Supervising Location Manager Tom Howard takes us behind the scenes

The timeless charm of the Frances Hodgson Burnett story, The Secret Garden, has enchanted generations of readers and filmmakers alike. I remember it from my childhood and when Rosie Alison, producer at Heyday Films, asked if I would be interested in location managing their film, I was in no doubt, I had to be involved in the remake of this classic story. 

The Laburnum Arch. Photo courtesy of Bodnant Garden, NTIL Joe Wainwright

We started pre-prep in early January 2018 with a trip to Cornwall to consider four possible gardens with the producer, director Marc Munden and production designer Grant Montgomery. This was a great ice breaker as I had not worked with either Marc nor Grant before and a convivial dinner allowed us to explore the concept of the film.

Harlaxton Manor, Grantham, as Misselthwaite Manor. Photo by Tom Howard/LMGI

Marc’s version of The Secret Garden was to be different from previous versions; the setting of the story moved to the mid-1940s, with the concept of the secret garden reimagined as a magical dimension more appealing to a modern audience. Written by Jack Thorne, the original Edwardian setting is moved to post WWII; a time when Victorian attitudes to children still persisted with ‘seen and not heard.’ The post-war depression would add another emotional depth to the story with the nation mourning the death of its fathers and sons and the landscape still scarred by war. In the original story and the many previous filmed versions, the secret garden was an actual hidden, abandoned and neglected walled garden that the children cultivated back into something beautiful mending their damaged souls and forging new friendships. Beautiful, but not particularly exciting for today’s audiences familiar with flying wizards and talking bears! Marc’s secret garden was to be a spectacular real space, not built in Pinewood Studios nor a computer-generated backdrop. It had to be engaging and honest. This secret garden was to be made up from real gardens and landscapes which would be brought together with the minimum of CGI interference to make a ‘tardis’ walled garden. CGI would play its role but only subtly; flowers bloom in front of our eyes; a robin becomes Mary’s friend. 

Gunnera. Photo courtesy of Trebah Gardens

Despite these reinventions, our story still begins in colonial India, where Mary Lennox’s (Dixie Egerickx) parents have died from cholera leaving her an orphan abandoned in her home. She is rescued by a British officer, shipped back to Blighty to be lodged with Archibald Craven (Colin Firth), a distant uncle whom she has never met. On arrival in England, she is met by the dour Mrs. Medlock (Julie Walters) accompanying her back to the gloomy Misselthwaite Manor on the edge of some dark northern moor.

Mary’s return to England required a journey from port to Misselthwaite Manor for which we used a period cruise terminal on the Thames followed by a steam train and car journey across the North Yorkshire Moors. The concept of the house had been formulated by the designer: a haunting Victorian Gothic mansion situated in its own estate with semi-enclosed courtyard. The latter part of this brief was fulfilled by Duncombe Park on the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors. Still within the Faversham family, its current custodian the Hon. Jake Duncombe was familiar to location filming, but would he go for the designer’s landscaping of his front courtyard into a derelict military installation? The rear gardens were perfect for the scenes outside the house before the walls of the ‘secret garden.’ Duncombe had wide grassy avenues between woodland and open areas of lawn overlooking the Yorkshire landscape. I meet with Jake and poised the important question… “The house had been requisitioned by the army during the war and used as a base. Ideally, we need to cover the front courtyard with the ruins of buildings and army vehicles.” 

“That’s not an issue,” Jake said, “as the house was requisitioned in the ’40s and used as a tank training base, hence the many miles of concrete roads throughout the estate, but will it ruin the lawns?” I promised we would try not to.

We covered the three front lawns with a membrane and tons of topsoil; on top they built the ruins of military buildings. Gravel was swept from the drive and the surface was rutted, with a military truck dumped by the main gate. The actual house was not used, hidden with huge blue screens. Duncombe Park is a fine example of Georgian architecture; we did use the entrance hall and the ballroom, but its exterior was not what the designer wanted. Our final Misselthwaite Manor was a composite of two different Gothic houses and the interiors other than the entrance hall were on stage. After our completion, the front lawns failed to recover despite vigorous watering. We re-turfed the lawns just before a wedding celebration. 

Iford Manor. Photo ©2020 Studiocanal S.A.S.

Next up was the secret garden. During the research period, director Marc Munden had visited many landscapes throughout the UK wanting to combine locations to construct an exciting and adventurous garden. These locations were either tucked away in remote places far from Pinewood, accessed by narrow roads and pedestrian-sized paths. The secret garden also needed to have an exterior wall for Mary to climb. While exploring Misselthwaite’s grounds, Mary befriends a dog. The two run off through overgrown woods—leading Mary right up to ivy-covered walls. This location was required to be near Pinewood as many of the secret gardens would be situated across the country. Plenty of walled gardens are still standing but many are in use or cleared of woodland. A tip from another location manager lead to a derelict four-acre walled garden in Hertfordshire —including the wrought iron gate that Mary finds. It was unique, with woodland right up to the wall. This estate had leased off the manor to a private school. In order to film, we agreed to arrange a set visit for the pupils. The Secret Garden is a favourite book of this generation and what was going to be a handful became 40 keen kids. With the help of the producer’s assistant, we planned several sessions, an exhibition of design sketches and costumes, as well as a guided set visit by the producer. The kids were totally enthralled by seeing the work which goes into a film production and perhaps we have inspired some of them to be involved in our industry. 

Photo by Tom Howard/LMGI

As for the scenes inside the walled garden, our first visit was to Bodnant Gardens in North West Wales, one of the top 10 gardens in the world, with the unique feature of a fast-moving river running through 80 acres of planted and designed historic gardens. Bodnant also has the world’s longest Laburnum Arch, when in bloom attracts on average 20 coaches a day of tourists. The yellow blooms only last for two weeks. Of course, Marc also wanted this flowering spectacle in the film! The estate overlooks Snowdonia and on my first visit, snow still covered the peaks. Situated about 250 miles from the studios, it was not the ideal place for us to get to. The producers asked if we had anything similar in the southeast of England but nothing nearby matched what Marc had seen at Bodnant. It is truly a spectacular place.

Bodnant is managed by the National Trust and permission had to be requested from the Trust and owners, both agreed immediately to our request, but to get the garden at its best, we would have to film in early July at the start of the busy season. Not an issue they replied but we need to keep as much of the gardens open to the public as possible. Fortunately, the selected filming areas were the furthest from the main entrance at the bottom of the hillside the estate is situated on. Two 500-metre-long sections of river and surrounding gardens were required by the director, then Marc’s next big request was the National Trust allow the lawns to grow tall and become meadows, which in effect required them to be left uncut for two months before we filmed.

A scene from the film with Dixie Egerickx. Photo ©2020 Studiocanal S.A.S.

Remember, this garden is one of the best in the world and every inch of the 80 acres is designed and managed by a team of 40 gardeners. Tourists come from around the world to admire these curated landscapes! Apprehensive at first, the head gardener agreed to keep the lawnmowers off our selected areas. As a side note to this request, on our departure after filming, I asked the head gardener if they would be cutting the lawns back to the original height and she replied that one area by the swimming river would be left and when the film is released, would be advertised as part of The Secret Garden set. 

On the tech recce, we had a major fright when the designer wanted to bring additional plants in to draw together the separate gardens into one while adding more texture and colour. The gardening team forbid this due to the risk of foreign bacteria getting into the soil and infecting the plants.  

Crikey, I thought. The designer had expressed all the gardens would need additional greens to build his vision. How could we get around this ban? After a lot of head scratching, it was decided we could bag and tie up all the plants’ roots before being dressed in at Bodnant. Access into such a big garden was also a major headache, it was a 20-minute walk to the river from the entrance down many steps, along winding paths and over narrow bridges. This location would be the first of five which would challenge the location and unit managers. Each of the secret garden sets were only scheduled for two to three days of filming with no slack in the schedule for logistical or weather delay. In Bodnant, the paths where just wide enough for gator vehicles. Circular one-way routes had to be planned and a team of 12 drivers took on the challenge of ferrying crew and tons of equipment into the middle of the garden. A large security team managed blind corners, the vehicle flow and keeping the public safe. Once filming was complete, this support team then travelled to deepest Cornwall to perform the same operation at Trebah Gardens. 

Water is a major element to The Secret Garden. Marc had seen the water gardens of Ninfa, Italy, within a ruined village. Here in the UK, we did not have anything like that. The solution was to build a set on location, preferably within an ancient ruin. 

Fountains Abbey. Photo ©2020 Studiocanal S.A.S.

We looked at numerous ruins throughout Yorkshire and settled on Fountains Abbey near Ripon. A major tourist destination throughout the year, we needed a three-week period to build the set, film and strike out. Conveniently, the best structure to work in was a smaller part of the site by the river in the monastic complex. The concept was to build a six-inch-deep tank on the floor of the building, flood it, floating lilies in the water and draping red vines down the walls. We did not just pick any old ruin—we selected a 900-year-old UNESCO World Heritage Site, perhaps the most important monastic range of buildings in Europe. Working closely with the National Trust, we came up with a plan and the watch word of this location was … ‘Carefully.’ Everything was performed with National Trust curators overseeing placement of every piece of timber, screw and plant. Slowly, a set was constructed, a huge 40-ton crane inched in and once complete, it looked spectacular. From this point, we all started to see how wonderful the film would become.

The production designer was keen to find the right gardens each with a strong design element; water, textured leaves, wildflowers, etc. But weather, climate and nature had the upper hand. The ideal timeframe for the short list of our chosen gardens was May, June or October. Shooting was to begin in Yorkshire during the spring to get the damp and grey climate, then into the studios for interiors, then out to the gardens in July. We hoped for an Indian Summer but our weather is ruled by the Gulf Stream. But who could have predicted “The Beast from the East”? I remember driving back from a meeting in Gloucestershire, a three-hour drive from London, and the snow slowly arriving and getting heavier throughout the drive. A few days later, the country was blanketed in snow with sub-zero temperatures—not a good omen for emerging plants! 

Photo ©2020 Studiocanal S.A.S./Courtesy of Trebah Gardens.

Grant had been working on designs for the gardens using previous years’ images of what would likely be blooming in July. His idea was to supplement with unique elements, adding in specially grown plants to accentuate colours and textures while adding an element of wild.   

After a couple of weeks, the freezing temperatures fell back, the snow melted. I called the garden locations to see what damage was done with the reply they had been covered in a foot of snow. This event could cause major problems to when plants would bloom and at what time in the year, not what you wanted to hear before setting out to make a film in gardens, we have a schedule to stick to! 

Next up were the exterior India scenes which had been such a challenge to find. Actually going to India was soon dismissed and the question remained: Where to find the Indian exterior and gardens in the UK? Given it had been a British colony for 200 years, I was confident something of colonial India must have been reflected back in UK architecture. Ideally, we wanted a colonial house in a subtropical garden and importantly, this sequence needed a swimming pool! 

Abbotsbury dressed as if in India. Photo by Tom Howard/LMGI

We started scouting options discovering a country house with a Mughal dome; a Shimla cottage in Tunbridge Wells and a promising-looking Cottage Orme in Gloucestershire but none had the subtropical garden where we meet Mary for the first time. These were important scenes and Marc wanted to get them right. I returned to our location database and scanned through; one strong candidate stood out. Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens on the Dorset Coast. I had seen in some images a ‘colonial style’ building but what was it and could we make it look like a house in India? 

Thankfully, Abbotsbury’s subtropical plants had survived the snowfall but would it survive a major film crew? The colonial-looking building turned out to be their busy restaurant. It was our only option and if I failed to secure the location, it would be an expensive set build. Walls can be repainted, furniture repaired and compensation paid, but can you rescue a rare or prize specimen plant from being squashed under a 50kg lamp? I met the head gardener, Steve Griffith, an exotic plant hunter who had been on expeditions to the Far East to bring back some of the rare garden and told him and the general manager exactly what we wanted to do. I took Grant’s sketch drawings of what the restaurant would look like with adobe wall cladding, the outside dining area covered in red sand with its Indian fountain and explained why we needed to widen a gateway for a huge spider crane to come in to replicate the sun. This would all take about two weeks’ work (for a day and a half filming) and may cause some (really … a lot of) inconvenience to the visitors and we really needed to film this in high summer! 

I waited. I really thought they would say no to the idea. It seems everyone loves The Secret Garden, including the exotic plant hunter Steve. Abbotsbury was completely on board, even offering to move or cut back plants if required. To enable our filming, we needed to close the restaurant down for five days. This did not faze them either as they had another venue nearby which they turned into a temporary café. The restaurant was clad in yellow-plastered walls, 40 tons of red sand was laid on the patio, in the middle a dormant fountain was built and throughout the whole area, hundreds of feet of electrical cable run out. 

In the end, The Secret Garden consisted of eight garden elements and two were to be found in the most enchanting gardens in England at Iford Manor in the Wiltshire countryside. This garden’s special elements were an Italianate colonnade and a Japanese garden. The estate  was owned by Harold Peto, a leading Victorian landscape and garden designer. Iford Manor was his home and also his exhibition garden for prospective clients. Using stone structures and ancient objects collected from his travels through Europe, he built garden rooms linked by a 100-ft-long colonnade. In its own right, the garden is a horticulturist’s dream with colour and texture throughout the seasons but the designer wanted to bring more to it with the wide walkway down the colonnade temporarily planted up by us leaving a narrow path between blooms. The garden had its own logistical challenges, situated down narrow country lanes, with the whole site on a steep slope very tight for space. Our shoot was big and the only way to manage it was to have various technical bases at the top and bottom of the hill, offload into 4x4s to a tech dump, then hand-carry everything inside. Three large spider-access machines where inched carefully into position on special protection materials. 

The only major issue was the garden was open regularly to the public and certain parties had already booked in and an annual opera festival which only left us a two-week period to get in, shoot for three days and wrap out! The family knew and loved the book, as a family of eminent gardeners, here was a case in point that the subject material opened doors to us which would have been closed to many a production. 

In our secret garden, plants will grow before our eyes (okay, this is one of the CGI tricks we used). Trebah in Cornwall has one of the largest gunnera plantations in the UK. A native plant of Brazil, they grow from what looks like ‘Alien’ egg cases into huge over-the-head-sized plants. Marc had identified this plantation as a possible element in the secret garden, so huge are the plants, adults and certainly children are able to walk beneath the umbrella like leaves. To achieve the ‘growing before our eyes’ effect early in February, a VFX team went to record and scan the dormant plants, then after another couple of months, they went back and recorded the next stage. On further visits, the director saw other potential sets within the garden, a tropical pond and towering tree ferns for the children to run through. This would take the use of the location from perhaps half a day to two full days. Trebah is situated in the furthest south counties in the UK, it was difficult to get to via narrow country road and miles from any sort of main road. We also had to build temporary roads through cabbage fields (I remember this well as I had to sign off on cabbage compensation!), either side of the narrow valley in which the garden is situated to get generators into position. As the gunnera plantation was right at the end of the valley by the sea, we even considered bringing in our production by a beach-landing craft. 

Trebah Garden is one of the most visited attractions in this region. The best time to film these huge plants was again in high season, July, but thankfully the management of the garden could see the potential of the disruption this would cause as a large part of the garden would have to be closed off. The management came up with new trails for visitors to follow and the source material did the trick in convincing the paying public they would get to enjoy the garden on the big screen. 

The filming schedule in the last three weeks of the shoot spread out the location team from North Wales to Cornwall. Extra location managers joined us as each garden needed seven to 10 days of prep and couple of days film and a few days out so major overlaps with each location. Abbotsbury became my location to manage, I spent two weeks in this beautiful spot working with the dressing and pre-light teams while we prepared the location for the crew to arrive to from Cornwall. At the start, I was concerned how we would work within these delicate landscapes. However, during filming, the crew did very much respect these garden locations. I think working in tranquil, beautiful places rubbed off on the crew. We had plenty of meetings with departments to discuss how to work within these delicate sites and generally they would come up with inventive ways of looking after the locations. We tested and bought the right types of lawn ground protection materials and always gave ourselves time to get in and prepare the gardens before any other department arrived. The location team produced very detailed plans for each garden location, so during the production meeting, we presented an informative document with clear maps & plans, defined access routes, transport and location marshal support. Which post technical recce and after further discussion with the departments was revised and re-issued. This resulted in all the crews knowing what the plan was before they even arrived at the location. 

Tom Howard/LMGI. Photo by Ken Haber/LMGI

Many crew members I have meet after this film always look back fondly on the secret garden production as one of their favourites. We could not have done this film without the huge assistance offered to us by all the locations. From the closing of their business for our exclusive hire, allowing us to bring in additional plants for the set dressing, leaving manicured lawns to grow high, digging out the riverbed for safe swimming and permitting us to turn footpaths into gator roadways. This is where the source material came to the rescue in asking for these types of permissions. All of the location owners and many of their employees all loved the book and because of this treasured story were willing to put up with our extensive requests. 

Finally, I could not have managed this location shoot without a dedicated and highly professional crew. We all learned new skills on this production and refined our practices for managing filming in these types of locations—delicate with terrible access!

The Secret Garden Location Team:

Tom Howard/LMGI  Supervising Location Manager 

Jenni Lewis  Location Manager 

Tom Timbers  Assistant Location Manager

Lucy Morris  Location Coordinator

Lauren Chambers  Unit Manager 

Joe Kirby  Key Location Assistant 

Simon Casey  Unit Location Assistant

Tim Smart  Head of Security and Location Marshals

Matt Bowden  Location Manager (Yorkshire) 

Carn Burton  Location Manager (Cornwall) 

Lucy Lee  Location Manager (Gloucestershire & Dorset) 

Phil Lobban/LMGI  Location Scout

Jeremy Levy  Location Researcher