National trust on screen

Credit: Nick Briggs/Carnival Films

The National Trust’s Location Managers take us behind the scenes and revisit some iconic film and TV moments in which their historic houses and landscapes have starred 

Words: Harvey Edgington & Lauren Taylor

Can we provide a top-secret military installation for the next Bond film? Do we have a spectacular ballroom for next year’s big costume drama? Have we got an Isaac Newton look-a-like who can go on camera? When the phone rings at the National Trust Filming and Locations office, it could be any filming query imaginable. 

And so a day here is never dull. We might be deep in the detail of planning a shoot – herding the right sort of toads, or working out how exactly an army of six hundred (with 150 horses) will battle their way across a beach. Our small team manages bookings from the initial query through to the actual shoot days. We sort out the logistics and negotiate every detail, from whether food and drink can be taken into some of our finest staterooms, to where the trucks are going to park. 

The abandoned engine houses of Botallack Mine in Cornwall stand in for the Poldark family mines. Credit: National Trust Images/David Sellman

Wellington boots and a clipboard are always at hand as we might be out having meetings with National Trust colleagues and the production’s location managers on a cliff, down in a cellar or next to a lake. Each month, an average of nine TV dramas or films will shoot at our properties; sometimes three are happening at once. Occasionally there is a rush at one location: back in 2009 Robin Hood immediately followed Harry Potter at Pembrokeshire’s Freshwater West beach. They nearly had to wrestle for the dates they wanted. 

Ross and Demelza Poldark are played by Aidan Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson

Occasionally the queries can be a little bizarre. Personal favourites include: What day will the lambs be born? Do we have a hill they can roll a big cheese down? Can we suspend a hot-air balloon between two huge cranes? And have we got any antique wooden legs? Sometimes we can say yes: a big cheese did indeed roll down a National Trust hill and, as it happens, we do have a wooden leg. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to predict the day the lambs would put in an appearance.

Since 2003 the Trust has had a dedicated Filming and Locations Office to manage the demand. Filming isn’t new to the Trust though: in the 1950s we hosted Cary Grant at Osterley Park in The Grass is Greener; the 1960s saw a Carry On film, Don’t Lose Your Head, at Cliveden, and Harrison Ford popped by Stowe for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in the 1980s. 

Basildon Park’s Dining Room. Credit: National Trust Images/James Dobson

On the costume drama front we’ve really got things covered. Various mines and beaches in Cornwall appeared in all five series of Poldark. The cast and crew of Downton Abbey were also repeat visitors; our properties appeared in all but one of their six series, as well as the film version. Our most significant appearance was as Grantham House, the Crawley family’s London home, when the Dining Room at Basildon Park provided the dazzling backdrop for Lady Rose’s coming out ball. 

Basildon Park in Berkshire stands in for the Crawleys’ London residence in Downton Abbey. Credit: Nick Briggs/Carnival Films
This is an extract of an article printed in the latest issue of BRITAIN (January/February 2021).
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