Munden House, North Watford, where countless adverts, films and TV series have been filmed

Scouting for Gold

2nd September 2016

Following a knock on her door by a TV scout who described her home as ‘the perfect old lady’s house’, Kathy Walton allowed a camera crew to spend a whole day in her kitchen filming a two-minute sketch for Miranda Hart’s comedy show. While she didn’t entirely appreciate the backhanded compliment paid to her home, she definitely liked the fee she received and enjoyed her brush with fame. Curious to learn more about the work of location scouts, she spent the day at Elstree Studios with film location office Creative England.

They call them ‘set-getters’, the people who scour the country for just the right location or property that a film or TV crew can work their magic on. Whether it involves identifying a swimming-pool that could be transformed into an underwater cave, or envisaging how the gents’ lavatory of a Victorian town hall could pass as a corridor in the House of Commons, location scouts are the first step in the creative process.

“We are part of the movie magic because our job is to help the director’s vision become a reality,” says Hayley Armstrong, production liaison manager for Creative England, the location office based at Elstree Studios.

Thanks to its proximity to London, Hertfordshire is one of the most popular destinations for film crews, prompting Creative England to receive dozens of requests every week from film and TV companies from all over the world. In the past year alone, Hayley and her colleagues have recommended hundreds of locations throughout the county. A recent scene from Holby City was filmed in Watford High Street; two years ago Bovingdon airfield was used for the wartime movie Fury with Brad Pitt; and Knebworth House doubles as Balmoral in a new film, The Crown, due out in November.

“People in this area don’t realise how much is being filmed here. We have something going on every day,” says Hayley. (Not that you’d know it though; Creative England makes sure that crews for popular shows such as EastEnders are directed to their locations via deliberately cryptic road signs, designed to deter nosey parkers).

When a crew descends, there can be as many as 12 technical vehicles and up to 100 crew cars. And that’s not all; filming often requires road closure; power (although many crews bring their own generators); chaperones and teachers for child stars; and space for the honeywagon (film-speak for the mobile loo), all of which have to be accounted for in the scout’s initial recce.

Creative England was founded in 2011 (with government funding) to promote England as a destination for filming. The company currently has some 10,000 locations on its database, which range from castles and cathedrals to derelict factories, offices, cowsheds, executive homes and suburban semis.

As soon as a production company requests a particular type of location, Hayley’s aim is to respond in 24 hours, a promise she nearly always fulfils with the help of Creative England’s ‘film friendly’ partners, who include more than 200 English district boroughs as well as organisations such as Network Rail, the National Trust and English Heritage.

“We never know what we’ll be asked for,” says Hayley. “We were recently asked by I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here for somewhere that looked like the Australian outback, so we found a sand quarry in Bedfordshire.”

Len Kerswill, one of Hayley’s scouts, has an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of this area, so when a request comes, in, he often just gets in his car and drives around looking for a perfect match. That’s just what he did a year ago, for example,when a supermarket chain wanted somewhere to film their Christmas TV ad, featuring a Mini towing a giant tree up a steep slope.

“I knew a famous hill in South Oxhey that had been used in a crime scene in Morse, pretending to be Oxford, so we took them there and used the Carpenders Park Nursery as the location base,” recalls Len.

In 2015/16, location filming contributed an estimated £11.9m to the local economy as a result of filming in Herts alone, with a TV drama bringing in roughly £17,000 per day and a feature film nearer £32,000 per day to the county.

Even better news is that much of this is spent by film crews at local businesses as diverse as petrol stations, cafés and printers. A dry cleaner who set up shop in order to cope with the hundreds of costumes used in the 1998 film Saving Private Ryan (part of which was filmed in Hatfield) is still thriving. Even charities can be beneficiaries; when the 2000 BBC TV series Hope and Glory (starring Lenny Henry as a maverick head teacher) was being filmed in schools in Bushey, Watford and Langleybury, the costume department bought up almost the entire stock of clothes from the New Hope Trust charity shop in Watford.

Creative England also consults tourist boards, who are naturally delighted by the increased tourism that filming brings. Highclere Castle in Hampshire, for example, has seen visitor numbers go through the roof since Downton Abbey was filmed there.

“But the downside is that they may not get any more filming because the place is now so associated with the series,” says Hayley, before joking that “they probably don’t need the money.”

Because audiences are becoming ever more vigilant, 100% authenticity is absolutely key when choosing a location, so scouts need eyes in the back of their heads to make sure that no incongruous objects make it into a shot; after all, no one expects to see traffic lights or bins in a period drama. “We take into consideration road markings, telegraph wires… we will even take down street furniture,” says Hayley. “We can be very disruptive for the sake of getting the most desirable shot.”

Ah, the disruption. What’s it really like having a crew take over your home, possibly for several days, moving furniture and even painting the place?

One man who often allows his property to be invaded by actors and technicians is Henry Holland-Hibbert, the present incumbent of Munden House, a magnificent 18th century mansion in North Watford, which has been used for countless adverts, films and TV series, including Jonathan Creek, Poirot and the 2001 film about WWII code breakers, Enigma.

Mr Holland-Hibbert says that, apart from the odd bit of chipped paint, he has never had a problem with film crews, most of whom are “charming people who have a job to do” – but he does admit that he prefers the summer shoots, when people are happy to stay outside between takes.

Both Hayley and Len are quick to stress that they put the property back to normal once filming has finished, even repainting when houses have been decorated.

“It can be off-putting to have hundreds of people swarming over your house, but some people will put up with the disruption if the money is good enough,” says Len. “In fact they bite your fingers off.”

And the money can be very good indeed. Budgets for residential shoots vary (and are higher for feature films than for TV shows), but typically an average house might earn up to £1,000 per day – though sadly not mine! – while a larger property could command £2,000 per day.

And there’s not just the filming fee to consider; owners can also cash in when they sell. The Leavesden house that became No. 4 Privet Drive in the Harry Potter films was recently sold, apparently for a premium, thanks to its starring role; and a modest seaside chalet in Dorset added a staggering £50,000 to its asking price after sharing centre stage with David Tennant in the TV detective series Broadchurch...

…remind me of that Miranda Hart connection when I come to sell my place!

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