Portrait of a special house

PUBLISHED: 13:04 05 January 2011 | UPDATED: 16:13 20 February 2013

Ben Barnes takes tea, or rather coloured water.

Ben Barnes takes tea, or rather coloured water.

Thanks to films like Pride and Prejudice, The Duchess and now Dorian Gray, starring Colin Firth, which premieres this month, Basildon Park is set to be a star in its own right once more

They're getting used to having the film crews at Basildon Park, the stately Palladian mansion near Pangbourne. "I began to think that Keira Knightley was stalking me," joked house steward Neil Shaw, who is a veteran of Pride and Prejudice and The Duchess, both starring Ms Knightley.
Most recently several scenes of Dorian Gray, an adaptation of Oscar Wilde's infamous gothic novel, starring Colin Firth, were shot at the house last summer on the very day that the park staged its biggest summer concert.
Neil recalls: "It was one of our busiest days of the summer when four pantecnicans rolled up, together with a generator and started unloading.
"The upheaval obviously wasn't as big as for Pride and Prejudice but there was a lot of work to be done. We had to take the carpet up in the dining room, move furniture in the green drawing room and take the curtains down in the crimson bedroom. They were so fragile." And he adds wryly: "Surprisingly enough we didn't have any shortage of female volunteers wanting to come in and help."
In fact only the wardrobe and the bed were left in the room because of the "sex, drugs and roll n' roll" scene that was shot in there, according to Neil.
Basildon Park's Amanda Beard was actually hiding out of camera shot just to keep an eye on things. "I had to make sure that the cameraman's knee didn't touch the priceless drapes," she smiles.
In the scene Emilia Fox has to hide beneath the bed as Dorian Gray played by Ben Barnes who starred in Narnia, seduces her mother on a chaise longe . "That was supplied by the film company and they were fully clothed so it wasn't as embarrassing as it could have been, but they had to do an awful lot of takes on it," says Neil.
Volunteer Charmian Whitmell ,
who has worked at the Park for 14
years, witnessed the seduction scene. "The poor boy had trouble doing a
good stage kiss. He seemed very stiff and awkward at first. He did about eight takes before he got it right."
Charmina was also the lucky lady who escorted Colin Firth around the house. She recalls:" He was very pleasant and showed an interest in the house," adding with a twinkle: "He's 100 per cent as gorgeous as everyone thinks he is."
The tea party scene was shot in the green drawing room but it's not Earl Grey the actors drink, but coloured water. "We couldn't allow real tea because of the risk of staining the furniture, nor could we allow real food," explains Neil.
Special smoking permits also had to be obtained to enable the stars to light up in the same room drawing room. The ballroom scene was shot in the dining room and spilled out into the hallway. "With the experience of Pride and Prejudice we knew what we could and couldn't do but they were a good crew," says Neil.
Now Basildon Park itself is getting star treatment thanks to its revenue as a film location. The 12-month restoration project is set to cost £1 million and the face-lift is all due to its starring roles on the silver screen.
The revamp started in July when scaffolding was carefully erected so that conservators could begin the process of cleaning the areas to be treated.
Now stonemasons have embarked on the immense task of repairing the damage over 12 months, using traditional skills and tools to restore the mellow Bath stone, originally brought to Basildon Park by boat over 230 years ago.
"The building is beginning to look a bit sorry for itself," says Neil, who is also Basildon Park's historian. "The frost over the winter hasn't helped. It's caused the limestone to split away from the main part of the building, so it really is in need of a spruce up."
Andrew Harris, building surveyor, says: "The majority of the work will be conserving the stone work, and we're also using the opportunity to do some delicate cleansing - some of the areas of the building have black sooty deposits."
This year Basildon Park celebrates its 30th anniversary in the care of the National Trust, though the house almost never made it into the 21st century because it was almost demolished in the 1950s. Thanks to the revenues from filming, the future of the house looks secure for the next few years.
Neil and some other members of his team were invited to the premier of Pride and Prejudice. "I did trot down the red carpet and it was an amazing experience. All these people clapping and no one had a clue who I was!" he laughs. Although he doesn't yet know if he'll be invited to the premier of Dorian Gray he can't wait to see the film. "It'll make a change from Pride and Prejudice," he smiles.

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