The National Trust houses in Somerset where top dramas were filmed
When it came to the filming of the 2015 BBC adaptation of Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, director Peter Kosminsky wanted to stay authentic to the Tudor period and light the set with as many candles as he could. Given that the set was the late Elizabethan mansion and Grade I listed Somerset property Montacute Hall, with the opulent Tudor interiors of original stained glass windows, precious panelling and irreplaceable paintings, the National Trust had to advise caution. This task arrived at the feet of Harvey Edgington, the senior filming and locations manager at the National Trust, who set about deciding how many candles they could have, what type they would be, how close they should stand to the wall, how many fire extinguishers should be on hand and so on.
: The Somerset pub famed for its visits by Kate Winslet and Alan Rickman as it appeared in acclaimed film Mr Edgington admits that these logistics can get “quite complicated”, but with the exception of the odd gate post felled by a passing truck, they have yet to incur any major damage to the National Trust properties while filming the dramas of the small and silver screen. This is owing to the extreme caution of the filming and locations team when it comes to protecting the conservation of the properties; they even have freelance conservators on shoots to act as their “eyes and ears”.
Mr Edgington said: “My job is to make sure that [productions] film what they need, but also that the house is exactly the same when they leave as it was when they arrived.” This can throw up a lot of “nitty gritty things” that need to be accommodated. In the case of the 2005 film Pride and Prejudice, in which Basildon Park in Berkshire played the central role of Mr Bingley’s house Netherfield, the carpet had to be removed from the property through the first floor window, which required 25 people and a scissor lift.
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The Wolf Hall candles posed a slight danger to the opulent Tudor interiors of Somerset’s Montacute House (Image: BBC)
From Bridgerton and The Crown to Downton Abbey and Poldark, period drama, fantasy worlds and fairy tale have become lucrative business for the UK’s most historic houses. Mr Edgington described the use of National Trust locations as “very good publicity”, allowing the charity to promote their properties and bring in valuable income through film tourism, which goes towards the charity’s vital conservation work. Yet, they are careful in balancing the location shoots with their 5.6 million members and as a result try to avoid closing properties unless absolutely necessary – but, sometimes, it is.
Mr Edginton said: “At the end of the day, it’s a factory process happening in a location, so you can’t have the public yomping all over it. “We get very few complaints because they understand that all the money from filming goes back into those properties and conservation.” The charity’s income from production bookings is itself a “sizable chunk” of money – the National Trust earned a reported GBP4 million in the past two years – but this still doesn’t compare to the daily revenue from catering and retail at their stately homes.
However, in terms of driving visitors to the properties, filming is “probably worth more than the fees” and offers what could potentially be global publicity for free. Mr Edgington said: “We don’t do any publicity while it’s being shot, because we don’t want the film shoot to become a tourist attraction itself. “So, we don’t say Johnny Depp’s on the high street, but we track down the publicist and then when the film is coming out, we try to sail in on the back of their publicity and do joint public things, so it’s a partnership.”
Netflix’s Bridgerton was partially filmed at the Temple of Venus in Stowe (Image: NETFLIX)
The charity typically uses visitor numbers as the barometer of a film or TV series’ impact on tourism, with numbers at Antony House in Cornwall quadrupling after its formal gardens and sculptures were used as the backdrop for Tim Burton’s 2010 Alice in Wonderland.
When this metric vanished during the pandemic, the National Trust turned to website visitors to gauge the impact of Netflix’s The Dig, which was not filmed at a National Trust property, but follows archaeologist Basil Brown as he uncovers Sutton Hoo. The Ralph Fiennes led film resulted in 420,000 views to the National Trust Sutton Hoo page, when they would normally be “looking at best about 25”. While the film was released during the third national lockdown, the Trust also noticed more people arriving at the medieval burial ship site to take their government sanctioned ‘one exercise a day’ outing.
“The nice thing about film tourism is it kind of lasts,” Mr Edgington said. “We’ve still got people going to Castle Ward in Northern Ireland because of Game of Thrones. Harry Potter fans still go to Lacock. “We still get visitors going to Lyme Park in Cheshire, where Colin Firth went for the swim in Pride and Prejudice back in the day.”
As a result of Mr Darcy’s infamous ‘wet-shirt’ scene, which saw Colin Firth stride out of a Pemberley pond in a sodden white shirt, visitor numbers at the house rose from 32,852 in 1994 to 91,437 in 1995 – an increase of 178 percent, according to research conducted by Olsberg. The 1995 BBC drama is still worth an estimated GBP900,000 a year to Lyme Park, Mr Edgington said.
Mr Darcy’s infamous ‘wet-shirt’ moment (Image: BBC)
While filming projects ground to a halt last March, by June it had begun to pick up again after the film industry was given an exemption from coronavirus restrictions and the government agreed to underwrite the insurance if filming was forced to stop due to Covid-19. The crews followed strict regulations, with Covid tests every two days, and the National Trust was able to bring the shoots back onto their locations.
Mr Edgington said: “We managed to bring in two or three big projects last year and salvaged a couple from March, but it has been difficult and we’re probably not at the same peak that we were.” He said the team were “quite proud” they managed to complete five large productions last winter on multiple locations, which included a Netflix production, one for Amazon and a “big costume drama” for the BBC. The Trust’s bookings have become an equal split between those from the terrestrial services of the BBC and ITV and the streaming giants of Netflix, Amazon and even Apple.
“The trend over the last two or three years has definitely been supported by Netflix and Amazon and now Apple TV,” Mr Edgington said. “Netflix have made a massive commitment to shooting in the UK. “What’s interesting is I think the BBC and ITV have to compete. They have to do their own drama series, to try and draw viewers away from Netflix and Amazon, so we’re benefiting from that competition.”
Mr Edgington and his fellow filming and locations manager Lauren Taylor have endless tall tales to tell from shoots since their team was set up in 2003 – their co-authored book National Trust on Screen goes behind the scenes of some of the most iconic film and TV moments.
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