When Alexander Korda made The Private Life of Henry VIII in 1933, he did no more than walk around Hampton Court with his star Charles Laughton. The movie was filmed months later in Elstree. Sam Goldwyn’s Wuthering Heights got no nearer Emily Brontë’s Haworth than Thousand Oaks Park, California — but then the mogul was famously indifferent to history. When the workings of a venerable sundial were explained to him, he exclaimed: “What will they think up next?”
Today, however, Korda and Goldwyn’s successors at Netflix and beyond know a British period drama needs a British period location. TV crews now invade the nation’s stately homes in the pursuit of opulent authenticity, and, as The Times reported recently, filming fees have helped make up for the lack of day-trippers during Covid. As the great houses prepare for our return this spring, here’s a box set of locations to head for when the cast-iron gates swing back open.
Wilton House, Wiltshire
(Bridgerton and The Crown)
The nuns who once occupied the site where Wilton House has stood since the 16th century would have prayed for the souls of all involved in the racy regency romp Bridgerton. Wilton was used in its first episode as the husband-hungry debutantes were introduced to Queen Charlotte, and as Clyvedon Castle, the home of Simon Basset, played by Regé-Jean Page. Simon and his bride Daphne’s antics at Wilton were by no means confined to its many bedrooms — although Simon certainly gave a new meaning to “withdrawing room”.
Our own Queen may not be much amused either, since Wilton also doubles as her Buckingham Palace living room in The Crown. Wilton’s double-cube room, modeled by Inigo Jones and John Webb, lined with paintings by Van Dyck and mirrors by Chippendale, features in almost every episode. Grounds reopen March 1.
Inveraray Castle, Argyll
(A Very British Scandal and Downton Abbey)
Its armory has 1,300 weapons but for viewers of the BBC’s A Very British Scandal nothing in Inveraray Castle was as lethal as Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll. Her craving for, in the words of the series’ writer, Sarah Phelps, “adulation, jewels and validity” drove her second husband, the 11th duke and owner of the castle, to the divorce courts. Alongside the Beatles and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the case was the clinching proof of Philip Larkin’s claim that sex began in 1963.
The scandal may have rocked the castle but it remains the Argylls’ home. The latest generation bravely let Claire Foy and Paul Bettany film the show in the 18th-century pile. Ten years ago it played Duneagle Castle in a Downton Abbey Christmas special. “I don’t think anybody has real style or class anymore,” Margaret once said — but she could not have been talking about Inveraray. Reopens March 28.
Castle Howard, North Yorkshire
(Bridgerton and Brideshead Revisited)
While Bridgerton’s Simon and Daphne played their sex scenes within Wilton Hall, Clyvedon Castle’s exteriors, grounds and entrance hall were all Castle Howard. For millions, however, the Yorkshire castle will always be Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead.
Granada TV’s adaptation of Brideshead Revisited in 1981 introduced cinematic grandeur to TV drama and viewers’ first glimpse of Castle Howard gobsmacked them as surely as it did Charles Ryder on his first visit to Sebastian Flyte’s family home. The association between the two castles proved so indelible that a 2008 film was again filmed at Castle Howard.
Visitors can visit Vanbrugh’s Temple of the Four Winds, where in both versions Charles and Sebastian tipsily canoodled, and also the four-poster bed where Lord Marchmain (Laurence Olivier/Michael Gambon) died. The connection between the Flyte family and the Howards is not only cinematic. Like the Flytes, the Howards are one of Britain’s pre-eminent Catholic families. Gardens open now.
Highclere Castle, Hampshire
When Downton Abbey began its 52-episode run in 2010, Highclere Castle was in trouble. After a century of wars, death duties, and the rising cost of domestic labor, the estate faced being split up or sold (Andrew Lloyd Webber seemed interested). The Carnarvon family had lived there since 1842, but the castle needed $16.3 million in repairs, and tourism barely dented its annual million-dollar running costs.
Enter Julian Fellowes and his new/retro idea of Sunday night entertainment for ITV viewers. Downton became bigger even than its Seventies ancestor Upstairs, Downstairs and part of that was the magnificence of the Earl of Grantham’s Yorkshire mansion (even if it was actually in Hampshire). From February to June ITV would arrive to film. The day visitors followed. With Downton crews back for a second movie, the Crawleys, those indefatigable fighters for their way of life, would be proud of the canny Carnarvons. Reopens April 8.
Haddon Hall, Derbyshire
The former seat of the dukes of Rutland, magnificent Haddon Hall boasts a semi-permanent lunatic in its attic — Mr Rochester’s wife, Bertha. The atmospheric medieval stronghold has three times been chosen for adaptations of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre: by Franco Zeffirelli for his 1996 film starring Charlotte Gainsbourg; by Cary Fukunaga 15 years later (Mia Wasikowska); and by the BBC in 2006.
The last version will be remembered as the moment Ruth Wilson became a star, as a sane and strong Jane. Its director, Susanna White, remembers it also, however, for the Irish wolfhound chosen to play Rochester’s dog, Pilot. He would never sit. “It was also extremely cold filming at Haddon,” she says. “We used to make the cast suck ice cubes so there would be no vapor trails when they spoke.” Reopens in the spring.
Lyme Park, Cheshire
(Pride and Prejudice)
Long before Regé-Jean Page was nude in Bridgerton, Colin Firth was very wet in the BBC’s 1995 Pride and Prejudice. Andrew Davies, its writer, observes two rules in his adaptations of the classics: add more jokes and add more sex. As Mr Darcy, Colin Firth let him down on neither count, but particularly not the latter. Originally Davies intended Firth to be naked for his swim in Pemberley’s lake. The BBC demanded underpants. A compromise was reached: a linen shirt, breeches and boots. Sometimes a wet blouse is better than nothing at all. Firth’s emergence from his dip became one of those TV “moments”.
In creating Pemberley, Jane Austen probably had moneybags Chatsworth or Kedleston Hall in mind. Lyme, however, is unembarrassed to have hosted the happiest sexing up of an Austen novel ever. Amid the usual tea towels and fudge, its gift shop sells Pride and Prejudice memorabilia. The National Trust’s Web site invites visitors to “discover Mr Darcy’s home”. Estate open now.
Montacute House, Somerset
Wolf Hall, where Henry VIII first felt the hots for Jane Seymour, is no longer with us. The Wiltshire mansion fell into ruin pretty much in tandem with the Seymours themselves. For his BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning novels, the director Peter Kosminsky relied heavily on Montacute House to represent Greenwich Palace, where much of the real action happened. Its owners, the National Trust, describe it as a “masterpiece of Elizabethan Renaissance architecture” with “towering walls of glass, glowing ham stone and surrounding garden”.
The “glowing” viewers remember was down to the extraordinary lighting effects achieved by $27,000-worth of candles. Curmudgeons complained that they could not see what was going on, but would the sequence in which Mark Rylance’s Thomas Cromwell was summoned to the king at the dead of night have said half as much about the murkiness of power if acted in brighter light? Kosminksy says he used Montacute, inside and out, throughout the series. Working on its sequel, he adds: “I would think we would use it again, if they will have us.”
Andrew Billen is a staff feature writer for The Times of London