Flying Down to Whitehall:
Historic Locations Bring British Stories to Life 

by Jim Collette

“Votes for women!” The cry emanated from the Heavens, and a sudden “shower of handbills” descended upon the all-male heads of the House of Commons. A young woman unfurled a banner from the balcony above. “Mr. Speaker!” she shouted. “We have listened too long to the illogical utterances of men who know not what they say! We demand this government—” whereupon the sergeant-at-arms slapped a meaty hand across her mouth and gave a masculine yank. No go. Miss Helen Fox had padlocked herself to the banister. “For 40 years, we have listened behind this grille. We, the women of England!—“ And then—crack—the whole thing gave way. Women, police, sergeants-at-arms, and locksmiths tumbled to the gallery floor.

A view of the Crowns, situated on cliffs at Botallack, Cornwall. The Crowns tip toe on the edge of the cliff with a position that has made them possibly the most photographed engine houses in the entire World Heritage Site. Photo ©National Trust Images John Millar

Almost 100 years later, location manager Harriet Lawrence, LMGI had a script in her hand titled Suffragette, written by Abi Morgan and directed by Sarah Gavron. The story of women’s right to vote in the UK, including a rush on the House of Commons by dozens of suffragettes. “And it’s brutal,” says Harriet. “The police actually beat the suffragettes from horseback. It was quite violent.”

There was only one problem. No one had ever been filmed in the House of Commons. “And people asked, ‘are we going to Parliament?’” With trucks and crew and horses and “silly women” like Miss Helen Fox hanging from balconies? Knowing there were a handful of places that could double for Parliament—Manchester Town Hall, for example, had sufficed in The Iron Lady with Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher—Harriet boldly replied, “Why don’t we give it a go?” And the thinking quickly became—Why not? Let’s humor Harriet! Let’s let her go for tea with someone in Parliament! And it sort of grew. After a couple of months I began to think, ‘This might be possible.’

The landscapes of the United Kingdom are layered with deep time, from buried Roman mosaics to the bluestones of Stonehenge. Monuments to history—whether Neolithic, Tudor, Elizabethan or Art Deco—are everywhere. “We’re sort of littered with these things,” says location manager Pat Karam, LMGI, who had to straddle 400 years of British nation building when he sandwiched location duties for Mary Queen of Scots (2018) between Seasons 2 and 3 of The Crown.

An aerial view of HatfieldHouse. Photo courtesy of Hatfield House

The UK 2013 tax credit was extended to include high-end television, and with the drop in the pound and the turbo-boosting spends of Netflix & Sons, there’s been a flood of US productions. Historic properties are often used and reused, especially within the 20- to 30-mile radius of the M25 motorway encircling greater London. “If you’ve got a big country pile within striking distance of London, you do very well,” says Pat.

“It was very different seven or eight years ago when television was a much smaller beast. Now, the scale has grown exponentially. The Crown, for example, is enormous,” with 85 percent shot on location. “It’s as big as most films I’ve done. But, on a movie, you prep for two or three months, shoot for two or three months …you’ve got one director, one schedule, and every time you finish a day—that’s it! Whereas in TV, we shoot in blocks. So you’ll be filming with one director, prepping with two others—and then we do this charming thing where we shoot two full units of two hundred people running around in different parts of the country at the same time, which can do your head in!”

“We’ve never been busier for heritage locations,” says Tom Howard, LMGI, supervising location manager for The Secret Garden, with Julie Walters and Colin Firth. “Look at what’s out there—Mary Queen of Scots, The Favourite … we’ve got great stories from those periods, we’ve got the assets, we should be making more of this stuff because it’s all here. In many cases, the actor might be standing on the exact spot where the event happened. I remember taking an American director to London and it kind of blew his mind. Within a few steps you can take them through a thousand years of history. He said, ‘My God, this is older than America. We were just setting off in boats when this was built.’ And you walk them around and they go, ‘Can I use this?’ ‘No, that’s not Georgian. I know it looks good but it’s the wrong period. You need to be looking on this side of the street!’”

The old engine house of the tin and copper mines at Wheal Coates, Cornwall.

On the other hand, “We’re not obsessed with accuracy,” says Pat. “It’s not a documentary.” In The Crown, the royal family often visits their residence at Sandringham in Norfolk; “it plays a big part of their life.” But Stephen Dawdry, lead director for Season 1, preferred Englefield House, an Elizabethen residence and popular film location outside of London “because the feel of it was much better.”

The peril with that approach? “There’s a book by Hugo Vickers called The Crown: Truth & Fiction. He points out everything we got wrong!” But Pat is quick to point out that UK architecture does not always compartmentalize by time and style. On The Crown, “Even though it’s taking place in 1948 and whenever it ends up, the locations tend to be Georgian buildings. Buckingham Palace has elements from the 16, 17 and 1800s, right? Like most of these houses, they weren’t all put up in one go.”

This is the case with one of Tom’s favorite locations: Eltham Palace, once owned by eccentric textile millionaires, who did a time-tripping Art Deco renovation—with air raid shelter—to what had been a medieval palace. (And, yes, Henry VIII lived there too. “It’s where he met Anne Boleyn,” adds location manager Jane Soans, LMGI. “And why we’re not Catholic.”) The Art Deco interior recently underwent a £1.7 million restoration and will soon be featured in Misbehavior (2020) with Keira Knightley and Greg Kinnear as Bob Hope. The story takes place during the 1970 Miss World beauty pageant and, remarkably, it can be more difficult to find a decent mid-century than a King James drawing room in London. “A few years ago,” says Tom, “I had to find a cool seventies house and it took ages to locate because they’re getting knocked down left and right. People buy one of these carbuncles and say, ‘Now I’ve just got to flatten it and build something glossy and modern.’” For Misbehavior, Tom was once again “struggling” to nail down something with a vintage Los Angeles vibe when he and designer Cristina Casali thought: Why not put them in an Art Deco house that Bob Hope might have fancied? 

Fortunately, Eltham Palace remains unflattened and is now protected by English Heritage, one of two UK “charities” entrusted with preserving Britain’s past. English Heritage cares for 400 historic monuments like Hadrian’s Wall and is famous for its prominent “London Blue Plaques” which say things like Luke Howard: Namer of Clouds Lived Here. The other nonprofit—the National Trust—oversees 250 historical buildings, 500,000 acres of farmland and 700 miles of coastline, including the Giant’s Causeway, White Cliffs of Dover, and “all the beaches you see on Poldark” boasts Harvey Edgington, Head of Filming and Locations at the Trust Film Office. Fun fact: the two charities share “custody” of Stonehenge. “We look after the henge and English Heritage looks after the stones,” Harvey likes to say.

Filming Suffragette. Photo: Harriet Lawrence

The National Trust has existed for close to 125 years, originally to preserve land in the face of suburban sprawl. “There was a huge expansion between the wars,” explains Harvey, “due to an inheritance tax as we tried to pay for the First World War. A lot of people who would have inherited land didn’t come back from the trenches. And those who did, could find better paying jobs in the city.” In the end, many landed families “found themselves in a perilous state.” The solution: not pay the massive tax and leave the property to the National Trust for future generations to enjoy. Their film office fields 100 to 250 inquiries a month. “Some of these we head off at the pass,” says Harvey. “We were asked to do Transformers at Stonehenge and they wanted tanks and explosions. ‘This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site—it’s not going to happen!’ The producers probably knew this ‘deep down,’” he chuckles, but “they like to ask.” Still, out of all of those inquiries, “I’d say 70 percent of them get converted”—a remarkable success rate.

Like most UK location managers, Tom Howard has worked with both organizations, but enjoys the one-on-one from dealing direct. “You can talk to the owner of the picture on the wall, and say, ‘lovely picture of your great-great-grandfather, but it’s the wrong period. Mind if we take it down?’ And they’ll say, ‘Yeah, fine, we take it down all the time.’” Still, he sometimes meets “local resistance,” which results in conversations like: “Beautiful room, but can we pick that rug up?” Absolutely no way! “Oh, can we walk on the rug?” No! So, actually, we can’t shoot in this room, is that what you’re trying to say?

Hatfield House interior

“Some houses have been fire bombed, stood through two civil wars, the Dissolution of the Monasteries … and they’re still standing, so, you can’t really do an awful lot of damage,” admits Tom. The owner of one residence turned to Tom and said, “Well, it’s still here after seven hundred years so barring the odd scratch, I don’t think it’s going to fall down after you’ve been here.” “Of course,” Tom is quick to add, “there are things that are irreparable, you do have to look after it. You give everybody a list and say, ‘These are the house rules. Don’t put your hot cup of tea on that table and if it’s got a cover on it, don’t take the cover off!’” Tom has found that most crews are quite respectful and “very good these days at looking after delicate locations.”

“There’s the odd accident, just as in day-to-day life,” concurs Pat. “But we never take our eye off the ball. And the crews tend to behave impeccably.”

Hatfield House interior

One of the crown jewels of historic UK estates is Hatfield House, where such cinematic luminaries as King Lear, Victor Frankenstein, Harry Potter and even Paddington have strolled. “It’s horses for courses,” says Jane. “If you want something that’s really historic, you need to go to Hatfield.” Unlike a Trust or Heritage property, this Jacobean residence is privately owned. Lord and Lady Salisbury live in the east wing, sharing the property with the 15th-century “Old Palace,” where Henry VIII’s children once cavorted. Location manager Adam Richards, LMGI had already used Hatfield for Sherlock Holmes (2011) and Anna Karenina (2012) when he brought director Yorgos Lanthimos there for The Favourite.

“There are a finite amount of locations that would have suited this production,” says Adam, “of which Hatfield is a fine example.” Just 21 miles north of London, the house and its expansive, well-lit rooms perfectly suited the director’s penchant for wide shots and natural lighting. “It sparked his imagination and proved ideal for the film.” Adam’s location team and the crew “were absolutely phenomenal,” says Sarah Cardall-Spawforth, senior operations manager at Hatfield House. “The detail that they went into and the care that they took in looking after all of the historical items was out of this world.”

Hatfield generally closes in September and reopens in April. In the case of The Favourite, which began filming in February, “we delayed opening for a few weeks to enable them to finish.” Nevertheless, the public “expects us to be there,” says Sarah. Hatfield is typically open Wednesday through Sunday, so there were a few weeks when the crew would prep on Sunday and strike on Tuesday to have the house open by Wednesday. Filming wrapped in May with reshoots in August. “It was probably the longest production we had in a continual cycle,” Sarah calculates, and involved a flying squad of furniture movers. “It was a big jigsaw puzzle. We didn’t want to take everything out of the house if we could help it, and then it’s a battle to get everything reinstated so we can actually be open to the public.”

“The house was a key player in the film,” adds Adam. “But when filming in any historic property, protecting the fabric of the building is uppermost in your mind. A lot of paintings had to be removed or covered, and rooms emptied of furniture, which was a logistical headache. It was a case of moving furniture from one room to another as we progressed through the house, generally shooting in one room at a time.”

“The great thing about The Favourite,” remembers Sarah, “was that they asked before they did anything, and if they weren’t sure, they asked again. I’ve worked with several productions where questions weren’t asked, and then I hop around the corner for a cup of tea and come back and—What are you doing? We want to see Hatfield House standing for hundreds of years to come.”

But for locations within or near the production hub of London, convenience can have its downside. Red tape, for one. “We’ve got 20 burroughs,” says Pat, “and they’ve all got their own film officer and their own individual rules.” Cost, for another. “Hatfield House is about 15,000 pounds (roughly $20k) a day now to shoot. But if you go outside that region—within a 100 miles—you can halve that cost or quarter it with a house that hasn’t been used before.”

And that is often the Holy Grail of location managers. The new. Undiscovered. Unseen.

“It could be that little house you pass on the green,” suggests Tom, “and you stop and think, ‘That would make a lovely cottage for the shepherd—we just need to get rid of that garden and the road in front of it.’ And you turn up and go, ‘You’ll be the perfect location for’—whatever—and you’re dealing with people holding forth in a very old house that is sort of falling apart around them and could do with the money to keep it going.” 

The Personal History of David Copperfield, filming at Kings Lynn Norfolk. Photo: Harriet Lawrence/LMGI

Adds Harriet, “Producers are hoping you will find Scotland or the moon within the M25, the vast moat around London, and you can’t always do that.” On The Personal History of David Copperfield, Harriet was given the freedom to get out her “Big Book of Country Houses” and find “a completely different look.” Her search took her to the harbor at King’s Lynn in Norfolk, the Angel Inn at Bury St. Edmonds in Suffolk (where Charles Dickens set part of The Pickwick Papers), and the narrow, cobbled streets of Hull, East Yorkshire, that “didn’t get bombed in the war,” she says. “Finding those kinds of streets in London is very hard these days—there is a handful used time and time again. What we found by going up to Hull was enormous variety … and the council was fantastically helpful because they’re not London, they’re not over filmed. London wouldn’t have been able to give us seven simultaneous road closures and the freedom to dress all those streets.”

While Copperfield has been called a veiled autobiography of Dickens, and The Favourite concerns the 18th-century machinations surrounding Queen Anne, heritage sites also find a home in contemporary stories with little to do with Victorian authors or duck racing. The new thriller SAS: Red Notice concerns a hijacked Eurostar train. “Surprisingly, Eurostar didn’t want to have anything to do with it,” quips Jane, location manager for the film, which stars Sam Heughan as SAS operative Tom Buckingham. Much of the film was shot in Hungary, but Jane was able to utilize Englefield House, which had been on her radar since the start of her career.

“My very first job as location manager,” she recalls, “we needed a deer park. It was supposed to be Richmond Park, which is a Royal Park and you’re not allowed to chase the deer around. Someone said, ‘Try Englefield, they’ve got deer.’ And Englefield said, ‘Yeah, you can chase our deer. We don’t care. We’ll help you chase them.’”

Jane, whose favorite charge is “putting British stories on the screen,” was duly impressed—especially with the original painting of Englefield by John Constable. “The house is stuffed full of the most beautiful paintings, and to have your own Constable hanging on the wall was just incredible!” As it turned out, “We didn’t get anywhere near the house on that occasion,” but Jane made sure to include the estate during the scout for SAS: Red Notice. “As with any film, you read the script and try to work out what’s going to help tell the story.

“I also took them to Knebworth, a genuine Tudor, and they were quite taken with the suits of armor,” but eventually, the director settled on Englefield. However, “They did want the suits of armor! So we put suits of armor in the hall. It was a fantastic place to work, very film-friendly. It’s a large estate, so we could use drones to follow motorbikes through the park and all that kind of business, whereas if you were trying to do that in the middle of a Royal Park or the National Trust, you’d have great difficulty. It was a very quick turnaround.”

Like World War Z, Heritage locations in Britain are not exclusive to—as Pat would say, “Posh people in big houses.” Location manager Sue Quinn, LMGI, whose five-star vitae includes both Fantastic Beasts and the majority of the Harry Potter movies, was given the challenge of a lifetime by no less than Tom Cruise. She was at a production meeting with director Doug Liman for the sci-fi cult fave Edge of Tomorrow—the kind of meeting “where you sit with your head down while they get on with stuff,” describes Sue. When in walked Cruise with writer Christopher McQuarrie. “And Tom turns round and says, ‘I had this idea that we should land a helicopter in Trafalgar Square to start the movie. What do you think, Sue?’ I went bright red from head to toe. And producer Tim Lewis, who knows me terribly well, looked over the table and said, ‘That’ll be okay, won’t it Sue?’ Because he knows how hard it would be, and … Jesus, where to begin on that one?”

Whitehall is the main thoroughfare from Trafalgar Square toward Parliament Square—an epicenter of UK history, since the days of Henry VIII’s court. The Prime Minister’s residence, Scotland Yard, the National Gallery, the suffragette-bashing Houses of Parliament—they’re all there. “Security is on high alert,” says Sue, “and it’s not built to land helicopters.” Her journey began at the mayor’s office. Three months later, Sue and her crew had permission to stop the bells from ringing at
St Martin-in-the-Fields, close the National Gallery for two hours, redirect traffic from 57 bus routes, keep the Queen’s Life Guard from parading, all the while flying Tom Cruise in on a Royal Air Force HCI Puma helicopter around Big Ben (“that was not visual effects—that was for real”), over Westminster Abbey, down Whitehall and onto Trafalgar Square without chopping the head off Nelson’s Column. And, for good measure, there was a second helicopter filming the whole thing. Sums up Sue, “I have never been refused anywhere to film, and there’s never a problem that can’t be got over.”

And that brings us back to Suffragette, and those same Houses of Parliament that Tom Cruise flew over en route to saving the world. “You do not move in that place without their say-so,” insists Harriet Lawrence, and while they may be well versed in state visits, “a film crew is more feral, really. And I had to tell them it was about rioting suffragettes because you don’t want to be there and have anyone going, ‘Well, we didn’t think it was going to be that violent!’

“Eventually, we pushed it over the line. I got the contract signed on Friday afternoon, the day before we actually started filming, which was a bit late for comfort and suitably nerve-racking.” Harriet walked away from the signing thrilled. For the first time in history, filming would be allowed in the Houses of Parliament! And then the call came. “One of my contacts said, ‘You know that painting we said we owned in the main room that you’re going to film in? We don’t own it, actually. So could you just not look that way?’” Back-and-forth it went. Harriet: “You’ll have to take it off the wall.” British Parliament: “We can’t touch it without the owner’s permission!” Harriet: “Well, you’re going to have to do something because you’ve now signed a contract that says x, y, z!” She laughs now. “You know how it is where you think you’ve cleared all the hurdles, and then someone plants a great big jump right in front of you?” In the end, “I don’t know who or what they mobilized, but they managed to find who actually owned it, and get in contact.” The next day, filming began. For four days, 200 rioting suffragettes rushed the House of Commons in a sign-wielding tumult that had not been seen for nearly 100 years.

“It was a long, drawn-out process,” Harriet says. “But I think they enjoyed it. And, eventually, I enjoyed it. I think. A few months later.”

Managing English Heritage: Adele Cooper

by Jim Collette

Adele Cooper spent years in theatre management before moving into work in locations. She is the filming manager for English Heritage, with over 400 significant sites in the UK. 

What’s a typical day like for you?

One of the things I love most about my job is the variety. I share my time between our London office and exploring the English Heritage portfolio, assessing how we can best facilitate filming. We also spend a lot of time out on the ground overseeing shoots, and building relationships with our site teams and the production companies we work with. All income generated by filming goes back into the preservation of the historic monuments.

Taboo set build at Tilbury Fort. Photo: Tom Howard/LMGI

How do you work with location managers and scouts to find suitable locations?

We work closely throughout the process from the initial enquiry to finishing a shoot. Building mutual trust is important. When someone shares a brief or expresses an interest in a property, they need to feel confident that we know our portfolio inside out and that we will show them the best options. I have a wonderful team who are experts when it comes to our portfolio.

It’s brilliant working with someone like Adam Richards, LMGI, because he fully understands our processes and ensures our sites are treated with the utmost care. The working relationship we have with him was a big contributing factor in allowing Victoria & Abdul to be the first feature to ever film inside Osborne House with the Royal Collection. 

We also work with regional film offices such as Film London to ensure that our portfolio is accessible. Regional support and expertise can be an incredibly valuable resource to production companies considering where to work in the UK. 

What are your most popular locations?

Tilbury Fort, a brilliant site with interiors and controllable water ways, as well as a large area of hard standing (a hard-surfaced car park area) ideal for set builds, situated on the edge of East London in Essex.

Eltham Palace, a mansion house with unique Art Deco interiors, as well as a medieval hall; South London 

Audley End House and Gardens, a Jacobean stately home with a variety of interiors from a full-service wing to a great hall, as well as stunning grounds, including an active orchard; Saffron Walden, Essex 

Dover Castle, an impressive hilltop fortification with interiors spanning from the medieval up to World War II secret wartime tunnels; Dover, South East England 

And the biggest production challenge you have faced?

Filming at Tintagel Castle in Cornwall requires a steep climb of over 100 uneven stone stairs to reach the top of the island. For The Kid Who Would Be King, we helicoptered kit across to the island. But on the first prep day, a storm hit Cornwall with 80+ mph winds and we had to evacuate the island and wait it out. Luckily, we had worked with the location team to factor additional time into the schedule in case of adverse weather, and everything was tightly locked down so no kit was lost or damaged. English Heritage is in the process of constructing a bridge to join the island to the mainland so it should be a bit less of a climb for any future crews! 

What productions have used English Heritage locations recently?

We have really enjoyed working with Pat Karam, LMGI and his team over the last couple of years for The Crown, and recently on Mary Queen of Scots at Harmondsworth Barn. Trust, the TV series, filmed with us for several months at Audley End House and Gardens. Tom Howard, LMGI brought the Ridley Scott series Taboo to Tilbury Fort. Stan & Ollie filmed a couple of scenes at Eltham Palace.

What films or series have prompted the biggest increase in visitation?

We saw a significant spike in visitors the summer season following the release of Victoria & Abdul. We also had a costume exhibition from the film, which visitors really enjoyed. Peterloo has also brought lots of Mike Leigh fans to visit Tilbury Fort which has been wonderful!

I was also told that UK crews were generally respectful of historic properties…

I’m pleased to say we have worked with some incredibly respectful crews. One example that springs to mind is when we were working on Darkest Hour with Adam Richards at Brodsworth Hall. The scene involved Gary Oldman sitting on the edge of one of our beds. The bed frame is historic and can’t bear any weight, so the crew built a freestanding support frame that allowed Gary to appear as though he sat on the bed itself. It was so well executed; it looked brilliant and meant that the beautiful bed could be captured on screen.