The real Gotham: Knebworth House and Batman
- Credit: Alamy Stock Photo
Tim Burton’s film, Batman, released 30 years ago this month, led the way for today’s explosion in comic book movies. It may feel all-American but it was Herts that put the goth in Gotham
If you're old enough to recall the original Batman TV series, then you'll no doubt remember how bright, camp and gaudy a show it was. Adam West's Bruce Wayne was anything but the dark, brooding figure we associate with the comic book vigilante today.
In the 1960s version, Bruce was a wealthy gadabout, forever to be seen in the company of his young sidekick Dick Grayson (played by Burt Ward) - that was on the rare occasions when the dynamic duo weren't donning tights to fight crime. All this being so, 380 South San Rafael Avenue, Pasadena, California was the ideal stand-in for 'Stately Wayne Manor', being luxurious and anonymous in equal measure.
Fast forward 20 years from the cancellation of the TV show and the Caped Crusader was on the verge of a big screen comeback. With the character having become darker with each new comic book series and goth-friendly filmmaker Tim Burton at the helm, this Batman was going to be a very different kind of superhero. The playboy of the past had given way to a tortured, intense individual meting out justice in revenge for the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne, the parents slain before his eyes when he was still in short trousers. With Michael Keaton set for the role (acting speciality: tortured intensity), Burton's Batman could no more live on South San Rafael Avenue than he could wear a stretchy Batsuit over a paunch. Burton's search for a suitably gothic pile reached Hertfordshire and Knebworth House. Famous around the world for its huge rock concerts, the stately home also had a growing reputation as a film location. It was 1989's Batman, however, that really put the Lytton-Cobbold's home on the movie map.
'It just did so much heavy lifting for us,' Tim Burton told me back in 2006. 'Wayne Manor tells you as much about Bruce Wayne as anything - about his past, about his character. To find the right place to reflect all of that, we couldn't have been happier.'
And while gargoyle-strewn and battlement-topped Knebworth House provided the ideal exterior as well as a memorable scene in its Banqueting Hall ('How's the soup?'), Burton discovered the perfect Wayne Manor interior just down the A1(M). Most recently seen in the Oscar-winning The Favourite, Hatfield House was used for Bruce's study and library, as well as his arsenal and gaming room. Burton would return to the Jacobean mansion and estate to film parts of Sleepy Hollow and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
With St Pancras Renaissance Hotel standing in for the offices of the Gotham Globe newspaper, power stations in Acton and St Neots repurposed as the Axis Chemical Works and Pinewood Studios housing the vast Anton Furst-designed Gotham City sets, Burton was in the extraordinary position of having all his principal locations within a 60-mile radius.
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All of that said, you need a keen eye to spot that the film was shot outside the United States. Unless you're particularly familiar with the stately homes of Hertfordshire or the power stations of west London or Cambridge, the only giveaway is the spelling on the bottles and tubes of poisoned cosmetics that Jack Nicholson's fabulously manic Joker foists upon Gotham - 'moisturiser' with an 's' rather than the American 'z'.
Speaking of the US, when the British tax situation became less favourable to American film studios, Burton and co were obliged to shoot the 1992 sequel, Batman Returns, in LA. Knebworth and Hatfield were also absent from Joel Schumacher's, frankly awful, Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. However, an early sign that director Christopher Nolan might be the right man to restore the Dark Knight's good name was his decision to return to Knebworth for Batman Begins, the brilliant 2005 reboot that made the Caped Crusader as big a movie phenomenon as he'd ever be.
Although more recent DC Comics movies such as Batman V Superman and Justice League have steered clear of the Home Counties, Knebworth House continues to prove a popular film and TV location, featuring in Transformers: The Last Knight, The King's Speech, The Crown, Victoria & Abdul and Paddington 2 among others. The deep link between Batman and Hertfordshire has been restored however with the filming at both Knebworth and Hatfield of DC's Pennyworth, the story of Bruce Wayne's former special forces butler, Alfred. The TV series premiered in America on July 28.
As current Knebworth House custodian, Henry Lytton-Cobbold explained to Hertfordshire Life, it's almost as if his family home was destined to become Bruce Wayne's mansion: 'It's decorated with bats on barrels - a play on the family name Lytton and the Old English words 'lyt', 'bat' and 'tunne' meaning barrel.'
Holy coincidences, Batman! as Burt Ward's Robin might have declared.
5 more movies featuring Knebworth
Anastasia (1956) The first picture to make use of the estate, the epic story of an amnesiac (Ingrid Bergman) who claims to be the daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, finds Knebworth reimagined as the palace of Helen Hayes' Dowager Empress.
Horror Hospital (1973) As the house makes for a suitably creepy clinic so this entertaining British chiller is of special note for starring Michael Gough, later to play Bruce Wayne's adoring butler Alfred in Tim Burton's film.
The Big Sleep (1978) Michael Winner's remake begins with a point-of-view shot of a car pulling off the A1(M), turning left at the roundabout and driving up to the main entrance of Knebworth House. At the wheel? Robert Mitchum.
The Lair Of The White Worm (1988) Starring a young Peter Capaldi, an even younger Hugh Grant and a scantily-clad Amanda Donohoe, this is the kind of barking-mad horror caper only Ken Russell could come up with.
The King's Speech (2010) What do you do if your film requires the use of Balmoral but the royal family won't let you within a mile of the place? If you're Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper, you more than make do with Knebworth House.
A history of film
Knebworth House marks decades of filming on the estate with a special exhibition in the banqueting hall until September 29. See photographs, original posters and scripts plus recollections from staff and members of the Lytton-Cobbold family. There are also insights into how a film gets to be shot at the house and the restoration work the income funds. Entry is included in the ticket price to the house and gardens. For full details, see knebworthhouse.com