A big thank you to Amy Jagger, one of the Carlton Tower Team, for telling Landed Houses all about filming at the house…
Chatsworth House is doing it, Sarah Beany’s private home, Rise Hall, now has a dedicated TV audience and Channel Four’s Country House Rescue highlights the goings-on at a different stately home each week. It’s not surprising therefore that when approached by enthusiastic and reputable production company, Landmark Films, the ancestral home of the Duke of Norfolk, Carlton Towers in Yorkshire, decided to give television a go…
The Guest Wing was screened every Thursday evening from April on Sky Atlantic for six weeks. The series focussed on the day-to-day activities of four of Britain’s most stately mansions and their aristocratic owners; specifically what happens when they open up their private homes for event hire to bring in revenue to secure the upkeep of the properties (which are, in fact, their architectural heritage), in an overall attempt to cater for a new tidal wave of taste for Downton Abbey-themed television.
But instead of featuring fictional romances, this fascinating escapism came in the form of a thorough, warts-and-all documentary. With the owners of each house not permitted to approve the entire footage before screening (they just had to trust the Director!) it was anyone’s guess as to how each business – and their owners – would be portrayed. Considered by many a daunting project to undertake –allowing cameras and a film crew inside your business’ venue, let alone your private house – Carlton Towers, its staff and owners, were prepared for the challenge ahead and hoped that the programme with a working title of ‘Weekend Aristocrat’ would prove to be a risk worth taking and a bonus promotional tool for the family-led business.
Lord Gerald is owner of Carlton Towers, the majestic Gothic pile named after the village it dominates, and brother of the present Duke of Norfolk. He lives at the property with his wife Emma and their three children. The family’s heritage goes back to Domesday and with such an influential Catholic line and their current nobility, Lord and Lady Gerald were perfect contenders for such a revealing and personal fly-on-the-wall series:
“We were nervous to say the least. Once you let cameras inside your home you’ve already given them access so really just have to go with it. Although that’s easier said than done when they can appear out of nowhere at every turn” says Lord Gerald. “Likewise, we would be asked to repeat things we said that were funny or of particular interest, so they could get the camera pointing at us at the right time. That could be uncomfortable as we’re not accustomed to acting; you had to make it appear natural.”
So, they re-shot footage throughout the filming? “Oh yes” said Steve, the Events Manager, “they had me closing the gates about ten times for an eventual shot that screened for only two seconds and our Marketing Manager took four attempts to appear round the corner along the back drive as she “arrived” to work in the morning. It was definitely an experience, and time-consuming!”
Despite the jokes, the staff of Carlton Towers were genuinely happy with the set up. The production team arrived at the house for 12 hours at a time to shoot four separate (and very differing) events, including a dog show; a regular group from the local camping and caravan club; an extravagant American gourmet evening (“this dinner party went down a storm on camera” laughs Lady Gerald); and a boot camp day facilitated by celebrity fitness trainer Gavin Walsh. Throughout their filming sessions the team was professional and prepared despite not always sticking to the agenda.
“The days they were in I found it difficult to focus on the task in hand mainly because I was always wondering if they were going to ask to film me (you just never knew!) But also if they’d given me an interview slot it would end up being postponed every half an hour. We realised after a while this was just the nature of filming” says Assistant Events Manager, Phil. However, after watching each episode that Carlton Towers appeared in (an impressive four out of the six) it is revealed the reasoning behind the long filming sessions and repeated takes.
There was a genuine appreciation throughout the household as to how sympathetic the production company had been towards both the property and everybody in it. With television there’s always a catch or an angle as with any media form to be able to bring the audience in and keep them interested or entertained – or both. Would they edit interviews to change the meaning? Repeat negative comments to show someone in a bad light? The Guest Wing however brought Carlton Towers, its proprietors and staff, to life, with the footage and storylines really showing off the house to its best.
This was perceived not only by those involved in the filming but others who, for their own reasons, were very excited to see the final outcome: “As a bride already booked in with the venue I admit that I appreciated the magic of Carlton Towers from the moment I saw the building come into view round the bend in the drive. But seeing it on screen it’s just as mesmerising. People who have watched The Guest Wing will really want to go there; it came over as a wonderful family home as well as a magnificent historic property”says Hayley Wilks, who has her wedding booked for September this year.
From the Fitzalan Howard’s perspective they were pleasantly surprised at the entire process. Lady Gerald, who is responsible for the design of the new suite of bedrooms two years ago, comments; “Sometimes it would feel very full on and intense, and then there’d be a dip, they’d leave our private part of the house and we could relax again. It was sporadic.” But did their individual personalities come across on camera? “I hope so! Once we got used to the camera and the Director asking questions, it was like having a conversation with a friend. They put you at ease and there were times I think we came across as quite entertaining!” she laughs.
And have they any final words for other businesses wanting to bare all? “We thought they’d milk us for all we’re worth!” jokes Lord Gerald, “but they were very fair.” The couple are in agreement as Lady Gerald adds about Landmark Films; ‘They were a lovely team, they were divine.”
The experience of The Guest Wing has left the custodians of this great Gothic home in anticipation of future filming opportunities, especially since then Carlton Towers has participated in another documentary due for release in Japan over the Jubilee, which will follow the life of items given the Royal Warrant. “It would be great to get involved in more television programmes that touch on other aspects of the house and business. Now we’ve got the bug, bring on the cameras!”concludes Lady Gerald.
Carlton Towers – http://www.landedhouses.co.uk/england/north-england/carlton-towers/