea of just how dynamic this industry is in the region.
“If you take a really successful series like Bridgerton, Netflix estimates that 82 million households worldwide have seen that show since its debut in December; that’s 76 countries,” describes Sally, “and you should be very pleased about that if you're in Castle Howard."
That rate of growth is believed to be down to the high level of heritage sites across Yorkshire. With the ancient City of York, Castle Howard, Temple Newsam House and countless other locations dotted across the region, filmmakers are spoilt for choice. Yet, what are the practical challenges when filming in an historic house instead of a constructed set? For Julie Ann Robinson she faced a challenge on the set of Bridgerton which was more than a little awkward.
Using Castle Howard in Yorkshire for the Duke of Hastings’ holiday home Clyvedon Castle, the house would become the backdrop for the Duke and his new bride’s honeymoon, which inturn involved a hefty amount of intimate sex scenes.
“Castle Howard is fairly well known, I guess now, for the bedroom scenes [in Bridgerton],” says Julie, “and when we’re shooting those scenes on set there’s a rule of it being a closed set, so everyone who is superfluous to the scene has to leave and all the monitors are closed down and only absolutely essential personnel remain in the rooms.
“Unfortunately the room monitors, I was so surprised, would not leave the room and I was saying, ‘but this is a closed set’ and they said, ‘well yes it might be a closed set, but we can’t let you stay in the room alone to potentially damage it’, so that was a bit of a learning process.”
Things became much more awkward as filming of the scene between the Duke and Duchess in bed began. Situated in an original bed from the 1700’s, actor Regé-Jean Page, who played the Duke of Hastings, became a little too carried away. Julie explains, “On one of the historic beds the room monitor had to go up to him and say, ‘could you please take it easy on the bedposts please’.”
For Nell, this revelation came as humorous relief, “It’s reassuring that as an actor that if there is a room monitor in the room when you’re doing a love scene, they're not looking at you, they're just looking at the set; the bed; the soft furnishings.”
Although the process to bring these period dramas to life in their genuine surroundings which inspire them can come with complications, particularly in protecting the often priceless artefacts within, the overall experience is always a pleasant one. “We spent over two weeks at Castle Howard, which is quite unusual,” explains Julie when reminiscing about her time at Yorkshire’s iconic historic house. “We got to know every aspect of the house. We got to know the people who worked there really well and it was a fantastic experience.”
The same could be said for Nell Hudson who filmed Victoria at Harewood House - also in Yorkshire. “Because we filmed quite frequently there it started to feel like home from home really, and we got to know the staff a fair bit and have a good relationship with them.
“Also what people might not know is in-between filming there’s a lot of waiting around,” she explains. “So Harewood House has a vast plethora of activities for the public when they visit, and I found myself, when waiting around between scenes, enjoying them. I was climbing trees, much to the annoyance of the costume department, and I even once went into the adventure playground in full Victorian maid garb. I went on the zip wire and I suddenly realised halfway through the sky that I might be caught in the back of a shot and there would be this really bizarre Victorian maid swinging through the air in the back of a shot, but it was one of the things that I loved about the house.”
With an increase in interest, the future looks bright for these historic locations and their continued relationship with the film industry. There are future investments across the country, including extensive development in new movie studios, which have been specifically located to be within driving distance to many heritage sites. Kent, Church Fenton and Leeds are but a short list of future development sites hoping to bring the magic of film to differing regions.
And the historic houses and estates themselves are already preparing for future projects. “We’re using our quarry.” says Sally Ambrose from Chatsworth. “The Estate has several quarries including Elden Quarry, which is near Buxton. Apple TV is currently using this location to film for a science fiction production of which I am not allowed to talk about at the moment, but it will be out soon."
Bridgerton has begun production on their second season, returning to Bath to start filming. “We’re all really excited to be back,” reveals Julie. “Of course there is a whole lot of secrecy over what I can say, but we feel we’ve recaptured the escapism and fairytale of the first season all over again, and that is thanks to these stunning historic houses.”
“Opportunity.” That’s the word Sally Joynson from Screen Yorkshire uses to describe the future of filmmaking in Yorkshire, and the UK’s history and heritage footprint is a leading factor. “The UK is quickly becoming the global leader in production. Our filming bases are lucrative in such that they bring with them unique access to real-life, genuine historic locations. You can’t put a price on that, and more so Hollywood and America can’t really compete, so it’s about time we started using it to our own advantage.”
As the UK continues to make our way out of the pandemic and more begins to open up to the public, these historic sites remain a draw, not only for the British public, but around the world. Film and TV help sell these majestic snapshots of a bygone era, which in response, assist in authentically breathing life into the productions they facilitate. It is a partnership that works and works well, and one we should all promote and celebrate.
- To find our more about the amazing work that the World Monuments Fund Britain does, you can visit their website here.
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