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How the National Trust is making location shoots work again – despite the pandemic

How do you film a TV show or movie on location during coronavirus? The National Trust's Harvey Edgington tells RadioTimes.com what it takes to give a production the go-ahead.

Pursuit of Love

The first time I met Harvey Edgington and Lauren Taylor was also the last time I did an interview face-to-face.

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It was mid-March, and I caught the tube to the National Trust’s London HQ in Victoria to interview the organisation’s two Filming and Locations Managers. We shook hands without thinking, then joked that we probably should have done one of these newfangled elbow-bumps. At the end of our conversation, we did finally touch on the question of COVID-19 and what it might mean for for filming on National Trust properties; but though the duo were apprehensive, they were waiting to see how things unfolded. To me, it seemed quite hypothetical.

Then things did unfold. Very quickly. Within days we were in lockdown, and the topics we’d covered in the interview seemed immediately irrelevant.

But as we attempt to climb out of the coronavirus pandemic, the UK’s film and TV industry has been booting back up as producers put in place extraordinary measures to keep cast and crew COVID-free – and so I picked up the phone to talk with Harvey again. So much has changed since we last spoke, I point out, tritely; he responds: “You could say that. Blimey.”

Since August, work on several productions has started (or re-started) as everyone finds new ways of creating the movies and TV shows we crave. Shows in production right now include Call the Midwife, Gentleman Jack, Death in Paradise, The Pact, Grantchester, and Silent Witness. Even ‘lockdown 2’ in England has not brought them to a halt like last time around; this time, the Culture Secretary quickly confirmed that work could continue on film sets.

That is by no means a simple task. It is especially not-simple when you add period properties into the equation. You can’t exactly slap down one-way stickers on an ancient floor, or expand the walls of a building, and – outside of proper lockdown – there are public visitors to consider, too.

A sign at a National Trust property in March 2020
A sign at a National Trust property in March 2020 (Getty)

But for TV and film producers, access to these kinds of filming locations can be absolutely vital – and for the National Trust, this is too valuable a source of income to lose. The film office brings in millions each year.

“As soon as the lockdown started, the industry just literally overnight shut down completely,” Edgington tells me. “I lost a considerable amount of – money that should have been coming our way, didn’t. And that meant everything from documentaries to big dramas to big films.” His final project, Sky’s sci-fi drama Intergalactic, wrapped just in the nick of time in some caves in Cheshire.

But everyone was itching to start planning again: “Although we weren’t doing much filming during lockdown, we had companies asking us, when can we go? Can we prepare? Can we block out this time? In the hope that it will all finish soon, or in the hope that we can work out a way of doing it.”

First came the documentaries, with Channel 4’s ‘George Clarke’s National Trust Unlocked’ leading the pack. Those shows were easier to film during lockdown conditions. But now even the sumptuous period dramas are getting back up and running – including Amazon and BBC One’s The Pursuit of Love.

Pursuit of Love
Emily Beecham and Lily James in The Pursuit of Love

“This is the first one that we’ve had in big historical houses, in fact four houses,” Edgington says. “So what’s been interesting is that they were the first to put their toe in the water in terms of costume dramas, and so the COVID side of it has meant: well, they need longer, they need longer at the property to do the prep, and the strike [taking everything down].

“They’ve kind of geographically had to settle themselves into one area, so they’ve had to find the locations within – I assume they’re based in Bristol, but they’ve obviously had to find all the locations within an hour, maybe an hour and a half of there, simply because there weren’t hotels available for people to isolate.

“And I know that various departments are having to stay in their bubble – so whereas previously you would have had the lighting guys, the prop guys, and everyone else in the room at the same time, even on the recce’s we’ve had to separate them. They’ve had to go in, look at it, come out, and then actually on the shoot they’ve had to do the same thing. The lighting department goes in, does its thing, then the prop guys, then somebody else goes in and does their thing.

“So it’s become a sort of staggered way of doing it, and I know they’ve all been testing on a daily basis, temperature tests and having to sign bits of paper saying they haven’t had any symptoms or met anyone with any symptoms, etc etc. So it’s been a bit of an eye-opener, but it seems to be working at the moment.”

As for the National Trust’s own precautions to protect fragile parts of properties, there have been real problems to solve: “We’ve had to look at surfaces and whether you cover the surface or clean the surface, which is the best way of doing it. So do you put a plastic bag on the doorknobs? Or do you keep the doorknobs the way they are and just keep cleaning them? Because apparently COVID will stick to certain surfaces longer than other surfaces.

“Apparently it can be transmitted on smoke, so when we’ve had actors smoking we’ve had to seriously think about ventilation, and what we do to protect ourselves and people from that. So yeah it’s been a bit of a head-scratcher.

“One-way systems in properties – some properties it’s quite easy to go one way and come back out, others it isn’t, so we’ve had to look at that. We’ve asked film crews to go down to the bare minimum in terms of people, and also separate areas for catering and – I mean I haven’t seen a dining bus, quite frankly, so I guess the dining bus is out.”

For The Pursuit of Love, filming has involved closing properties to the public entirely (pre-lockdown 2), which is something that the Trust tries hard to avoid in normal times. But these are not normal times.

“You can’t have a film crew of 50, 60 people knocking around, and the public,” Edgington explains. “So we’ve had to bite the bullet and close the property… But we haven’t really had any flak.

“I think people just appreciate that times are different and we need to get the money in, we’re facing spending cuts and redundancies. And, rather bizarrely, it’s not like the workload has gone away because certainly in the countryside and the coast – people the moment they were allowed out went a bit mad, frankly.” (Just think of the litter, and the loos. You’ve probably seen the news stories.)

Financially, the Filming and Locations Office is pretty vital to the National Trust – and beyond. As Edgington and Taylor explain in their recent book National Trust on Screen, “successful productions often lead to a rise in visitors and in addition to this, being in a film or TV series generates much-needed income to the location, which can be used for conservation work.

“Great Chalfield Manor re-roofed its stables thanks to The Other Boleyn Girl; after Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, Antony in Cornwall saw its visitor numbers quadruple. Hosting a film can also boost the local economy.”

So, what next? While some productions are still holding back from filming until spring 2021 when everyone hopes we’ll be through the worst of it, the National Trust has been able to get a handful of productions up and running in recent months – with others already in the diary.

Britannia series three is on its way (with shoots at Ashridge and Uffington and Stowe), and so is a new Apple TV+ sci-fi show called Ray James (with a scene filmed at Mam Tour in Derbyshire). And the Germans are back to film more Rosamunde Pilcher in Cornwall and beyond.

Then there are the dramas which now find themselves UK-bound, because flying everyone out to film on location abroad is just too tricky in 2020.

“I’m doing a big production at the moment which should have really done half of it in the Czech Republic, because that’s what they did on the first series, and they’re doing everything here now,” Edgington reveals. “So they’ve been looking at waterfalls and rocks and bits of wood and stuff that might look a bit weird, because it’s a fantasy thing so they’ve had to try and find as much weirdness in England as they can.” (We’ll leave you to guess which show he’s talking about.)

In fact, Edgington is having to look at his catalogue of period houses in a brand-new way: “We’ve had sort of early enquiries from a couple of big things that are just saying, ‘Yeah well we’re not going abroad much, if at all, so we are trying to do it here.’ So I’ve been asked to find French chateaus and Italian mosaics and stuff, and I’m thinking, ‘hmm how’s that going to work?’ And the Alps, which was hilarious. ‘Oh yeah we’ll do it with blue screen, we just need a hill’. Do you? Do you really? But we’ll see.”

So look closely at that French chateau in your favourite drama next year and you might just spot an English country house… because Edgington and Taylor are determined to get TV shows and movies back in production on National Trust properties, even if it involves a lot of planning and a good measure of creative thinking.

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Harvey Edgington and Lauren Taylor’s book National Trust on Screen is available to buy on Amazon now.