When Keira Knightley came to Clandon Park
Visitors to the National Trust's Clandon Park, near Guildford, may well have found themselves doing a double take last winter - for Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes were among a host of stars to descend on the estate for the filming of the autumn blockbuster, The Duchess. DEBBIE WARD found out more
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine September 2008
Picture the scene: you're sitting in elegant surroundings, tucking into a fancy meal and trying to concentrate on your conversation, but all the while there's a man hovering round the candelabra with a fire extinguisher and a woman at your back checking you don't spill any wine or scrape your chair. It's not the kind of over-attentive service you'd welcome in a restaurant - yet when Hollywood stars Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes got this treatment in Surrey, they took it all in their stride. That's because it was all part of the process when they came to shoot what will be one of the biggest films of the autumn, The Duchess, at the stunning National Trust property Clandon Park, near Guildford. Based on the novel Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman, it tells the story of an ancestor of Princess Diana who married from the Spencer family into the Devonshire clan in the 18th century. Like Diana years later, Georgiana was a celebrated beauty, fashion icon and campaigner and, unhappy in marriage, she and her husband both had affairs. On the film set Starring Knightley in the title role, Fiennes as her husband and Hayley Atwell as his mistress, the cast spent several days at Clandon Park, which doubles for the former aristocratic residence Devonshire House in London. During November last year, three dining scenes were shot in the magnificent 18th century Marble Hall and a scene with musicians playing was filmed in the adjoining saloon.
Property manager Julie Lawlor was part of the National Trust team involved in making sure things ran smoothly. "Our main role was to check no damage was being caused to the house," she explains, "but also to help facilitate any requests that the crew had." Before the film crew arrived, extensive preparations had to be made to safeguard Clandon Park. Floors, walls and furniture had to be protected not only in the rooms being used for filming but others that were needed for first aid facilities and the storage of equipment. One of the National Trust team's more unusual tasks involved photographing the floors - inch by inch. "We had to map all the marble slabs in the hall and saloon," says Julie. "If there was any damage, how could you say otherwise? Some of the damage goes back 100 years or more!" While having stars to visit was a thrill, it was also a nerve-racking time for Julie and her colleagues who, even after their precautions, had to remain vigilant to make sure nothing was damaged. The use of candles, for instance, essential for an evening dining scene in The Duchess, was a potential hazard that necessitated a National Trust 'Hot Works' permit. "Candelabras have to be a certain distance from the wall, non-drip candles have to be used and you have to have an accredited fire safety person with a fire extinguisher," says Julie. "And I had to make sure that they were all properly snuffed!" Julie also had to use a laser device to check that the heat given off by the film lights wasn't exceeding a safe limit for Clandon's delicate plaster ceilings. The floor of the Marble Hall was a particular concern as it could have been permanently stained by the dark juice the actors were using as wine, especially as their glasses had to be emptied and refilled for continuity purposes between every take. "They had to be careful as marble is particularly porous," says Julie. "We have weddings at Clandon and we don't allow red wine or tea at them for that reason." And Julie even had to be prepared to tackle the stars if she thought a piece of Britain's heritage might be at stake. Meeting the actors "Keira Knightley had this part where she needed to respond to someone off set yelling and as she did so her chair was going 'scr-aaa-pe'!" says Julie. "We'd been very careful and put plastic coverings on the feet but I had to run in between takes and say, 'I'm really sorry, I just have to check your chair!'" Luckily the stars remained patient and professional throughout. "It must be really difficult for them," says Julie. "I have admiration for what they have to do going back and forth and chopping between different scenes out of sequence, because they don't film it consecutively." Julie can't reveal whether Hollywood's finest look as bad as the rest of us first thing in the morning because the actors arrived every day already made-up and costumed. "You just get snapshots of people really and, of course, they're keeping in character," says Julie. "I was a particular fan, though, of Ralph Fiennes in The English Patient and in terms of how he sounds and looks in real life he didn't disappoint! And Keira Knightley was just as lovely as she appears on screen." One of the biggest challenges for the actors, it appears, came not from the rigours of filming, or the hovering of heritage watchdogs, but the food they had to eat. Pigeons with their heads and feet still on were an 18th century delicacy Hayley Atwell could have done without. "She went through the rehearsal with the pigeons and said, 'couldn't you just make me a vegetarian?'" laughs Julie. Surrey's star turn Visitors to Clandon Park should have no trouble recognising the Marble Hall and saloon from the film because, thanks to their authentic 18th century looks, changes for The Duchess were minimal. "They covered up everything that didn't fit with the 18th century, so they made radiator covers, which were very nice, and they covered up the light switches. We had lanterns that had been converted to electric so they simply had to take the bulbs out," says Julie. Two distinctive pictures of birds that grace the hall, though of the correct period, weren't considered the right look for the production so were replaced with tapestries. Courtesy of clever lighting, the biggest makeover was to the weather. "There's one scene where it looks like a nice spring morning," says Julie, "but actually it was about 4 o'clock, pouring with rain and dark! "It looks to be a very lush film. I hope more people will be interested in Clandon having seen it on the big screen."
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Information Clandon Park was built in the early 1730s by Venetian architect Giacomo Leoni for the second Lord Onslow. As well as the two-storey Marble Hall, highlights include a Maori meeting house in the grounds, which was brought over from New Zealand in 1892. Clandon Park is also home to the Queen's Royal Surrey Regiment museum. The property is open to visitors from March to November from 11am to 4.30pm. For more information, call 01483 2220482.
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